I love role-playing games, and anyone who knows me is not surprised by that statement. It doesn’t matter what kind; whether it is a jrpg, srpg, or action RPG, I play them all. Plague Road by Arcade Distillery is a turn-based RPG/roguelike hybrid and a successfully funded Kickstarter project. I’m no stranger to roguelikes and their mechanics, which almost always means randomly generated something-or-others and permadeath. But I can honestly say that I can’t recall (off the top of my head) ever playing a turn-based rpg with roguelike elements, so Plague Road piqued my curiosity. However, the experience that followed after about 30 minutes of game-time was nothing short of mind-numbing drudgery.
Plague Road is a story about a solitary doctor called...wait for it...The Doctor, who is trying to get to a plagued city. And that’s it. There is no other narrative offered, aside from a few lines spoken in rhyme at the beginning of the game, and at the start of each new area you enter (which are also few in number. The lines are spoken by Youtuber Jim Sterling, which I guess is cool if you’re a fan. I honestly never seen any of his videos before, I didn’t even realize it was him until I read about it and went to check it up online. To me, and rpg that has no story is a grave sin indeed. If you want to pull off the absolute bare minimum of a story like Plague Road tries to do, you would need some pretty killer gameplay to make up for it.
Unfortunately, Plague Road’s gameplay is quite awful, as well. The hallmarks of a good rpg include mechanics that make engaging in combat satisfying and encourages the player to partake in more battles with systems that reward you for your effort with useful gains, such as experience points, money, and loot. Plague Road contains none of these systems, reducing the battles to long, drawn-out affairs that are completely unnecessary to take part in, but almost impossible to avoid. Since you will find yourself navigating the 2.5D playing field in what is essentially a straight line, it is quite hard to avoid the enemy sprites that roam the narrow corridors. Touching them begins the battle, it doesn’t matter where: there are no advantages to be gained from getting them from behind. To make it worse, there is no way to escape the battles once engaged. The Doctor can take up to 4 survivors into battle with him (more on that soon) to help fight, but since this is a roguelike, they die permanently when their hit points drop to zero. If the Doctor falls in battle, you lose your whole party, you get kicked back to the farm that serves as the hub for your adventure, and your map progress is reset. Now you are most likely wondering, if there are no typical rpg systems in place, like levels and equipment, then how do you get stronger? Well, that is where the Farm comes into place.
The Farm is the main base of the Doctor’s operations (there’s a little medical innuendo for ya). There are numerous structures here, each offering you special benefits that can be increased as you level them up. For example: leveling up one of the structures increases the Doctor’s health and stamina, while another allows you to learn new skills to equip on him. It’s nothing fancy, though; there are actually only two new skills for him to learn. In order to level up these structures, you must “retire” survivors on them. Survivors can be found by exploring the maps and finding them randomly strewn about. Once found, you must go back to the Farm to reveal their character class. There is a Catch-22, however. Now you must decide whether you want to take them with you on your adventure to help fight the plague monsters or use them to get those much-needed building upgrades. It’s an annoying system, honestly. It isn’t easy coming across survivors. You definitely need to upgrade in order to beat the game, but it’s also impossible to go it alone without a full party. Add the threat of permadeath knocking off your survivors and it makes upgrading another slow, boring grind to an already dreary game.
The only upside to this snooze-fest is the neat visuals. The backgrounds are cool to look at, with its diseased trees and skulls lying about everywhere. The character and monster design are the real stars of this show. The horrifying abominations caused by the plague, along with other horrible aberrations that stand in your way, are always interesting to see. A major annoyance, however, is that later on in the game, there are so many enemies on the screen that battles end up looking like a jumble of sprites clashing together, exacerbated by the small combat field and the camera view. It’s a shame that the music isn’t as interesting as the character design. Maybe I’m wrong because I spent the duration of the game half-asleep, but it sounds like Plague Road contains one single song for a soundtrack. It’s a dull background murmur that never ceases. It plays while you run around; it drags on into the battles, and then greets you afterward, all while never changing.
Plague Road is an rpg/roguelike that has effectively stripped away everything that makes an rpg interesting. No captivating story, no thrill of finding a great piece of gear, no sense of accomplishment from grinding experience points until your party can smash the final boss in one round. Just battle after pointless battle until you either finish the game or uninstall it. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to review it, I would have put this game down after an hour and never touched it again. My time with it became a mindless chore of “ok, one more battle, just one more battle and I’ll stop for the night. The sooner I finish the sooner I can move on to something fun.” That is definitely not the way you want to be thinking when you’re playing a videogame, especially in a genre that you love. Avoid at all costs, especially with all the other great options this holiday season.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 3/10
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