Despite the ongoing and, some might say, fatigue-inducing over-saturation of the zombie game franchise, publisher Deep Silver’s Dead Island series has continued to shamble on like the undead monsters it pits players against. So far the series has seen the release of one major AAA entry, a pseudo-sequel, and even a MOBA title, with a proper sequel on the docket for next year. Before next year’s release of Dead Island 2 however, Deep Silver is hoping to bridge the narrative gap between entries with its new cerebral adventure game Escape Dead Island. With a more adventure-focused narrative and surreal, cel-shaded visuals, Escape Dead Island is certainly a departure from the standard Dead Island formula. But is it worth playing for fans of the franchise?
The answer to that question is, sadly, a resounding no. While Escape Dead Island does come equipped with a uniquely vibrant visual style and gameplay that focuses on stealth and combat, the staggering amount of flaws it also comes with turn the game into a near-unplayable mess. Not only do these various flaws drag the entire experience down, they honestly make me wonder how developer Fat Shark honestly thought Escape Dead Island was ready for public consumption. Make no mistake, what little Escape Dead Island adds to the overall Dead Island narrative is drastically overshadowed by technical issues, shoddy storytelling, and a difficulty curve that quickly goes from “challenging” to “horrendously frustrating” and never lets up.
The game’s story is pretty basic: Cliff Calo, the son of a wealthy photo-journalist, travels to the island of Narapela (a neighboring island of Banoi, the site of the original Dead Island) along with his friends Lisa and Devon. Cliff hopes to prove to his father he has what it takes to run the family business by discovering the mystery behind the Banoi incident and documenting it. Unfortunately, things quickly go south when Cliff and his friends are attacked by zombies, forcing Cliff to fight his way through various parts of Narapela in order to unravel the mystery and save his friends.
The gameplay in Escape Dead Island consists of standard third-person action/adventure fare. Cliff can run around and interact with various objects but there is no jump button so navigating some of Narapela’s more vertically-inclined locations can be a bit tricky. Once he’s acquired the requisite weaponry, Cliff can dispatch zombies with one-hit stealth kills, various firearms, and visceral melee combat. Unlike Dead Island, there are no experience points or unlockable skills to earn but as players progress through the story, they do eventually find new tools and upgrades such as a flashlight or grappling hook which allow them to explore previously inaccessible parts of the island.
The stealth mechanics are where I found my first major issue with Escape Dead Island. Each zombie has a detection meter, represented by an exclamation point above their heads which slowly turns from yellow to red to indicate how close they are to detecting Cliff. These detection meters begin filling up as soon as Cliff comes too close, even if the zombie doesn’t have line of sight on Cliff. This forces the player to rush through stealth kill attempts and makes staying undetected amidst multiple zombies night impossible. Fortunately, if the player is detected, they can often simply run away a short distance and hide. As long as they don’t have a faster special-type zombie (more on those later) chasing them, any pursuing undead will quickly lose interest and return to an un-alert state.
My second major issue with Escape Dead Island was with its overall presentation. The more vibrant cel-shaded graphics were an interesting touch, especially since they come with additional secondary effects such as text-based action prompts (hitting an enemy will cause “WHACK” or “SPLAT” to flash while activating a lock will prompt a “KLICK”). The spoken dialogue however tries to be both lighthearted and urgent but never really feels either (mainly because of the poor quality of the writing and the equally poor delivery of the lines). This tonal dissonance remains constant throughout the game, making it obvious that Fat Shark struggled to decide just what kind of game it was making. Protagonist Cliff is also one of the most unlikable game characters I have had the misfortune of controlling. Trust me, the opening moment when Cliff proudly exclaims “the douche abides” after stealing his friend’s research notes is just the first of many groan-inducing lines Cliff utters throughout the game.
And then there’s the difficulty. Dealing with poorly-implemented stealth mechanics is one thing but several other elements turn an otherwise challenging yet manageable experience into a frustrating and tedious mess. Escape Dead Island is never content to throw just one or two enemies into the mix; mind-numbing slogs through horribly imbalanced encounters that almost always stack the odds against the player are the baseline of a typical combat scenario. Factor in special zombie types such as the agile Bouncers, acid-spewing Spitters, and stun-capable Sirens, all of which are capable of shredding Cliff to bits with just a few swings, and the combat encounters go from moderately frustrating to controller-breaking levels of aggravating.
The psychological elements of the game, which thrust Cliff into mind-bending scenarios that employ heavy use of various camera filters and other special effects, do help to break up the tedium of exploring and backtracking through the same handful of island locales over and over. They’re pretty much the only consistently good element of Escape Dead Island however and they definitely aren’t enough to make up for the game’s many other glaring faults. Since they also tend to spring up at inopportune moments (nothing like running from a pack of zombies only to have the camera view suddenly flip upside down) their novelty also does not last into the game’s later hours.
As unfortunate as it is to say, there’s really no other way to put it other than to be perfectly blunt: Escape Dead Island is not a good game and it certainly doesn’t warrant a full-price purchase. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a broken game (though the frequent slowdown issues, various technical glitches, and occasional game freezes I encountered didn’t help) but calling it playable might be a bit too generous. Casual gamers likely won’t put up with the frustrating difficulty and convoluted story for long and I doubt any completionist out there would have the patience to suffer through the game’s faults in order to track down all of its hidden collectibles (of which there are an admittedly healthy amount). Even hardcore gamers who relish a challenge will have to contend with the game’s technical shortcomings and Cliff’s insufferable personality.
There is honestly not a single type of gamer I can think of who would enjoy Escape Dead Island as it is now. Maybe future patches and updates will correct some of the technical problems but the egregiously punishing difficulty, confusingly fractured narrative, and unlikeable cast of characters will still be there. If you’re looking for a fun new zombie game to play or if you just consider yourself a devoted Dead Island fan, my recommendation would be to give Escape Dead Island a pass in either case.