Elude monsters and other frights on your way to see an old witch.
PC Release: July 8, 2016
Too often, the Sunday retro review is offered up as a reprieve from the terrors of a horror game review on Wednesday. A chance to sit back and relax on the last day before the workweek. But maybe some readers don’t want a lazy Sunday. Maybe a reprieve is needed from the charming puzzle game, and the shape of that reprieve should be a horror game. Yes! Maybe things need to be shaken up a bit around here. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a trip down Dead End Road.
Dead End Road is a horror driving game (you read that correctly) from the folks at DDD Wares, a small indie studio. Dead End Road is a rogue-like game with permadeath and procedurally generated levels, but, whether intentionally or not, it’s also an homage to the games of the original PlayStation. Each round of Dead End Road is relatively short, but each one is also potent and brimming with surprisingly visceral terror.
Dead End Road takes place in an autumnal English countryside. The game begins as the protagonist, a nameless down-on-his-luck Brit, is wrapping up a visit to a strange old woman. The old crone’s given our leading character an artifact that can grant wishes, provided he/she/they also perform a ritual in their house. A granted wish sounds phenomenal, but there’s something just a little off about this old woman. Could it be that she lives alone in a creepy old house? Or that that house is in the middle of nowhere? Oh well. What have details ever done for horror game protagonists?
Anyway, the main character returns to their house on the other side of the countryside from the crone’s place and begins the ritual. Things don’t go quite according to plan. How so, one might ask? Well, the player initiates the arcane ritual expecting a granted wish, but instead gets a giant screaming monster with huge jaws bursting into their house. Scared witless, the protagonist does what few horror game protagonists seem to think of: leave the house, get in the car, and drive as far away as possible. Unfortunately for the would-be ritual performer, getting away from the monsters isn’t as simple as driving.
Did the old woman mention what to do if the ritual didn’t go as planned? Actually, yes. Buy three items (randomly determined in each playthrough) and bring them to her house. With them, she can cast a counter-spell to banish the monster and save the player’s life. Thus begins a harrowing odyssey through the nighttime English countryside, as the player braves unforeseen horrors on the road and in their mind.
In Dead End Road, players have to drive back to the old woman’s house visited at the very start of the game. The game is played from behind the wheel of a souped-up old car, which the player has to use to drive across the countryside. Getting to the crone’s place isn’t as simple as a nighttime drive, though. The player’s most immediate problem are the ghouls, ghosts and other obstacles that are suddenly haunting the road. Dodge the obstacles, and the player might make it to the old woman’s hovel in one piece. Run into things, and, well… hopefully the protagonist has good auto insurance.
Now, the phrase “suddenly haunting the road” is quite literal, as all sorts of things suddenly appear on the road for the player to swerve past. These threats alternate between something relatively banal, like a car suddenly speeding toward the player, to something much more heart-stopping, like an eyeless demon suddenly riding shotgun. Players’ only hope for survival is to drive carefully and have quick reflexes. These events are tricked out with sudden flashes of light and loud noises, so, yeah, pretty startling.
The monsters and bad drivers aren’t the only things players have to watch out for. Terrified drivers can’t get far without fuel or an intact car, and so Dead End Road forces players to maintain their vehicle throughout the game. Players do start out with some spare cash for buying gasoline (or petrol, as it’s called on that side of the pond) and paying for car repairs. Players can also buy stimulants to help keep them alert, but don’t go too crazy; some of that money will be needed for the three items the old lady needs for the counter-ritual.
If the player is buying items, that must mean not all of Dead End Road is spent on, well, the road. The game’s twisting road of darkness is broken up by small English towns at which the player can stop to recuperate for a spell before hitting the highway. There are about two dozen such towns in Dead End Road, but the player needn’t visit all of them; just pick whichever route to the old woman’s house best suits the protagonist. Each town is also pretty much identical, with a slightly tweaked mix of stops manned by dead-eyed misers.
After filling the tank and buying whatever the crone needs, the player gets back on the road to spend a few tense minutes avoiding baby carriages, other cars, and whatever else might show up in the dead of night. The driving sections are tense, as these threats show up unnaturally quickly and can turn a nighttime sortie into a front-page auto accident. Driving might also be made more difficult by adverse weather, demonic apparitions, and other effects. Players can track how much further they have to go between towns; this relieves some of the anxiety about hitting something, but it can also make some driving segments seem unnaturally long. Then again, this is an unnatural night.
Avoiding obstacles is the name of Dead End Road‘s game. It makes for a meaty (literally) challenge, and it also has a decent, gradual difficulty climb. This should sate horror players and twitch speedsters looking for a new challenge. The game does have permadeath, though, meaning that if the player dies anywhere on the journey, they have to start the entire game over. Some players might be turned off by this notion, especially if they die close to the end of a run, but it heightens the horror tension to know that this is the one chance to get to the crone’s house intact. No checkpoints, no hand-holding. Just try to get to the crone’s house in one piece.
For better and for worse, Dead End Road honors the PlayStation era. The “better” portion of that homage is the game’s aesthetic, a colorful low-fi design that looks right at home alongside Spyro the Dragon and Fighting Force. It’s a tastefully done representation of games from that era, with cars that look straight out of Toad’s Turnpike from Mario Kart. Character models and other in-game objects are likewise low-fi, but not so much as to be inscrutable. Any PlayStation OGs or players yearning for simpler times will find a decent world in Dead End Road, sans some of the jumpscares.
The only issue with emulating the low-fi era of video games is that Dead End Road also inherits that era’s less-than-stellar sound design. A few characters in the game speak out loud, but the soundbits are so garbled that they’re basically unintelligible. This is a particular problem with the demon jumpscare, when a demon pops into the player’s back seat and gives instructions on how to make him go away. Problem is, he sounds like his mouth is full of static and peanut butter, and if his will isn’t done, he kills the player. All of the game’s sound effects are similarly muffled by static. It’s a nice touch for players seeking the nostalgia factor, but logistically it’s a bit of a problem.
Really, though, the sound design is Dead End Road‘s only serious flaw. Everything else is a well-implemented piece of a greater horror atmosphere. There’s no beating the tension of driving along the road, never knowing if Satan will hop in the car or if another vehicle will suddenly come roaring into your windshield. Things are little calmer in the towns, where creepy, unfriendly shopkeepers follow the player’s every move as they peruse old shelves. The permadeath risks being too frustrating for players to enjoy the atmosphere, but it’s a roundabout way of making Dead End Road even tenser.
With such a heavy emphasis on driving, there’s not much room for character development or an intricate plot. Inveterate horror games might have a few guesses as to what the crone can do to break this unfortunate protagonist’s spell. Maybe it depends on the items she wants, or perhaps the condition of the player’s car when and if they arrive. Dead End Road becomes even more compelling in that way, as the player is driven as much by the terrors on the highway as the hope of breaking whatever hell he/she/they has unleashed.
In closing, Dead End Road is a delightful little jaunt onto a monster-infested highway, complete with the management of very finite resources and the need for quick reflexes. Its old-school aesthetic fits the game’s dark theme well, and its sound design does a hit-or-miss job of rounding out the atmosphere. It’s not often that horror and racing fans find common ground, but Dead End Road aptly blends both genres into a novel horror adventure. Take off onto the roads of nighttime Britain to see if the curse can be broken. Surely, the backfire of the old crone’s gift was an accident…
You can buy Dead End Road here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.