Escape Dead Island

Like the bodies of its reanimated inhabitants, Escape Dead Island is a disconcerting mess. Fatshark’s third person, cel-shaded entry in the Dead Island series never settles on what type of game it wants to be, let alone manages to deliver a consistent standard of quality. And despite its name and some entirely throwaway backstory, it’s difficult to see how Escape fits into the series, or even who it’s aimed at.

What’s clear from the start is that something has gone horribly wrong. The game begins with you in control of flamboyant Russian samurai Kilo Two, who’s in the process of infiltrating the Geopharm facility on the island of Narapela, located just a few miles from the setting of the original, Banoi. Any enthusiasm you might share with the confident agent is soon eroded as the patronising tutorial slowly unveils Escape’s sluggish controls and indistinct combat. Despite supposedly being a highly trained martial artist, Kilo Two moves with such lethargy that it’s like he’s already reached the conclusion the game’s not worth bothering with. He might be on to something.

The knee-high obstructions that define your painfully linear route through the labs prove too much for him as well; all he can muster is a resigned crouch  so as to fit through some conveniently placed gaps at  an even slower pace. That crouch also doubles up as a stealth move, enabling you to sneak up on a docile or dining zombie before violently rupturing its carotid artery. Like many of Escape’s other components, the concept behind this mechanic is initially promising, but flat footed implementation sees it come up short. Every stealth kill plays out in exactly the same way, forcing you to watch the overlong animation each time, and almost every opportunity is presented in the form of  a static zombie with their back to you.

Combat is at least slightly more involved. Strong and weak attacks are complemented by a vague dodge move that may or may not get you out of danger, and you can also shove zombies or jog towards them at half pelt and barge them to the ground, giving you the option to initiate another lingering animation as you execute them in exactly the same way, regardless of which weapon you’re wielding at the time. There are no combos to be unearthed from this sparse setup, the only real skill required being your ability to prioritise threats or time your slower strong attack to coincide with the small window in which an enemy is staggered.

All of this disappointment comes in the opening few minutes, but there’s much worse to come. Kilo Two is just a bit part, it transpires, and for the majority of the game you will instead be lumbered with the even less capable, and utterly charmless, Cliff Calo. Faced with a disapproving media mogul father, the aspiring journalist and self-confessed ‘douche’ does what anyone seeking to gain professional respect would do: steals his father’s luxury yacht with the help of two friends in an attempt to get the scoop on the events that happened at Banoi. Upon arriving, the boat mysteriously explodes and your hunt for evidence begins. The game, having failed at third person brawling and sneaking, now aims its fumblings in the direction of open worlds.
Despite the name and some backstory, it’s difficult to see how Escape fits into the series, or even who it’s aimed at
Other than a  few invisible walls and locked doors, Narapela is open in the sense that you can move about it at your leisure, but you shouldn't expect to find anything of interest away from the critical path. The hand holding that stifles the prologue remains in force, with Fatshark mistaking constant backtracking between rigidly defined objectives for open-world play. There’s little to see on the way, either, the island’s handful of small areas linked by tedious cave networks or service tunnels that are made all the more excruciating by the sheer amount of ducking and crawling that’s required to get through them.

You won’t encounter any enemies in these transitional spaces, but there aren’t many more to be found in the open areas, either. Encounters mostly number three or four undead, many of which can simply be dashed past. Fatshark ramps up the enemy count slightly during setpieces, but also tends to throw in an awkward difficulty spike for good measure. You’ll be introduced to The Butcher a hardy, fast-moving creature that can block attacks with his devastating claws and also regenerates health with disheartening rapidity with little warning after having flailed your way through predominantly ineffectual foes up until that point. Matters aren’t helped by your own vague health system, which simply reddens the screen as you take damage but never gives a consistent impression of how close to death you are. And when you do start falling to the undead, the game’s miserly checkpointing is revealed, often dumping you in the middle of one of those hateful crawl spaces from a while back.

Fatshark attempts to introduce another element to Escape in the form of what we presume were meant to be unsettling hallucinations. You might see freight containers falling from the sky, for example, or undergo the incredibly irritating inversion of both your view and controls when you enter a room. The idea of questioning the lead character’s handle on reality is a good one, but one that Escape, already trembling under the weight of its shortcomings, simply cannot support.

Occasionally, a scenario or location promises to be something more, offering a glimpse of a game that might have been worth your time. Without fail, however, that fleeting sensation is quickly unravelled by ill-judged design decisions and the stodgy controls. Escape’s one resounding achievement, it seems, is that it has somehow managed to be an even poorer game than Dead Island: Riptide.


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