Feature: Road Tripping With Death Road To Canada's Rocketcat Games

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Trekking across a post-apocalyptic wilderness has never been more fun, or more random, thanks to upcoming action-RPG Death Road To Canada from indie studio Rocketcat Games. Part roguelike, part interactive novel, each attempt will present a different ratio of resource management, characters to talk to and zombies to fend off. It’s an intriguing premise to say the least, so when we had the chance to talk to Rocketcat Games’ Kepa Auwae about his inspiration for the game, how the concept evolved and what players can expect on a road trip to survival when it arrives on the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Nintendo: Please introduce yourself…

Kepa Auwae: I’m Kepa Auwae – I own Rocketcat Games. I designed and wrote Death Road To Canada with Paul Pridham of Madgarden developing the engine and programming the game.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of Death Road To Canada.It’s something of a thematic departure for the team. Was that a conscious decision?

It has some themes from previous games, such as our usual humor and our interest in randomly-generated content and replay value. The departure is the zombie genre setting which I’ve wanted to do for awhile. I had two big reasons for wanting to make a zombie game. The first is that no games really do slow zombies right. Romero-style undead where an individual zomb is very weak and slow, but there are enormous shambling hordes of them. In our game, up to 200 at a time can track your group down, break down doors, and slow you down by grabbing onto you.

The other big reason is that very serious zombie media can be unintentionally funny in attempts to be dramatic. I wanted to take inspiration from that while making a world as goofy as possible. So we have a survival setting where you can teach a dog to fire a shotgun and walk on its hind legs. Or you can recruit Santa Claus, but the Santa Virus can turn the entire team into Santa clones.

So why choose Canada as the main destination of the game?

Canada is the last remaining nation on Earth after the zombocalypse. For a variety of reasons.

Could you explain the role of character creation in Death Road To Canada?

You can make yourself, friends, family, fictional characters, whoever you want. They will then show up at random during the road trips, and you can pick two to be your starter characters. First, you get to set the appearance of a character. Face, hair, body type with some height options, clothing, accessories like hats or masks. Then you pick a perk and trait for a character. Perks tend to give them starting skills and equipment, and traits tend to give a combo of extra skill points and setting what their personality is. Different personalities and skills will give you new choices and possible results in the game’s many events.

Here’s an example of a starting group of two custom people made with the character creator. Sue has the Too Swole To Control Perk, which makes her have a tiny fitness stat but a massive amount of strength. She has the BERSERK! Trait, which gives her even more strength. The combination lets her immediately start ripping toilets out of the floor, so she can crush groups of zombies with thrown toilets and sinks. It’s a very effective tactic, as long as she keeps finding toilets.

Unfortunately, BERSERK! also gives Sue one health. Any zombie bite will kill her. A bad text event could kill her easily. The trait also gives her a terrible personality, so in events she gets the option to rob people or say things such as, “cool it” and, “say it, don’t spray it.” Using these options will probably also get her killed. 

Louis is the other starting custom character in this group. He is designed solely to protect the powerful but fragile Sue from dying. That way, Sue can plow through the early game until you can get more people recruited to the group. Louis has the Explorer Perk and Civilized trait. Explorer gives him more options for picking exploration and looting areas, so he can pick either more safe areas to loot, or more lucrative and dangerous areas that also happen to have a lot of throwable objects (toilets, sofas, desks) for Sue. Civilized gives a lot of support skills, and a great personality that can hopefully balance out Sue’s dangerous event options.

That ended up being a long answer even with one example. There are a lot of combinations of perks and traits, with some extra weird options you can unlock. You can get up to four people in your group, too, so even more total perk and trait combinations there. There are many possible strategies based around character combos.

What is the balance between stealth, exploration and resource management?

You get city exploration and other loot location events when on the road. These give you different options to enter locations. You can choose based on what loot or other resources a location has compared to the risk. You may want to loot a ‘gas station rescue’ location if you’re running out of gas. It will also have a person you can try to save, who you can either recruit to the team or get an extra reward from. This location is also very dangerous because you’ll have to defend against a continuous siege of zombies streaming in.

There are hospitals, grocery stores, police stations as obvious locations. Then there are more rare locations such as survival bunkers, medieval weapons exhibit at the museum, UFO crash site, haunted mansion, pig farm. Locations could have food, medicine, ammo, weapons, recruits, special cars, stat raising events, or strange events such as character mutation. You have to pick which to go for based on current and long-term needs.

When exploring, a lot of the time it’s better to run rather than splatting every zombie. Fighting with melee weapons takes time, and your characters get tired of melee attacks unless they have very high strength and fitness. Fighting also makes noise, which can irritate more zombies until they’re in full ‘horde hunting you down’ mode. Shooting a gun makes lots of noise, stirring up crowds fast.

