Are you brave enough to walk the Plague Road – a virtual path that will lead you through a strange 2D steampunk-ish world filled with illness, enemies, and treasure?
You play the role of a lone masked doctor who is on a mission to try and save a city which is being eaten away from the inside by an all-consuming plague. Some have escaped and are now lost on the road – these are your potential allies who you can save and add to your battle party (or cash in at your farm base for upgrades).
This interesting premise from Arcade Distillery is a combination of side-scrolling adventure in the vein of Dragon’s Crown fused with the tactical turn based battling of games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea.
Over the course of the game, you will build up skills in a kind of RPG-lite fashion while uncovering the tragic tale of how the city fell victim to the sickness which only you can stop.
The main game world is a lurid place to explore. Odd looking characters stalk through disease coloured trees and caverns. Plague Road isn’t a game to fire up if feeling a little queasy as the visuals are of a chaotic world which is very ill. Things like the twisted, odd colour vegetation and the painfully flesh torn enemies make for uncomfortable viewing but also instill a sense of urgency that you as the sole doctor in this nightmare of illness can possibly make a difference.
There are four distinct areas to the game world and each dungeon area is generated differently each time you play. The object is to find and release as many of the survivors as possible, all the while being hunted by an assortment of enemies which include vicious wolves, gun-toting bandits, heavy-duty golems, and demonic scarecrows. Scattered through the random maps areas are also treasure chests from which you can find essential healing items.
The artwork of the various characters and enemies is effective – cool armour is sported by soldiers and engineers, magical allies such as witches look suitably menacing, and even the hardy peasants pack nasty looking pitch forks with which to stab the enemies. The random nature of who you find on your travels can be a mixed blessing: there are quest givers who require you bring them certain survivors such as nurses, but finding them can be very hit and miss.
Which brings us to the difficulty level. Plague Road can be extremely unforgiving, forcing the unwary to progress in a Bloodborne or Dark Souls explore / die / repeat style. This mechanic is part design choice but is also due to the arbitrary nature of battles which can swing on one unlucky shot.
Rescuing survivors and choosing which to keep for your team and which to sacrifice to build up your farm in order to improve your abilities such as inventory space is a key decision. This resource management element is fine but it isn’t well introduced or explained so there is a fair amount of trial and error required.
In fact everything feels a bit bare bones, and what could have been a stylish odyssey through diseased world can be a random chore that packs frustrating AI and some arbitrary bad luck to overcome. You’ll certainly need plenty of patience to make it through to the end.
The controls are functional on the DualShock 4 but feel more suited to a mouse and keyboard combo (the game can be bought on PC, as well as the PS4 and Vita). What’s more dispiriting is that some of the key game mechanics are cumbersome and could have done with an intro or training level in order to work out how best to tackle battles.
If you're in the market for an effectively twisted dark fantasy roguelike adventure coupled with a functional turn-based tactical strategy combat system, a walk down the Plague Road might be in order. But be warned that despite its distinctive art style, there isn’t much to recommend this against the less sick competitors out there.