Escape Dead Island combines zombie bashing action with a large dose of insanity, which might sound interesting, but ends up being nothing short of a giant mess. The story and approach might seem appealing at first: You play as Cliff Calo, the playboy son of a news media mogul, out to prove his photojournalistic skills by uncovering the secret behind the Banoi zombie outbreak. He and two friends sail to the neighboring island of Narapela, where things soon start falling apart.
But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. The game actually begins with playing a secret ninja agent who makes his way through a secret lab using a katana. There, he finds the source of the zombie virus, dispatches the person who let it loose, and then hides the data in the worst place possible before being taken out by a large creature. Cliff and his friends arrive sometime after.
An Insane Mess
If the narrative sounds strange and disjointed, that's because it is. The thing to keep in mind when experiencing Escape Dead Island is that Cliff is going insane. That being the case, random things simply happen, and you're never quite sure if it's real, imaginary, a gameplay bug, or all of the above. Your boat blows up. An airplane conveniently crashes at a landing strip and there's not a scratch on the pilot. Giant freight containers rain down from the sky. A subway train suddenly appears to run you over. Companions teleport ahead of you to destinations, then complain about how slow you're walking. Your friend keeps radioing in at inopportune times, even though she's probably dead. These are just some of the things you'll encounter while walking around Narapela and stabbing zombies in the head.
As a spin-off game, Escape Dead Island is very different from the main Dead Island series. There are no major RPG elements like leveling, there's no weapon crafting involved (you pick things up as you go), and it's a third-person action game that uses cel-shaded graphics. Although the comic book art style distinguishes the game from the rest of the series, it hinders gameplay more than it helps it. Combined with the bloom effect, it can be very difficult to tell what direction a zombie is facing until you get up very close. Additionally, it's hard to judge a zombie's reach, and oftentimes it looks like they're hitting you without connecting.
Although players can do plenty of backtracking and exploring, there's not a lot of incentive to do it unless you have to. Cliff can't jump, climb, or vault over objects. He can only perform scripted moves like climbing up and down ladders and using an incredibly stiff rope. Switching to a melee weapon forces him to stand up, which isn't always possible - even when there's nothing over him - so sometimes zombies will get in a first hit because Cliff can't carry a club while crouched. Certain areas inexplicably turn pitch black, as if the sun and overhead lights suddenly stop working. These are supposed to be dark areas where you need a flashlight, but the shift is so unnaturally sudden that they wreck what little sense of immersion that game has.
Gameplay is split between stealth action, melee combat, and shooting, but none are satisfying. The zombie AI swings erratically back and forth between being hyper-aware and being as dumb as a rock. It's usually not much of a problem to sneak up to and around a zombie to perform a "stealth" kill, unless there is a more evolved special zombie nearby. It acts as a spotter and alerts all zombies, even ones that weren't there before, to home in on you.
Melee combat doesn't work very well between multiple enemies. The heavy attack animation takes so long to execute, that it's usually far more productive to mash the quick attack button while running around. While hacking away at things in front of you works acceptably, characters are slow to turn around and react to enemies coming up from behind. Attacks also use up stamina, which can (oddly enough) be recovered by running around in circles with zombies shambling behind you. Furthermore, with the exception of the katana, the game reuses the same combat and execution animations for every melee weapon. So, get used to seeing the same moves ad nauseum.
Lastly, shooting is a total bore. Ammunition is scarce, but it doesn't matter, because you can take out most enemies by mastering the smash and dodge strategy. Bullets are useful for special enemies like Spitters, which spit acid at you, and certain bosses. As you might have guessed, the special zombies are a bit uninspired. Guns tend to wake up zombies from all around, so corpses that initially appear to be inactive suddenly wake up at the sound of gunfire. Explosive barrels hardly scratch zombies unless they're practically standing on top of them, so there's usually no point in setting up the small smattering of obvious traps comprised of turning on a radio to attract zombies, then shooting a nearby barrel. More often than not, it's best to keep guns holstered until you really need them or upgrade to a shotgun or silenced pistol.
Boss encounters are terrible. They can always see you, even through walls, and relentlessly try to chase you. Forget about stealth, and unless you have a shotgun, using a gun is rarely worth the effort. It's time to run around and mash the quick attack button until something dies. Speaking of dying, death isn't much of a loss, because there are frequent checkpoints and sometimes a free box of ammunition will magically appear beside you when you revive. However, some checkpoints are terribly placed. You'll revive in full view of zombies, and they'll attack during the respawn animation.
Leave the Story Buried
Escape Dead Island's story is supposed to bridge the gap between the previous Dead Island games and the upcoming Dead Island 2, but it completely botches the task. Anything that you could make up on the spot will beat what Escape Dead Island has in store for you. Conversations are stiffly delivered, disjointed, non sequiturs. The one-liners Cliff delivers after taking a photo or performing a stealth kill are cringe-worthy, and your companions have a habit of calling your radio at the worst times, like when you're busy sneaking around and killing zombies.
You're supposed to be on the island to discover and photograph the truth, but you spend almost all your time photographing stupid things like beer bottles, coffee mugs, and the same crates and boxes found everywhere throughout the island. However, there's no photo moment when you come across a mass grave or a toxic waste site.
Zombies have an uncanny sense of selective hearing. They can hear the sound of a camera shutter from ten feet away, when you're on a rooftop, and they're busy munching on a corpse or banging their heads against a wall, but they'll hardly notice when you stab a zombie to death right next to them. You're supposed to get a photograph of every special zombie type, but they're extremely camera shy. They'll hear the shutter click from wherever you are, and will quickly home in on your position. Making things worse is how Cliff needs to stand up every time he takes a picture, putting him vulnerable while in full view of nearby enemies.
Leave the Dead Alone
Escape Dead Island disappoints on multiple levels, from its lackluster gameplay, to its awful storytelling. The revelations found in this game are not profound enough to justify the long slog, filled annoying characters and lousy stealth and combat systems. Not to mention the ending is insultingly stupid and lazy. The best way to escape this island is to never visit it.
This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher. Escape Dead Island is available in retail stores and digitally for $39.99. The game is rated M.
Escape Dead Island
- A different take on Dead Island series
- Bridges the way to Dead Island 2
- Has some crazy, surreal, scenes
- Unsatisfying stealth and combat
- Art style interferes with gameplay
- Terrible story and voice acting
- Zombie behavior is inconsistent and annoying
Steven Wong posted a new article, Escape Dead Island Review: Sail Past This One