Dead State: Reanimated Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:DoubleBear Productions
Release Date:2014-12-04
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Dead State was released by indie developer Double Bear Productions in December of 2014.  Double Bear then proceeded to update their game with several patches, culminating with a "Reanimated" patch (what other developers might call an enhanced edition) in May of 2015.  This review is for the game with the Reanimated patch.

In Dead State, you play a survivor during a zombie apocalypse.  You're on a plane when the outbreak hits its full stride, and after the plane crash lands in Texas, you find yourself hiding out in a school basement with a few other people, including a police officer and a trucker.  From there you have to upgrade the school to make it your base of operations, search for other survivors so you have a community to work with, scavenge for supplies so you can keep everybody healthy and comfortable, and of course survive whatever the new world might throw out you.

Characters

At the start of the game you have to define your main character.  This means you get to make some cosmetic choices, like picking a name, gender and appearance, but you also have to spend points on attributes and skills.

There are four attributes in Dead State.  Strength controls your melee damage and carry weight.  Agility determines your evasion rating and how many action points you have.  Vigor is used to calculate your maximum health, and it also adds to your armor class. And Perception influences your ranged accuracy and damage, and also your initiative.  So all of the attributes are important for all characters, and there isn't anything that you can easily skimp on.

Meanwhile, the game also has eight skills.  Leadership allows you to influence others while maximizing their potential.  Mechanical allows you to make upgrades and pick locks.  Medical allows you to heal wounds.  Melee improves your melee combat abilities.  Negotiation allows you to influence others and improve morale.  Ranged improves your ranged combat abilities.  Science allows you to make upgrades and disable alarms.  And Survival improves your activities -- movement speed, encounter detection, and harvesting ability -- on the world map.  Just like with the attributes, almost all of the skills are useful, although you can generally pick one out of Melee and Ranged, and one out of Leadership and Negotiation.

Interestingly, characters don't earn experience points for killing enemies or completing quests.  Instead, advancement comes in one of two ways.  For your main character, you earn skill points from scavenging.  As you meet thresholds for different kinds of materials -- like food, antibiotics and fuel -- you earn a skill point.  You also earn skill points for giving special luxury items to your allies (to make them happier) and for hacking into data devices (to read documents from just before the apocalypse).  Then every time you receive 20 skill points, you also gain an attribute point.  For your allies, they simply become more powerful the longer they're with you in the school.  You don't get to pick how they spend their points, but they usually come to a crossroads at some point, and you're allowed to pick a direction for them to take.

The attributes and skills each have ten ranks, but while attributes always only take one point to advance, skills take an increasing amount, from one at rank 1 up to six at rank 10.  Still, I was able to max out six of the eight skills while I was playing, and I had points in the other two skills as well.  So choosing skills isn't all that exciting.  You just have to decide which order you want to tackle them in.  I think a better system would have doubled the skill costs, so you'd only be able to specialize in 2-3 skills rather than master everything.  Meanwhile, you only earn 25-30 attribute points total in the game (including character creation), so that part of character development works better.


Combat and Scavenging

Your base of operations is located in the middle of Texas, roughly halfway between Abilene and Austin.  Every day you're allowed to take a party of four (always including your main character) on trips to nearby sites to scavenge for supplies.  These supplies include necessities like food and fuel, and also "parts" (a generic term for items used in constructing upgrades) and luxury items (which improve the morale of your people).  At the start of the game you can only travel on foot, so you can't get very far, but eventually you gain access to horses and a car, which allows you to venture farther.

The scavenging maps are small, usually with just a few shops or houses in them.  Most maps also contain zombies, which you have to kill or avoid.  Your scavengers can only carry so much weight, so you have to be choosy about what you grab, or you might have to return to locations multiple times.  The game conveniently labels containers for you, so you don't have to click on everything that looks like it might be lootable.

Enemies in the game don't move, so it's easy to avoid them if you want.  However, they often block you from reaching containers, and they often drop loot themselves, so it's usually best to kill everything on every map.  When you're exploring a map, the game proceeds in real time, but when you initiate combat or an enemy spots you, the game switches to turn-based mode.

Each character involved in a battle has an initiative rating, which determines when they move during the current round.  This order is shown at the top of the screen, so you can see what's coming.  Characters get a certain number of action points on their turn, which they can spend however they want.  Moving a square costs 1 point, attacking with a weapon usually costs around 5 points, healing an ally costs 3 points, and so forth.  Characters aren't allowed to wait or defend.

