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Escape Dead Island

By Bobfish07-01-2015
Escape Dead Island

The Defence

Deep Silver
Action, Adventure
Release Date:
US 18-11-2014
EU 21-11-2014

The Prosecution

Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz
AMD Phenom X4 2.5 GHz
Nvidia GeForce GTX 460
AMD Radeon HD 6850
4 GB
10 GB
10, 11

The Case

When Dead Island was first announced, back in the distant past of...about five years ago, the trailer we all shed a manly tear to, promised an emotionally resonant, powerful, deeply layered narrative that harkened back to the days of George Romero. What we got...eh, not so much. Damn fun game, but radically different from what we expected. So when Escape Dead Island first started making waves, with its colourful, Suda 5-esque cel shading aesthetic, promising a deeply layered narrative of subtext and social commentary, it’s no surprise we were sceptical. And now it’s here, we can find out how well deserved that scepticism really was. Because, let’s face, it’s deserving even if it delivers everything it promised. Leaving the only question to be. Does it?

The Trial

Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, truth be told. It certainly tries to. Touching on some very powerful themes of responsibility, parental neglect, peer pressure and all that good stuff. But whether it succeeds in its attempt is firmly left in the eye of the beholder. For myself, honestly, it actually did a pretty good job. Not a great job, but certainly far more poignant than the other entries in the series. So much so, in fact, that it took a second run through the game to really come to appreciate everything.

You see, there are a lot of, seemingly, unimportant and frankly unnecessary non-sequitur plot points that crop up along the way which are promptly discarded and ignored. It was only on a replay, which also offers some extra tidbits by the way, that things started to fall into place. With events from the opening sections that I had forgotten or simply overlooked, that the full gravitas of the latter acts really started to kick in. Though what it all actually means is, curiously, left unexplained and open to interpretation. Something which many players, I’m sure, will raise as a mark against it. Since most people these days seem to want everything wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Hey, can someone translate this for me?

Hey, can someone translate this for me?

The plot itself revolves around a rich socialite chappy called Cliff Calo. Or Cliffy Ballsack as I (not so) affectionately prefer to call him, and his two college friends. One, Linda, an aspiring reporter and the other, Devan, an aspiring graphic design artist. Having heard of the incident on Banoi, they took off in Cliffy BS’s father’s boat to a smaller island in the same chain. Why is never made entirely clear, but it seems that you Ballsack just had a hunch that answers would be found there. How he knows this...well, that’s one of those vague things that are left open to interpretation.

Cliff himself is a not quite unlikable, typical spoiled rich kid jock type. Annoyed at his father for not handing the family business over to him, despite him failing in college, and instead passing it on to the daughter who, y’know, applied herself. Though he, thankfully, doesn’t harp on about it to the point where it becomes trite. It actually remains mostly in the background, as a piece of flavour text so to speak. Which allows the character himself to actually develop on his own. Don’t get me wrong, he remains a hipster brat, but one who actually has his heart in the right place.

His companions, and the other characters which include series regular Xian Mei (now a ninja for some reason) are given far less screen time, leaving them woefully underdeveloped. But in a way, that actually helps push the narrative forward. As it reinforces the sense that Cliffy Balls is out of his depth, lost in the world and trying to make sense of something he can’t possibly hope to understand. Which is precisely where the game wants you to be when it starts throwing in the time looping aspect.

Is it safe?!

Is it safe?!

The game begins six months after it ends. Which is curious, because it ends with Cliff putting a box into the ocean containing all his pictures and the data about human experiments that were being run on the island. And it starts with the boat arriving, cutting through the waves, and actually knocking the floating treasure trove of Pulitzer Prize winning journalism aside. Something which gave me pause, I must confess. Even though the idea of time burps (for lack of a better term) are something that run consistently through the gameplay itself.

When you fall in combat, rather than getting a game over screen, everything whites out apart from Cliff, who falls to the ground, cries out in defiance, and slowly stands up again as he finds himself back at a previous point. Often musing, out loud, as to what actually happened. Also, during story segments, events from earlier and even later in the story will repeat themselves. The latter acting as a “ahh, that’s what this is about” moment when you reach the real moment, and the former with Cliff insisting that he will do it right this time.

Gameplay, meanwhile, is generally straight forward, bogstandard third person stuff. You get melee weapons which range from a crude bat, through axes up to a katana, and firearms that consist of a pistol and shotgun. The pistol later can be changed out for a silenced version, and the shotgun replaced with a SWAT style assault weapon. Each has its uses, advantages and disadvantages. The silenced pistol doesn’t give away your position, the katana is fast but weaker than the axe, which is slow but kills everything, and the shotgun is great at closer range, for example.

