Review: Dead Age

By Dick Page 15 Jul 2017 7

Review: Dead Age

Released 24 Jun 2017

Developer: Headup Games
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Available from:
App Store
Google Play

Rogue, and the true roguelikes that came after it (Nethack, ADOM, Angband, etc.) were more than random dungeons that you had to start over when you died. They were incredibly complex and reactive systems that led to crazy situations like turning yourself into stone because you forgot you had a cockatrice corpse in your backpack, but also forced you into incredibly tactical decisions. True roguelikes are about discovery. They are always showing you something new.

It seems that the only two lessons latter-day roguelites (can I propose the term 'rogueish'?) have taken from these games are: 1. permadeath; and 2. procedural generation, becoming, as one writer well-put it, procedural death labyrinths. This is used to force the player to make decisions with limited information that have irreversible consequences. Gone is the ability of the player to persist against a single challenge through continuously reloading a save game. Replacing the complexity of a true roguelike are twin-stick shooter or platformer elements, which doesn't make the games any less interesting or more fun, but does mean that the additional parts you've added on need to be fun too.

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Which is a roundabout way of saying that just putting permadeath and procedural generation in your game won't automatically make the decisions you make interesting.

Dead Age combines JRPG style combat with survival management and a visual novel. Each element is simplified, and altogether they don't amount to much. The disparate elements don't support each other well, and the individual parts are not individually compelling enough to support the others.

The combat is Final Fantasy style, with teams up to three lined up on either side of an arena. There is no positioning or maneuvering, just trading blows turn by turn. The only difference between guns and melee weapons is that guns are inevitably stronger but use limited ammunition. Strategy hinges on using buffs and debuffs to wear down your opponents faster than they wear down your team. Lengthy missions are interminable sequences of the same enemies and the same strategies. Furthermore, the combat doesn't fit the theme. Zombie fiction always has hordes of weak undead overwhelming the survivors by sheer numbers, not fighting them in successive relatively evenly matched waves.

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The second part of the game is the survival management simulation that requires you to find rations to keep your survivors fed, and manage guarding the camp alongside making equipment for missions. It's also pretty limited in scope, but does require some interesting decision-making, particularly since survivors hunting for food can't go on story missions. Another idea lifted from JRPGs that doesn't fit the theme is the presence of a single merchant that can sell you a somewhat random selection of goods. Isn't this a zombie apocalypse survival camp? Why does one dude have a monopoly on trade? Why does he insist on receiving piles of scrap before giving you the bullets you need to save his life? Bolted on is some limited crafting that has you collecting things like 'weapon parts', 'shell casings', and 'old clothes' and having your survivors turn them in to guns, bullets, and bandages respectively. It's not even close to as in-depth as a dedicated crafting game like Crashlands, and is just a way to keep your characters busy so they can't do other things.

The menus are laid out in a confusing notebook-style layout, where clicking a tab sometimes changes one side and sometimes changes both, and sometimes what's on one side can influence the other side and other times they are unrelated. Although it is a universal app, the menus are too small to play on a phone; the game was clearly designed for tablets.

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Finally, the visual novel portions are exceptionally well-drawn comic-style panels . The storylines don't live up to the artwork, however. The characters are stock and thinly drawn and the writing is generally stilted and wooden, especially the dialogue. You'll make some decisions that affect your survival, but it's pretty well telegraphed what the consequences will be.

In combat, the game switches to 3D graphics. The background designs and the lighting effects are the best part of the game (my absolute favorite part of the game is the title screen, a lush and bucolic forest scene with a tiny zombie cannibalizing somebody in the background). They are incredibly evocative of the apocalypsed world and frankly beautiful. The character models are likewise quite detailed, although they don't generally match the comic portraits. The animation is somewhat less successful, but generally good, especially death animations.

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One last frustration is the amount of memory the game uses - about 600 MB even when only using the 2D menus in in the survival and visual novel sections -- in comparison, last year's Implosion uses around 400 MB. For me, app switching frequently led to the app being dropped from memory (Admittedly, I played this on iPhone 5 and 6, so newer devices may not see this problem) and having to restart a day from the beginning -- including boring tasks like reassigning survivors to jobs and watch storyline play out.

The 'rogueish' elements can't make up for shallow gameplay in the other parts of Dead Age. The combat is dull and long, the survival elements are simplistic, and the story is predictable. The gameplay often doesn't fit the theme, and it is poorly optimized, although occasionally beautiful.

Dead Age is a hybrid zombie sim that never succeeds in becoming more than the sum of its limited parts.

Review: Dead Age

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