If zombies aren’t irritated, they move even more sluggish than usual. You get a zombie forecast before each location telling you their initial aggression, horde size, and time of day. If the forecast looks good, you can get through some locations with minimal or no fighting. Just running while making as little noise as possible, closing doors behind you, propping furniture against doors to trap zombies in a room, and keeping out of zombie grab range. Using a quiet, light, high knockdown weapon can help with this.

Eventually you’ll run into a situation where you can’t sneak around, or you mess up and get cornered by a big horde. At that point you’ll want to give up on avoiding noise and use up your ammo and other resources to survive. A lot of the resource game is about hoarding supplies for these moments, and knowing when to actually spend your ammo and items. Dying with tons of ammo and a bunch of grenades because you didn’t want to spend them is the worst ending.

Would you say there’s a learning curve to the game?

It’s not hard to pick up the game, as the basic looting and getting eaten by zombie hordes is pretty easy. Winning can be difficult. There’s a definite learning curve due to the many different things that can happen with events and locations, subtleties in strategy, and the permanent death design. You’ll probably also blow yourself up at least once before winning.

What works of popular culture or video games influenced Death road To Canada?

The unintentionally funny parts of the Walking Dead is a big one. Like when Rick screamed, “CAAAAAAARL!” for what felt like 20 minutes. That was the last episode I saw of that show, and it was very inspiring to me on a personal and creative level. Otherwise mostly old slow zombie movies. Romero’s earlier films especially. Slow zombies are the best zombies.

There are a lot of elements from different genres during gameplay. Is there a ratio, or was there a conscious effort to prioritise one over another, either personally or through development?

Originally the plan was 50:50 between text events and the action-RPG roaming parts. Over time and updates, we’ve been shifting more to the action-RPG parts slowly. It’s probably more like 70:30 now. This is just due to responding to feedback during content updates and making tweaks.

Originally my goal was to have an even mix of both. That turned out to be similar to making two entirely different games at once in terms of effort! Also it could be frustrating to lose characters in text events, so that was toned down a lot. Now it’s hard to lose a character unless you make an obviously spectacular mistake, or a character is near dead anyway.

How does a typical game progress? Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ playthrough?

You start in Florida and make your way North. There are typically four areas in the normal gameplay modes. Each area ends with a big challenge you need to survive. To survive, you will want to get weapons, ammo, and a well-trained team. You get options to loot different locations, and you want to choose places with these goals in mind. You also need to find food, which is both currency at trading camps and needed so your team doesn’t lose morale from starvation.

If you get your team to the end without them dying or betraying each other, there’s a series of final challenges. You will need to use all your resources to survive the hordes, especially in the more difficult gameplay modes. You’ll want good weapons such as automatic firearms and giant melee weapons, and high fighting stats and/or powerful special characters with unique abilities.

This is a typical outline for a playthrough. Since the game is randomly generated and built for weirdness and replayability, there’s a lot of room for variety in each road trip. You could win with an entire team of just dogs. You could win with just one person instead of four, and you use all resources to make your solo person a zombie destroyer. You could try to have a full group of unique special characters, and win the game with a wizard that zaps zombies with lightning, a masked wrestler that slams zombies into the ground, a pig that jumps around everywhere, and a magical anime girl that is slowly mutating/melting due to the curse of Anime.

Even though there’s an element of procedural generation, is there an overall theme running through the narrative? Was it difficult to construct a cohesive narrative with a randomized, roguelike game?

The overall theme is a sense of optimism and humor in the face of a usual grim and dark setting. It’s vaguely cute and we try to keep it pretty family friendly. It’s not too hard to make a cohesive narrative in a randomized game, it just needs some sort of structure that supports this. For us, we have the text events, trader camps, and character-based ending epilogues where themes can be enforced and bits of the story can be hinted at. This lets us mention deep game lore like how the Bodybuilders Code of Honor affects life in the post zombocalypse.

What kind of content updates can we expect to see in the future?

More special characters, weapons and items, locations, events. We’re also planning more gameplay modes, new unlocks, and seeing if we can do another big feature addition. Not sure which one yet, but splitscreen or four-player co-op are both really high on the list.

What Nintendo games did you play growing up?

Lots and lots of them, I grew up with the NES and SNES and so on. I believe I or my brother got every system, between the two of us. We mostly got Nintendo games as gifts from family, so we had a lot of them. I had most of the popular series. Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Metroid, so on. Two favorite games of mine for the NES that are weirder picks. First, there was Legacy Of The Wizard, which seemed super ahead of its time. Five characters with their own items and abilities, and you had to switch between then to explore a huge open dungeon. One of the characters was a dinosaur monster disguised as a dog. I never got anywhere with it as a kid due to the secret walls, but loved the game anyway. Then there was Clash At Demonhead – Great style, open world, different suits to use like a jetpack or shrinking yourself to be tiny. Similar to above game as it seemed really advanced. Wasn’t sure why this wasn’t more popular.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks for the interview!

Thanks to Kepa Auwae for his time. Death Road To Canada lands on Switch in April 2018. Let us know you thoughts on the game below…

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