Out of nowhere and without any credit, the Dead Island franchise has been able to announce five titles in just three years’ time. Four of those are out now, of which Escape Dead Island is the latest entry.
While this iteration tries to bring something new to the zombie killer titles, it has no idea what “originality” actually means when it comes to games. Aside from a shiny comic book look, the game’s bland and tiresomely frustrating design is an example on what aspects not to prioritize. Escape Dead Island looks the part, but it plays like a board meeting gone horribly wrong.
Still, credit where due, the brightly contrasted models, self-colored environments and thick cel-shaded outlines offer a refreshing glance at zombie-infested tropical islands. Saturated colors and contoured gradients bring home a sense of living inside a cartoon, but the real pinnacle here are periodic illustrated cutscenes that look like they’re straight out of a professional comic issue.
Lighting can sporadically enhance a scene for a slight tough of realistic blends as well, though it can just as easily go overboard and create a blinding snow effect in combination with the radiant colors. Camera angles that hover around the third person perspective can obscure surroundings more, which becomes inevitable in inside locations.
Sadly, past Escape Dead Island’s façade, there aren’t a lot of worthwhile points to admire. One of its main elements, the story, is an unintelligible mess. Cliff, the protagonist of the game, sets off to an island near Banoi with two friends, to investigate the zombie outbreak and satisfy some daddy issues. Whatever happens next is the patchworks of a mad man that drops one scene into the next, in the terribly framed guise of a mental breakdown.
Escape Dead Island’s just doesn’t know what story it wants to tell. It simply plops one piece next to the other and expects that to somehow magically take. Deus ex machina wouldn’t even fully explain it. Characters often require empathy in pitched perilous situations, but as they are some detached, scattered machination, for both heroes and villains, it’s impossible to form any connection with them and that’s without addressing the otherwise downright awful writing.
Plot and dialogue are basic to the point of being equal to elementary school level. Anyone could’ve written this; it’s just that blatant. Making matters worse, voice actors feign their best first-take line for a handful of comments that repeat over and over, sometimes looping the same phrases in a single cutscene.
Repetitiveness is at the core of Escape Dead Island, likely justified in some office room as to favor the descent into madness that loops actions endlessly. The reality of it is that all these replayed instances hammer in how dull the game is when it’s only just begun. Cliff often starts at a certain point on the island and then revisits it later on, waking from what seems to be a dream.
So, players will need to go through a cave and then go through it again and again and again. Half of the game’s runtime is dedicated to simply backtracking through a recently seen environment. Worse yet, none of these little areas connected by boring corridors have any content in them. At most, there’s a small open square to fight a zombie.
Looking at the map reveals just how ridiculously small Escape Dead Island actually is. Only a dozen or so places exist and most of the action takes place in the same four central spots that are discovered in the first hour. There is no real “island” to enjoy and no exploration beyond an alternate corner to pick up one of many pointless collectibles that dish out disjointed lore.
At least if combat was satisfying or used an arsenal of weaponry as divertissement, killing the same four zombies would be a way to pass some time. Perhaps most inexplicably, Escape Dead Island doesn’t even provide any of that.
A melee weapon has the same impact and animation each and every time. That will get old fast, so will the one motion displayed by a stealth kill. Gunplay barely ever matters, as guns are too impractical to use, since they’re mapped to the same button as the locking feature for melee weapons. Locks tend to stick to the melee weapon and taking out a gun takes a few seconds, so frequently failed attempts waste a lot of time.
Moreover, neither the gun nor the shotgun, the only two options, make any impression on zombies. Even a blast of shells straight to the head at point blank range requires multiple arbitrary salvos. Using a melee weapon has more stopping power; it’s faster and it doesn’t run out of ammo.
There is no logical explanation why combat that already only has a handful of options isn’t able to diversify its choices. This game was made by developer Fatshark, who made two games for Paradox Interactive that are completely built around melee and ranged battles. It’s impossible to believe the studio forgot how to craft a combat model.
Whoever decided on the direction for Escape Dead Island did so with an iron fist and accepted no input. That’s apparent from the many botched design choices in this rushed product that were never questioned.
Halfway through the game, there’s an attempt at a classic elevator level that seems to be put in at random. Really, it’s an uncomfortable five minutes, where a few enemies drop in an awkwardly silent, grey box for five minutes and then it’s just over with as little fanfare as it begun.
Cliff has low health reserves and needs to dodge during combat to survive, since the same three moves always end with a little moment of vulnerability. However, most of the level designs are set in tight corridors that trap players in. Zombies attack from corners that can’t be seen by the camera and a few potshots later, the checkpoint restarts with having to go through a waking sequence that takes about twenty seconds. This happens in nearly every section of the game’s generic hallways and a lot of the later parts require ten or more minutes of lost time to be made up.
Some zombies block nearly every shot and kill instantly, while others shoot with impeccable aim from miles away, leading to more cheap deaths and restarts. Animations, which already come in limited quantity, skip at random and many locations suffer from severe collision issues that allow enemies to take out players from behind walls and obstructions. For every time this happens, the game needs another five to ten minutes to get back up to speed.
That infuriating loop is the final straw where Escape Dead Island takes a dirt nap. Considering half or more of the game is repetition over repetition, a playthrough clocking in at about six hours means that there is less than three hours of content; redone content at that. None of that time offers anything new past the first few minutes and it still manages to be both short and dull at the same time. That’s a hard feat to accomplish.
Escape Dead Island is a classic case of style over substance. It’s completely clueless with what it wants to present and as such, it comes with a slapdash production that offer nothing to anyone. An already generic third person action game with barely any content, barebones combat, empty environments, boring moments, unlikable characters, an inane plot and awful design choices are a cocktail for a disastrous, frustrating time.
Its well-made comic book aesthetic is only the shiny wrapper on the spoiled, vomit-inducing goods waiting to traumatize the senses on the inside.