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Review: Dead Sky

Zombie games are the absolute norm right now, so that means everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon and grab a piece of the market. Shorebound Studios’ entry into the market is unfortunately a docile and mediocre affair. It borrows from successful games and over-done clichés, without improving or reinventing the genre.

Developer: Shorebound Studios
Publisher: Steam Greenlight
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: Mac
Release Date: Out Now

Dead Sky’s core concept is fun one, a top-down ‘tower defence’ zombie shooter, it’s a shame then that it just isn’t very well done. Combat is slow, guns feel all too similar and there are invisible walls which make gameplay a chore. Animations are fine most of the time but then when you see something of low quality, it’ll be all you see. Character walking animations are simply awful  and looks awkward and clunky. I understand those concerns shouldn’t effect a top-down shooter, but they do. Shorebound did however do a good job of the animation of Zombie explosions. Killing a zombie with a rocket launcher is satisfying, as their body parts and blood fly up through the air towards the camera, giving sufficient scope to the player.

Guns drop from zombie deaths but due to a lack variety and storage, there isn’t much use to picking one up if you already have one. Apart from the pistol you start off with, there is an assault rifle, rocket launcher, rail gun, flamethrower, shotgun and chainsaw. That is the extent of the options you have, there are no different types of gun in the categories and none seem interesting or different enough to encourage you to swap. Picking up a gun is fine, but you can’t store or switch between weapons you have. For example, if you pick up a machine gun, you would have to drop it to use your pistol. You would not be able to pick up another weapon until you drop the one you are holding. This would be fine and good if the game presented a realistic weight system and tone, but they isn’t present as it would contradict with the other core mechanic of the game, crafting. It boggles my mind that you cannot hold a machine gun and a rifle in a quick inventory that you can swap between. There could have been a system like in browser titles where you queue up the guns – think Heli Attack 2. You have a machine gun and when that is out of ammo you then use the flamethrower you picked up. Dead Sky needs a weapon management system or something. Without one the difficulty curve is irrelevant, mainly because you are constantly picking up and dropping guns for each zombie that walks up to you.

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Another frustrating point is that the game uses a strong reload mechanic but it stands out as frustrating because of the gun issues already talked about. Initiating a reload triggers a mini quick time event which means the difference between a successful reload on which means the reaction time is slowed and the gun jams, costing you valuable seconds. I like to see this type of reloading mechanic because it mimic’s a real time choice and consequence, meaning you pick and choose when you reload, to pick a time you can concentrate on the Quick Time Event. However, missing the QTE will cost you too much time and because you can’t switch weapon, you’re stuck. I didn’t find myself on the edge of my seat desperate to survive; I instead just kept getting angrier at the game. I appreciate the idea of the reload mechanic, but I can’t support its use in the scenario of this game. It bounces around from realistic to arcade far too frequently.

There is a campaign in Dead Sky (albeit incredibly short, clichéd and laughably voiced) containing six ‘scenes’ to play, presumably setting up for new ‘episodes’ in future. This model isn’t a problem, but the game only took me around an hour and a half to finish. Here lies a problem for me, my playtime may say an hour and half but the actual core gameplay of me completing the story was around 60 minutes at most. The reason it took me longer to complete all the scenes was due to the ridiculous mission set-up and world building. Invisible walls, lack of maps or prompts meant I spent a lot of my time wondering around aimlessly through a set lack of boring and dull locals. Whether you are in a sewer, protecting a cabin or in a city street, the locations are drab and lack any depth of feel or emotion. Zombies spawn through the floor towards you, often tripping or blocking your movement. It shouldn’t be this way, you can’t jump or dodge as the character meaning once you are stuck you fire bullets like hell to get away. Coupling this with the gun issues already mentioned Dead Sky is a laborious chore, devoid of emotion or empathy.

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I didn’t care for the one-dimensional characters because they had no story or meaning. Voices were laughably bad, bouncing from obvious fake accents to downright terrible acting. The script and dialogue doesn’t help either, it’s a traditional zombie survival story but lacks any depth or attention to detail. One moment you are driving on a highway to then protect a cabin for someone you meet. Classic right? Well the person you save has a helicopter, but instead of getting away from the infestation, you decide to get dropped into a zombie laden city, only to go through the sewers to meet up with friends later. It makes no logical sense and isn’t properly explained. Cut scenes blend into the gameplay fine but the camera pans between characters having conversations in an unconvincing fashion, not really highlighting the characters emotions or body language.