Man, I hope that's the public restroom.

Man, I hope that's the public restroom.

There is also a rudimentary stealth mechanic which ceases to be of any real use after acquiring your first melee weapon. Not that it doesn’t work, because it mostly does. Especially after you take possession of the silenced pistol, but it generally ends up being faster to just run in and bash the shit out of everything, then sprint away when you’re almost dead, let your health regenerate, rinse and repeat. A combat system that is clunky and awkward, but generally works. Even when you face some of the tougher enemies, that will block and such. Throw in a dodge that I mostly forgot to use and, eh, it works.

Last, but by no means least, there’s a fourth inventory item. Kid Bollocks’ camera. Which makes you move real slow when you have it out, as you look down the viewfinder. But allows you to (shockingly) take pictures. Something which ties back in to the time looping aspect. As these are the pictures that Cliff puts into his box. There are a number of things to take pictures of, specific things, which will slowly pulse red when you look through the viewfinder, then turn green when you have them correctly framed. Many of them, such as the shark in the marina at the beginning, are mere Easter Eggs. But others illicit a spoken response from Cliffy that adds flavour text. Whilst audio logs and the like expand on everything without being a necessity to understand what’s going on...since it’s all left intentionally vague anyway.

Visually, I loved the aesthetic. Though I’m a sucker for cel shading. But it isn’t anything terribly exciting. It is barely par for the course, truth be told. Everything is bright, colourful and interestingly caricatured, certainly. But texture quality is decidedly on the low side, with some surfaces looking like they don’t even have any. Leaving it more down to a decision between whether you like cel shading or not, as to whether it looks any good or not. With the overall verdict being nothing more than “I suppose it works.”

It's electrFRYing.

It's electrFRYing.

The game’s sound, on the other hand, is its strongest point. Incidental sounds are surprisingly understated, though reinforced with Batman style word bubbles like clang when you hit a wall and so forth. Music is generally sitting unobtrusively in the background, without being all together forgettable. Serving as a pleasant undertone, an actual background score, rather than dominating your attention. Which is actually much better than, if you will excuse the pun, it sounds. It allows the two to work together to create an ambiance that many a game lacks. Bringing some actual balance to the sound balance.

Voice work, meanwhile, is superb. All of the vocal performances are understated, which can leave them seeming a little underwhelming to begin with. But as events unfold, it allows the characters to come to life and feel more genuine, like real people, with real history, rather than blinding, or deafening, the player with a standout performance. Though we see so very, very little of any of them, we are left with the impression that these are real, genuine people. With hopes, dreams, a past and plans for the future.

The Verdict

The overall sensation one is left with is an uncomfortable mixture of competing ideas. On the one hand, Escape Dead Island is part of a series that sells itself on goofy, pick up and play hack and slash combat. On the other, it has the much maligned background of a solid narrative framework which is begging to be explored. This persists on every level of the experience. Making the game feel like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. But also like that’s precisely what it is trying to be. It is entreating us to consider that Dead Island has more to offer. A fact made implicitly by a series of locked bunkers scattered across this game that have no keys. Perhaps waiting for us to uncover their secrets in an upcoming DLC?

Case Review

  • Background: It adds to the background of the series. Far more so than a casual glance would suggest.
  • Replay Value: There are actually, shockingly, new things to find with a second playthrough.
  • Voice Cast: I spent almost no time at all with most of the characters, but still feel like I know them intimately.
  • Combat: Melee, ranged and stealth options add, well, options, but none feels all that engaging.
  • Visuals: Much as I love cel shading, this game included, they are nothing more than (barely) acceptable.
  • Bastard Child: Escape Dead Island is a game that doesn’t quite fit in the series, and it knows it.
Score: 4/5
An awkward juxtaposition of conflicting themes and responsibilities that ultimately revels in its obliquity.


First, let us begin with the good. Escape Dead Island’s opening sequence has some genuinely tense moments, aided greatly by its competent score; let’s just say, you’ll be all too happy to use the sprint mechanic when it is first introduced. Some pivotal story moments unfold through comic-style images and these have been mostly well-realised. Narapela, where protagonist Cliff and chums first set foot on land, is beautiful in-game, boasting a vibrant, eye-catching colour scheme throughout. This is where the photography mechanic is introduced and it’s actually a lot of fun collecting snapshots. In addition to each snap you take, Cliff has some witticism for you and a few of these may even crack a smile.