If a character loses all of his health during a battle, then one of two things happens.  A zombie simply dies, but a living character is knocked unconscious and starts bleeding.  If you manage to heal such a character before he dies, then he can get back up and start fighting again.  However, if an unconscious (or otherwise severely damaged) character gets bitten by a zombie, then he becomes infected and turns into a zombie when he dies.  That's the only way the infection spreads.  A simple scratch or bite isn't enough.  And even the infection isn't a death sentence.  If an infected character takes antibiotics every day, then he stays normal.

An interesting thing about combat is that all fights cause noise, and so you have to pay attention to what you're doing because the easiest way for a zombie to detect you is to hear you.  If you stick to melee weapons then you're mostly fine, but if you start shooting guns, or if you bash open a locked door, or if you set off a burglar alarm, then zombies might come hunting for you.  Worse, if you make enough noise, then there's like a 50-50 chance that the game will create more zombies on the map and send them after you.  This can cause later battles against humans to be sort of a kick.  You might start out with about ten people shooting it out, only to have a dozen zombies sneak in behind you and try to spread the infection.

Sort of oddly, zombies are pretty much a pushover.  A couple characters with baseball bats can almost always kill a zombie in one round of combat, even if they don't have much in the way of a Melee skill.  And since zombies don't have any sort of group awareness, you can almost always draw them to you one or two at a time and kill them without taking any damage in return.  So zombie battles end up being easy but tedious, and that's a problem because zombies make up about 90% of the enemies in the game (or at least that was the case in my game).  A lot of the scavenging maps are filled with zombies, and those maps are just slow, boring slogs to get through.

Fortunately, the other 10% of the battles pit you against a variety of humans, including looters, bikers, survivalists, and soldiers.  These battles are much tougher, and they require you to have good armor and weapons -- which is a trick, since dead humans are your best source for such items.  The human battles are exciting in a way that zombie battles aren't, and the game probably would have been better if there had been more of them -- or if there had been tiers of zombies, with perhaps some fast and aggressive ones to go along with the slow and shambling ones.

Along with supplies, you also find equipment while you're scavenging.  This equipment is fairly realistic.  There aren't any "legendary" items with super bonuses, and there aren't any set items or anything like that.  You have to make do with weapons like baseball bats (my favorite), kitchen knives, and 9mm pistols, and armor like football pads, construction boots, and bike helmets.  As the game progresses, you eventually find better gear, but bullets are always in short supply (and they're expensive to craft), and so you have to pick and choose when you bring out your big guns.


Base Management

When the game starts out, you're hiding in the basement of a school.  You have a working generator to produce electricity (at the cost of fuel), plus a refrigerator and toilets, but that's it.  So the first thing you have to do is repair the fence around the school to prevent zombies from getting in.  This requires 100 parts, plus people to do the repairs.  You assign jobs to people using the "job board" in the cafeteria.  Repairs don't usually take very long, but other projects might take hundreds of worker hours, and so you have to move people around the job board every day (including assigning up to four people to your scavenging party).

There are lots of things you can build at the school: a watchtower (to defend the fence when it's attacked), a garage (where you can repair a car for use by your scavengers), a science lab and a workshop (where you can construct or modify items, like a silencer for a 9mm pistol), a chicken coop and a greenhouse (where you can produce your own food), a recreation room (where people can improve their mood), an infirmary (where you can heal your wounded), and more.

To populate and build these structures, you can recruit somewhere around 50 people to join you.  These people have personalities and skills, and you have to figure out the best way to use them.  For example, some people might have combat skills and nothing else, making them perfect for your scavenging party, but others might be reluctant to go outside (and panic at the first sign of trouble), or have a particular job preference in the school, or work poorly with others.

Unfortunately, the characters are a disappointment.  There isn't a lot of depth to them -- you get a short conversation with them when you first meet them, and then they usually generate a short story arc later, but their total dialogue time is only about five minutes each -- and while characters might complain about things or get into disputes, they're ridiculously easy to manage if you have any points in the Negotiation or Leadership skills.  I'm guessing Double Bear wanted character management to be an important part of the game, but the characters are so easy to deal with and have such little depth that random recruits (a la the X-Com games) probably would have worked just as well.

Along with recruiting allies and giving them work to do, you also have to keep them happy.  Each character has a mood, and the school as a whole has a morale as well.  A character's mood is affected by their job, the decisions you make as a leader, and the morale of the school.  You can also give characters special luxury items to make them happier.  The morale of the school is affected by the number of working rooms and facilities you have, and by the amount of goods (especially luxuries) that you bring in when scavenging.

