Checks Out Dead State

Seattle-based indies Doublebear Productions were good enough to give me a copy of Dead State to check out. As is my wont, I set out to determine my first impressions of the game, recording the screen as I went. These are the results:

So, what did I think?

In general, Dead State strikes me as an interesting and original take on the wRPG formula. I like the approach the game takes in some areas, and I have some doubts about its approach in others.

We’ll start with the good: adding a home base for you to tend to, and a roster of characters for you to manage–not just in terms of assigning tasks, but also in terms of managing their morale and wrangling with their individual motivations and emotions–adds stakes to the character relationships that are unusual to see in a game like this. These aren’t just people you want to avoid offending so they’ll stay in your party; they’re members of your own little mini-society whose unhappiness can cause ripple effects that jeopardize your basic survival. I find this fascinating, and very much want to see how my relationships with the game’s characters grow and complicate.

I also really enjoy the game’s approach to character creation. Dead State presents the player with 8 skill categories instead of several dozen, but then offers a choice of skill-related perks for every 4 levels of competency a character gains in any given skill. Some will probably criticize this as a needless simplification of the more traditional approach, but I think it makes sense given the game’s focus on sheer survival–one cannot risk presenting the player with useless skills in a game like this. The choice of fewer, broader categories that branch into sub-abilities via perks strikes me as a good design choice meant to allow character specialization without risking the perennial problem of wRPG skill imbalance.

With that said, I’m not entirely convinced that DoubleBear have succeeded in balancing this reduced roster of skills. Dead State opts for a realistic approach to skills, making certain activities completely dependent upon possessing the necessary materials and facilities. Certain skills–like science–are simply useless until you satisfy all the necessary preconditions, while others are useful right out of the gate. It may be that these skills make up for their slow start by being disproportionately useful later on; only time will tell.

Most options for managing your base also begin gated behind supply and ability requirements. This has the unfortunate effect of precluding any interesting strategic choices to be made about managing your base at the start of the game. I’m sure that this is by design, a way for players to come to grips with the game’s systems before they are asked to start making decisions–but it definitely feels a little absurd to have your characters spending their day mopping the school’s floors when there is no electricity, no fuel, no way of manufacturing weapons, and a dwindling food supply.

Dead State’s turn-based, action point-based combat shows some promise. The inclusion of backstab and sidestab damage bonuses are welcome, and the fact that characters can be knocked prone or infected with the zombie virus lends combat a special tension.

However, I was not exactly floored by Dead State’s actual early-game encounters. With only three characters to control, no use of special terrain, no targeted attacks, and no special abilities to select among, even the fairly short fights at the start of the game were enough to bore me through sheer lack of tactical variety.

Admittedly, it probably didn’t help that I selected a character with most of her points put into ranged combat. The same realistic approach that gates most of the interesting options in base management does the same for ranged characters in the early game. Without melee combat skills, your character is basically useless against zombies at the start of the game, relegated to swinging a melee weapon with terrible chances of actually landing a blow each turn.

I question the decision to keep characters skilled in ranged combat from gaining quick access (i.e. within the first 60 minutes) to a firearm in Dead State. Yes, guns are probably going to be powerful relative to melee weapons, and we generally want characters to start out weak in an RPG: but we’re talking about an apocalyptic setting where ammo is scarce, making every decision to fire a shot fraught with consequence. And even if there were no ammo scarcity, one of the game’s biggest selling points is the fact that loud attacks attract zombies. Why not allow the player to make tense cost-benefit decisions on whether to use firearms from the start of the game–to wipe out existing zombies more easily at the risk of attracting more? These are precisely the sort of dilemmas that would have made those early fights more interesting to play.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to give any definitive first impressions on Dead State, as the first hour of the game was almost completely eaten up by the largely on-rails introductory sequence, one that seems all but mandatory due to the enormous morale penalty you’ll suffer if you don’t repair the base’s fence. It seems clear to me that there’s a lot more to the game than I was able to get to in making this video; I’m looking forward to playing Dead State more and seeing how it opens up beyond its first hour. If you want to try it for yourself, I’ve posted details on how to get Dead State here. It’s $29.99.

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  • Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda says:

    Hi Craig! Thanks for the first impressions – I’m a dev on the project, and I wanted to clear up a couple very small things:

    * Science – Totally useful! It actually adds a contact poison to melee weapons, and its capstone perk gives you a major bonus with thrown weapons. (it’s actually a favorite of mine, but then again I love agile melee + science builds, because I am rogue-minded)

    * Special Abilities – Weapons do have alternate attacks when you right-click on them, although shoddier ones are too poor quality to have more than a basic attack. Alternate attacks like Slash can cause status effects (like Bleeding and Arm Sprain, which reduces your to-hit chance). We’re hoping to get more ways to show alternate attacks in the UI in future updates!

    * Attacks – although in your first outing you only have 2 allies, your maximum is actually 3.

    * Firearms – Joel actually has a .38 and a shotgun on him (although he’s not exactly a super shot with them. While he’s not keen to give them up via dialogue, if push comes to shove, when you’re out in the field, you can just trade with him (right-click until a backpack appears, then left-click to open up Party Trade) and grab that gun for yourself!

    * Fence – the fence is actually a mandatory feature of the game, as if it’s down for more than 3 days, it is GAME OVER. We’ll work to make that clearer via Tutorial text!

    We also have a Manual (that is admittedly hugenormous) in case things get confusing. And we’re going to keep checking our boards to help out anyone with questions.

    Speaking of which – if you have any queries as you continue (esp. about Upgrades), let myself or any of the other devs know (here or via email or our forums) and we will pounce upon them as if we were starving hounds and the questions were made of bacon. 😉

    Thanks again for the writeup!


  • Craig Stern says:

    Thanks Annie! I appreciate you coming in to clarify this stuff.

  • Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda says:

    My pleasure! Thanks for the post. We at DoubleBear super appreciate it 🙂


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