Now, the bad. One would think playing as a character equipped with a bad ass sword, gun and knife that combat would be fun, even exhilarating. It isn’t and it’s a mess. Combat quickly descends into flailing and button mashing. You can deliver a big attack by hitting Y on your gamepad and, when you land a successful hit, it eviscerates all zombies that come into contact with your blade and triggers a brief slow-mo moment. But rather than feeling satisfying, the slow-mo fails to hit its mark and disrupts the flow of melee combat. For the most part, Escape Dead Island tries to be a stealth game but zombies can detect even the most highly trained ninja from miles away. That said, your health appears to constantly regenerate over time so, unless you’re mobbed by a horde of zombies, it’s quite difficult to die, removing a lot of the (intentional) challenge from combat. However, embarrassingly, maybe due to my lack of skill, maybe due to the shoddiness of combat, I had to reload from a checkpoint a few times. This is when I started to notice consistent glitches. Sometimes, character models would disappear from cutscenes, other times enemies wouldn’t respawn. Additionally, at the start of Cliff and pals’ story, the audio for character dialogue in cutscenes would often be out of sync or glitch out. Even on the lowest settings, the frame rate also took a massive hit once the game moved to Narapela, making even walking in a straight line difficult at times (never mind when the game tells you to sprint).

Speaking of visuals, whilst the cel-shaded style seems to work well for the environments, this aesthetic is less well-realised in regards to the character models. Cliff and pals look dead-eyed and as though someone slapped Photoshop’s comic preset filter on them. As for Cliff and Co. themselves, none of them are particularly memorable and a lot of people will find Cliff more of an unlikeable arsehole than a loveable one. The game’s dialogue has been written in such a way as to be quotable or pop cultural, but it just feels forced and unconvincing. To conclude, Escape Dead Island is a game with a lot of flaws and too few saving graces. So much for escaping the island, I wouldn’t advise making the trip in the first place.

Score: 2/5


Despite the franchise’s rough reputation, Deep Silver aren’t afraid of milking the Dead Island brand for what it’s worth. In addition to the main game and semi-sequel, we’ve also got a proper sequel in the works, a MOBA, and now a third-person action adventure game. Escape Dead Island is the latter. Swedish Fatshark are at the helm this time. The result is a more story-driven game. This franchise seems to be cursed, so this game comes with its share of problems as well. The audiovisual presentation is all over the place. It’s not really a bad-looking game, but the cel-shading is so overdone that the game looks extremely simple at times. One can wonder what it would look like if the cartoony filter was removed. The music is alright, but the voice acting is generally subpar. And once again, we’ve got a zombie game that takes itself far too seriously. So you can’t just wave it off and call it “unintentionally cheesy”, either.

Most striking of all, is the complete departure from Dead Island’s core mechanics. No longer will you roam an open world, freely craft and upgrade your own weapons that you use to hack up and loot zombies. This is more or less linear experience, where you hardly find any weapons at all, and there are no RPG-elements to be found. Looking at the screenshots, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of interactive story á la Telltale fare. It certainly is more story-focused than any previous Dead Island games, but there’s much more actual gameplay here than in a Telltale game; but the gameplay is so simplistic and repetitive, you’ll wish there was none at all.

The story presented here isn’t all that bad. It’s nothing prize-worthy, but it definitely taps into some interesting things with its character gradually going insane. And it satisfyingly ramps up towards the end, too. You, as the player, will start second-guessing what’s actually happening and what’s only in protagonist Cliff’s head. It reminded me of Spec Ops: The Line; it’s got that same sort of “The gameplay is so mundane but I really want to see what happens next in the story!” vibe. Only here, the story isn’t nearly as good. And the gameplay is even less rewarding. And at nearly twice the price compared to what Telltale charge for their much better adventure games, Escape Dead Island is a damn hard sell. I’d only recommend it if you get it on a sale. And even then, you might end up bored.

Score: 2.5/5
Comments (4)
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Posts: 3290

You misspelled "pretentious twat"

Posts: 1317

Because you're a journalist hipster! #GAMERGATE YO! DOWN WITH THE SYSTEM!

Posts: 3290

Why is it I always seem to like games everyone else hates, and hate games everyone else loves?

Posts: 1317

A FOUR? Jeebus, dude. I wouldn't give this game a 4/5 even if it was a $15 title. And it isn't a $15 title. SHAME! AGREE WITH ME!