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RETRO Game Review - Escape Dead Island (PS3)

There are so many games to choose from these days and different platforms that it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. And, sometimes you simply want to delve into an old favourite or a series you have heard great things about but never played. Nothing wrong with it, no judging here. In fact, I am definitely guilty of spending many hours playing the old timers as much as the shiny new stuff. So, in this particular section, I will take the time to play a game of the past which could range from the NES era all the way to the Xbox 360/PS3 generation and share my thoughts with a rating out of five.

Escape Dead Island offers occasional third-person survival horror thrills but is otherwise a shambling, mediocre bore-fest.

On the surface, developer Fat Shark’s 2014 multi-platform-released side-story to the original Dead Island seems like an intriguing premise: a cel-shaded melee-focussed action-adventure with zombies. It’s a change from the more realistic visuals of the main games. At times, it looks aesthetically pleasing, especially with vibrant coloured lighting effects, impressive draw distance, and comic book art style.

But then you are required to play it.

Ok, that might be harsh – the first half of this game wasn’t downright awful. Sure, the voice-acting and story cinematics are weak, with some dialogue that ranges between silly and grating – but the mood of the game is effective for the most part.

Look who’s back! Xian Mei!

No ‘Who Do You Voodoo?!’

It’s a one-player story-based game with no difficulty slider and only automatic saves (I’ll expand on this later). The setting of a luscious island and occasional laboratory areas are reminiscent of the original, as well as the hack ‘n slash violence. But, apart from some returning zombie types like the Infected and the dreaded Butcher (honestly, I hated facing these guys), many elements were stripped out to make this a very different experience. Remember the co-op mode with your buddies in the previous games? Gone. Or the crafting system? Nada. Maybe the RPG skill upgrade system? Non-existent. Who do you Voodoo? Nope.

Ok, what do we have in place of all of that? There is some light stealth mechanics (until the game switches halfway to mainly action) and a photo-taking system. And lots of collectables. Sure, the latter was present in the previous games with voice recordings and postcards fleshing out the background to the story, but here they are in abundance. Behind any crate in a warehouse, a rock in the mountaintop area or some foliage in the jungle, there will be confidential documents – enough that you question the professionalism of the scientists and admin staff for their severe lack of adherence to data protection.

The prologue opens as a prequel to the main Dead Island games, setting up some of the events from the perspective of someone investigating the ‘big pharma’ company responsible. It’s a typical ‘abili-tease’ with your black-ops ninja being guided by a mysterious voice over the radio to find some crucial data. Things end mysteriously for that character (he likely isn’t returning), and the story skips to six months after the original game's events.

We are introduced to our protagonist Cliff Calo (described quite accurately by his friend as a ‘douchebag’), and he is a wannabe photojournalist on the hunt for the scoop of the year – the mystery behind the Banoi incident. His two compatriots are Devan and Linda, who visit the neighbouring island of Narapela with him using his stolen dad’s boat (see, ‘douche’), and the ‘banter’ between these guys will likely irritate you very quickly.

“Hey, Undead George! Wanna see my new makeshift club?!”

Who’s ready to clobber some Undead?

On arriving at the island, we are greeted with some stylised static art narrative scenes (to mask loading), with the trio looking around for anything suspicious. It’s not long before you take photographs of everything in sight and sneak past the undead. Once you receive a blunt weapon, it’s clobbering time. After that, you pick up firearms and upgraded melee weapons as the story progresses, which significantly impact the combat.

The melee mechanics are simple. You have a light and heavy attack and a dodge manoeuvre. If you have knocked a zombie to the ground, you can perform an Execute move, which pulverises their face. If you have successfully snuck up on an enemy (crouching), you can enact a silent kill attack. Occasionally, you can lure them to environmental hazards such as the classic 'watery puddle and electricity' technique or fire bullets at the nearby atypical red barrels to blow them up. Ammo is scarce, and when surrounded, it can be tough to engage groups at once, so I found it was best to mix my strategy up depending on the situation. The second half of the game introduces the Butcher enemy, which requires you to use the ‘dodge’ mechanic as they block your strikes and only have a short window to counter their powerful attacks. However, I struggled to time this with any consistency, so each time they appeared, it was a frustrating experience with countless deaths and reloading.

But here is where this became unforgivably tedious. If you die, you are revived at the last auto-checkpoint with no progress saving (including the collectables). This is not usually that much of an issue however you can’t skip any cut-scenes, so each time you die and come back, you must rewatch the in-game cinematics that preceded the death EVERY TIME.

The list of annoyances then boiled over due to the number of times this game crashed on me. It was usually at cut-scenes where the game would hard-lock, and I would need to reboot the PS3. Some progress was lost on several occasions, but thankfully the game had saved right before these points, so it was only a mild irritation. But when it was more than a handful of times over my ten or so hours playing this game (although it felt way longer), it became something I was concerned would happen each time there was a long load or slight hitch in the performance.

Four Undead Burgers coming up!

Worth seeing through to the end?

The gameplay loop of basic exploration followed by a frustrating combat arena became too repetitive for me that my interest in seeing it through to the finale dwindled fast with each haphazard death. The main story was also not enough to keep my interest despite its unreliable narrator vibe - the cinematics introduces quite early on the idea that Cliff’s mental state is becoming unravelled. Visually, there are some weird and relatively trippy moments which give some more variety to the backdrops and environments, but ultimately the gameplay remains the same, and it doesn’t fix the issues at hand. Additionally, the storytelling is so convoluted and poorly executed that I didn’t have much investment in the characters or the plot.

The menus are relatively basic, with an almost useless and overly simple map screen. It feels like a budget title (this was released an entire year after the PS4 and Xbox One consoles were available and only came to the previous generation). The free Underwater Labs DLC adds around four or five hours of gameplay which is not insubstantial but also eventually wore its welcome before it was over.

Verdict - Overall, there are some nice comic-book visuals and atmosphere, and for anyone truly invested in the Dead Island lore, this could be worth a try, but it is so different from the previous games that it will likely be off-putting. Without the progression depth and characters of the earlier instalments, this feels too stripped back and off-kilter for franchise stalwarts. For anyone interested in survival horror or stealth games, there are myriad alternatives to explore that are worth more of your time. Its frustrating combat, gameplay repetition and unlikeable characters make this title too difficult to recommend – more likely; you will want to escape from playing it.

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