A problem with the story is that you aren’t prompted in what to do in order to complete a scene. In the sewers you need to hit a switch at the very end of the room, there is no prompt or sign informing you that the switch is there, or even what it does. The task is labelled as “make your way through the sewer”. No mention of a switch, I had to see a walkthrough in order to know what to do. Towards the end of the short campaign you are asked to get onto a train which is fairly easy to determine where the to go, so no necessary prompt needed. However, one of the characters says “grab him and get out of here” in relevance to one of your injured friends. I once was by the train and the mission didn’t’t click, so I ran back down to the friend but was only prompted with the option to use the workbench, I proceeded to fail the scene because the character died. I was at a loss as to what I had done wrong and tried to think about it over and over again. I tried the mission two more times and I didn’t make it to the end, my frustration grew. When I’d finally finished the scene, all zombies were dead and yet the train was sitting there, doors not open. I’d assumed the mission would complete when I reached the train, however I had to angle my character just right and hit the action button. It blew my mind that there isn’t a trigger when you complete certain events and not have to hit an action button, especially when the characters contradict the actual task. Worst of all, that was the end of the episode and the end of my playtime, what a horrible note to end on.

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I don’t want it to sound like I am bashing this game for having no good ideas because it does have the occasional one, it’s just a shame the implementation lets it down. Zombie types are nice and varied, albeit it with exact zombie types from Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. A core component of the gameplay is crafting of turrets and fences which in principle is nice, on paper however it’s far from ideal. When Shorebound tout this as a potential tower defence game, you expect more strategy then what is needed. Tasked with protecting a cabin in one of the scenes, I simply placed a gun turret down with a fence in front of it. The irony that the fence would block some of the bullets isn’t lost on me, bullets pass through fine, especially in my playthrough. It would be ludicrous to claim that placing a couple of turrets down constitutes a tower defence game.

You craft items at a workbench with metal scraps being the currency. These only drop in missions which constitute a workbench available, which is only two of the scenes. It would be amazing if it was a feature across all missions. You can craft and hold multiple turrets and items and hold then in a swappable inventory slot. Switching between items is a simple use of the scrollwheel. This implementation is actually good, but it contradicts the tone of the game earlier on when you can’t store multiple weapons. I for one would preferred to have the weapons stored over items, as that is more relevant to the gameplay. What’s frustrating is that a workbench sometimes doesn’t even look like you’d expect it to. In one scene the workbench is a communication box that someone is working on, now how does that even make sense from a design standpoint? It is once again a problem with positioning. You have to angle yourself perfectly in order to use it, frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it. There is also a delay in the mission start and the time you can use the workbench, only around five seconds, but that is valuable time when a zombie hoard is coming your way. Workbench variety is fairly standard, bear traps, mines, fences and three different types of turret are available with varying costs. I wasn’t at any point inclined to choose one turret over the other, and I was fine with that.

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Dead Sky has two difficulty settings, easy and medium, no hard here. I assume this may be unlocked at a later date but you have choice to what difficulty you use per scene when entering from the menus. Zombie health is increased as you go up the levels, but that seems to be the extent of the difficulty curve. There may be varying damage modifiers but they aren’t overly apparent when playing.

Multiplayer is where Dead Sky might find a market, although the gameplay is the same as the campaign, there is a good variety of bosses to fight which keep things interesting. Unfortunately the gripes from the campaign come back over to the multiplayer. The lack of a dodge or even a jump means fighting a hoard of Zombies is a fruitless endeavour. There isn’t a real risk or reward to running around picking up loot. There are the occasional upgrade job which make the gameplay better. A particular favourite is the berserker, increasing your damage and speed temporarily. These ideas are good, and do provide a slight glimmer of hope, and it’s an honest shame that the mechanics don’t represent these ideas well.[tabgroup][tab title=”The Good“]Some Interesting Ideas…

[/tab][tab title=”The Bad“]… Just Not Very Well Thought Out
Slow Combat
Weapon Selection and Use Is Disappointing

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Avid gamer and technology user. Have a lot of opinions on games and love talking about them. Mainly PC gamer, wasting far too many hours on games like Football Manager and the Total War franchise. Add me on Steam (ryangoodyman) and follow me on the social networks.

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