I have mixed feelings about Kickstarter RPGs. Sometimes, as was the case with Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns, crowd funded development is a great way to get old-school inspired games into a market where they normally wouldn’t do very well. If Kickstarter didn’t exist, I would never have been able to experience such gems. Other times, it doesn’t go so well. What begins as a fantastic idea simply runs out of steam. A fairly lackluster Early Access release follows, and then a buggy, half finished shell of an RPG finally limps its way onto the shelves. After months — sometimes years — of hype, some Kickstarter games end up as disappointments.
While DoubleBear Productions’ Dead State: Reanimated doesn’t exactly fall into either of these camps, it definitely doesn’t live up to its hype. I enjoyed playing it, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was so much untapped potential — and that is a disappointment. It’s a decent enough cRPG/survival sim that should interest anyone who loves either George Romero films or the old Fallout games, but unfortunately Dead State just doesn’t live up to its full potential, and it doesn’t do either of its main inspirations justice.
At its core, Dead State is more or less than a turn based isometric RPG similar to the classics of the late 90s. The best way to summarize it in a sentence would be “Fallout 1 & 2 with zombies.” It hits all the notes of a classical style RPG. You begin by creating a character, spending a starting pool of EXP on attributes and skills. A short tutorial walks you though the basic controls and familiarizes you with the combat system. Then you arrive at a hub, meet your first party members and engage in some dialogue tree based characterization. After all this, the meat of the game begins – you are placed in charge of the day to day running of a shelter during the first weeks of the zombie apocalypse and — in true Fallout fashion — you spend most of the game simply exploring a huge open world, unlocking new locations and getting bits and pieces of story along the way.
There is no “main quest” or critical path to follow. Your only goal in Dead State is simply to stay alive and make sure your shelter has enough supplies and power to keep running. You’re free to go wherever you like and do whatever you like, as long as you get back home before 3 am (if you do stay out too late, your followers think you’ve abandoned them and take a considerable hit to morale). In the first half of the game, the exploration is tense and atmospheric. Zombies are a real threat and there’s a constant sense of urgency and desperation as you try to scavenge whatever you can just to live another day. Occasionally, a conflict or crisis will arise back home and, as leader of the shelter, it’s up to you to mediate and keep the peace, which provides a much needed break from all the looting and combat you’ll be doing.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the second half of the game, where the tension basically disappears. Your character becomes so powerful that he’s able to cap out 5 of the game’s 8 skills about halfway through. You can find armor so strong that zombie bites and enemy bullets deal no damage at all. You end up stockpiling so much food, medicine and fuel that you can comfortably sit inside your shelter for weeks on end — not ever stepping foot outside — and still keep everyone happy. At this point, the only incentive to keep playing the game is the characterization; even though you’ve run out of shelter upgrades to build and no thrill left in the exploration, waiting for the next big drama among your allies is still quite fun. It’s sad that the game basically devolves into endlessly skipping forward to the next day just to see these scenes, however.
Ultimately, there’s quite a lot to do in Dead State, but it all ends up feeling a little flat. There are 70+ unique locations to explore, but you’ll have found all of them by the half way point in the storyline. There’s a complex back story to uncover with 150 pieces of data to find and decrypt, but in the end it’s a fairly standard Romero-esque zombie apocalypse tale. There are more than 50 characters to find and recruit, but very few of them have a memorable personality and it’s hard to get emotionally attached to them. There’s a robust character progression system, but since you’ll have mastered everything by the end, your choices are mostly meaningless. The whole game is full of things that could have been better if they were more fleshed out, but unfortunately they never were.
Dead State: Reanimated could have been the RPG that every zombie fan has been waiting for. Instead, it’s a momentary distraction, something to play in between two much better games.