Perma-death? Some continued progression? Procedurally generated content? This must be a Road-lite, then.
Yes, I stole that “Road-lite” joke from Jim Sterling. That seems somewhat fitting to me, as he’s this game’s narrator. In case all that wasn’t too clear, Plague Road is a game in which you venture out into a randomly generated world with your team of survivors to fight monsters and robots. Should one of your party die, they stay dead. But if you return to your farm, you can develop upgrades that permanently improve your characters and your chances of survival in the unforgiving wastes beyond your encampment. It hits most of the marks for a rogue-lite and tries to channel some of the magic of Darkest Dungeon. Let’s see how well it does, shall we?
We begin with The Doctor (no, not the time travelling one) journeying toward a plague-infested city for reasons. Along the way he meets a travelling merchant who warns him he’ll get killed if he continues on his journey. Doctors are clever, though, so he totally ignores the suggestion, marches into a battle and is summarily killed. Not fully killed, though (this is a rogue-lite after all) — the merchant drags The Doctor’s still-breathing body to a local abandoned farm and tells him they may meet again on the road. And so begins the adventure.
You, as The Doctor, travel through randomly generated areas filled with survivors, monsters and treasure chests. Finding a survivor sends them to your farm, where you can add them to your party as an engineer, nurse, witch, soldier or peasant. You occasionally meet other characters who build new structures on your farm, assuming you have the right party members with you. There is a limit to the number of survivors you can have at your farm, but you can assign them to buildings to improve them, unlocking new abilities. This uses up those survivors though, so you have to choose carefully. Monsters roam the environment and engage in battle with you if you touch them, although you can avoid them. Chests contain health and stamina potions for use both in and out of battle.
Battles are turn based and take place on a grid, with you and monsters appearing randomly on opposite sides of the field. You can move around based on a movement range and attack either using close-or-long-range abilities depending on the character. You can use skills such as freezing and poisoning characters, as well as healing. Enemies hit hard and can take a party out with little trouble until you figure out how to handle individual monsters with a good party composition; with permanent death for everyone other than The Doctor being a factor, you’ll want to work it out quickly.
Now, battle is an odd component to Plague Road, as you absolutely do not want to engage in it. There is literally no benefit to fighting (other than earning herbs to unlock the next area), and the best case scenario is that you end the battle with everyone still at full health. You can avoid battle by running past enemies in the field, but they move faster than you do, meaning evasion is difficult at best. Battles themselves are not especially exciting either, going on far longer than necessary due to enemies having high levels of health and you needing to constantly heal your characters. The best way to achieve success (at least in my mind) is to freeze a couple of enemies in place and grind down the rest of them whilst healing. There are no critical hits, misses or even buffs to cast. I found myself avoiding battle not because of the potential damage, but more because I didn’t want to have to go through another slog.
Running your farm is simple enough — at least it would be, if Plague Road explained anything. Retiring survivors to develop buildings was not explained, nor was assigning skills to your characters. There are gold symbols by some characters — what are those for? It’s a mystery! With enough time you can work it out for yourself, but it seems unnecessary to have to do that when a short, simple explanation would have sufficed. Getting your buildings to the level of giving your party members good abilities takes a lot of retired survivors, meaning you’ll constantly be going back out into the field to farm more survivors to retire. Just getting the next ability for my engineers took retiring another five of them. It takes a huge amount of time to make the progress you need, and it often feels like a grind as you fight through yet another tedious encounter to pick up the survivor behind the monsters (you can’t collect them whilst being chased for some reason). It feels like Plague Road was very short, so they put in a resource system of sorts to artificially elongate the game.
In spite of all of these flaws, though, I found myself wanting to progress. I was willing to deal with the game’s annoying aspects just to collect more survivors. Maybe the next one will have amazing stats and let me mow through monsters with little trouble (and I did find a few of those that made the late game much easier). You have to be really willing to overlook the grind to do that, though, and it very much won’t be for everyone. I likened this to Darkest Dungeon earlier on, and I think Plague Road was very much inspired by it. The (at times) crushing difficulty, the frustration of losing a powerful party member and the development of your farm all feel like they held Darkest Dungeon as their basis. I just don’t feel the developers understood what made Darkest Dungeon so engaging. Your characters had personalities and they grew as you put resources into them. I cared about my Highwayman, as she had her own unique quirks and benefits. When my engineer in Plague Road died, I was more irritated that I had to find another one through a slog rather than feeling a sense of loss at the character I’d built. Furthermore, every expedition in Darkest Dungeon felt like I was improving my soldiers and moving closer to my ultimate goal, not to mention that the combat was varied and engaging rather than tedious.
Visually though, it looks gorgeous. Plague Road has a similar art style to its inspiration, only with brighter colours — it looks good and everything moves smoothly. Attacks have nice effects on them and every character looks incredibly detailed. The environments look good, but there are only a few of them (in fact, the first three areas all look near identical) to visit. It feels as though Plague Road’s looks are where the bulk of development resources went, although its sound is also pretty good, with fitting music throughout. Sound effects work well (I especially liked the sound of the Runaway Train attack), but only the narrator is voiced, which I feel is a missed opportunity. I understand, though, as you only meet each speaking character once throughout the game.
Plague Road is a hard game to recommend. There is just so much that drags the experience down, making it more of a chore than an enjoyable experience. If you enjoy a grind, then this might be for you, but I feel it would have been a much better game if they reduced the grind or made combat more rewarding. There’s some potential for a good game here, but I feel they spent too long making it look good and not nearly enough time making a game that I want to come back to.