In the same vein as managing characters, I didn't have any trouble keeping moods or morale high.  There are so many supplies to scavenge that it's tough not to generate a positive morale each day, and I found so many luxury items that it was easy to keep people happy.  I even had luxury items left over that I never got around to handing out.  There just wasn't any need.  And so base management as a whole isn't the highlight of the game.  Double Bear really needed to do something to make it more difficult or interesting.

Campaign

Dead State doesn't have much in the way of a campaign, at least story-wise.  It's more of a sandbox game where you're just meant to go out exploring while recruiting people and building up your base.  The places you visit -- including shopping malls, residential neighborhoods, hospitals, and even a miniature golf course -- are interesting enough, and there are also lots of items for you to find, people for you to meet, and upgrades for you to construct, so the "4X" elements of the game work just fine.

But Dead State isn't a 4X game.  It's an RPG, which means it needs a concrete way to end -- preferably without everybody dying -- and Double Bear failed at this miserably.  Most RPGs conclude with a big boss fight, but that doesn't work well for a zombie RPG, and Double Bear's solution both comes way out of left field, and comes too late.


Dead State has over 100 locations for you to visit, but once you gain access to horses or a car, you can zip out to 2-3 a day, no problem, and most people finish scouring the map somewhere around Day 60.  So what does Double Bear do?  They start the ending sequence on Day 86, which means you have to spend a month in the game just twiddling your thumbs.  Fortunately there are locations where you can go fishing or otherwise harvest food, so your people shouldn't starve, but it's boring and dumb to make everybody wait around for so long -- especially since this is a heavily patched version of the game, and Double Bear should have known better.

Worse, almost all of the story elements lag behind your scavenging rate.  Your allies tell you about places to visit -- well after you've already been there -- or they ask you to find something special for them -- long after you've already picked it up.  These timing issues are irritating.  It should have been easy for Double Bear to check if the conversations needed to trigger at all, or to move them up if you're exploring too quickly.  Really, instead of using the number of days passed as the trigger for events, Double Bear should have used skill points earned or something similar to determine when things happen, so the campaign tunes itself to the player, rather than assuming that the player is incredibly slow.

Graphics and Sound

Dead State is a budget title, so it doesn't contain anything fancy with its graphics or sound.  The game is played using an isometric view where the camera is zoomed out far enough so you can see an entire store or neighborhood.  That means there isn't a lot of detail to objects, but it's still clear what everything is and what you can do.  Meanwhile, there isn't any voice acting in the game, but there are some effective music tracks and sound effects.  So the graphics and sound aren't fancy, but they're perfectly functional.

Bugs and Sloppiness

Sort of surprisingly, despite Dead State having received multiple patches, it still has lots of little problems.  You often see overlapping text, or text running off the edge of a window, so you don't know what it says.  Characters can have injuries, and armor can have bonuses, but nothing in the game tells you what they mean (like what a sprained arm does to you); you have to look them up in the manual.  There are still numerous typos in the dialogue, and one character named Ken Nash is for some reason shown as Nash Nash.  The easiest way to select a character is to click on their portrait, but doing so causes the camera to move to them and often zoom in or rotate, which is annoying. This is all little stuff that's easy to deal with, but it should have been fixed in the first patch, rather than not fixed at all.

A little more troublesome is that the game doesn't handle multi-level maps very well.  You can't control which level is being shown, and since foreground objects don't turn transparent, you often can't see what's going on.  Stairs are also awkward.  Your characters have to "jump" from one end to the other, and enemies aren't allowed to use them at all.  There are also line-of-sight issues.  At one point a ranged guard on a balcony should have been able to see me and shoot me, but he never moved.  At another point a zombie in front of an upstairs apartment did see me, but even though he had no way to attack me, the game switched to combat mode, and I had to explore most of the map in turns, which wasn't fun.  Luckily, most of the maps either only have one level or a minimal second level, so these problems don't happen very often.

Otherwise, I spent somewhere around 100 hours playing Dead State, and it only crashed on me once, which is great.  It's also quick to load and save, which is a nice change of pace after playing Fallout 4 and Pillars of Eternity lately.

Conclusion

Dead State surprised me.  I knew going in that it was a budget title, and so I wasn't expecting anything really fancy.  But also I knew that it had received multiple patches, including its special Reanimated patch, and so I was expecting it to be fairly well polished.  Instead, Dead State feels more like a game that's just been released, and needs that one patch to raise it from being mediocre to good.

Still, I enjoyed my time with Dead State more than I didn't.  It has enough elements that work to make up for the ones that don't.  So if you enjoy turn-based RPGs or zombie apocalypse games in general, then it's certainly something to check out, although you might want to wait for a sale first.