Roguelike games have been a staple of the indie game genre for a good decade or so, at least as long as I’ve been playing them. Given the fact that everything conceivable genre has had a shot at it, be it fantasy, sci fi, turn based, zombies, shooters, etc. its surprising that we don’t see any of horror. At least that was my thought process before I played Dead End Road, to which I realized that a game where the whole point of the gameplay involves replaying a very hard game to get progressively better a number of times, and a genre in which being scared and uneasy as you go into unknown territory tend to cancel each other out.
Dead End road takes place somewhere in England (which you can tell because the steering wheel is on the right of the car), where you play as a silent protagonist who screwed up a ritual with some sort of elder god and now must flee in your old car to the mysterious old woman who told about said ritual, and must brave a dangerous road filled to the brim with cheesy jump scares and exceptionally frustrating instant death traps.
While I dislike the game for a number of reasons, there are a few parts of it I found intriguing. Firstly, is the whole concept, as driving in the night with nothing but you, your cars headlights, and the road ahead is often relaxing and somewhat unnerving at the same time. This is one of the first horror games I’ve personally played that was centered around driving a car. Driving is a bit of an understatement however, as it controls horribly and tends to slide around as if the road were covered in black ice. This can be chalked up to a horror game taking away a sense of control from you so it can build tension through gameplay.
However, it ends up making the game more frustrating than actually scaring the player. This is due to the fact that the game throws so many instant death traps at you, that you become entirely at mercy if the games RNG, as cars, trucks, trains, trash piles etc. are all placed around the road at random, and you might end up with a pile of trash blocking one side of the road, and a car coming straight towards you on the other side, which kills you instantly. The RNG ends up destroying the strategy to the games upgrade and fuel management system.
You start the game off with 100 Euros but its exceptionally rare that you make any more than that. This locks off many of the more fun upgrades like the speed boost, and forces you to choose the fuel efficiency one, and little else. It’s possible to get the money back with scratch cards, or going into alleyways, but both these either have the potential to waste all your money, leaving you with nothing. This basically makes the game unplayable as you will have no money left for fuel or upgrades.
Of course, the gameplay alone already makes this game dull and boring as is, with long stretches of sullen roads and holding the forward’s button. This could be where the games horror elements come in, but they don’t. First off, the fact that its procedurally generated means that as you replay the game over and over again, trying to get through the frustrating death traps, that you become desensitized to the game’s antics, and begin to expect them. Second off, if this isn’t already apparent, the game simply isn’t scary, nor do the developers seem to have a concept of what makes a game scary and not just a cheap facade of jumpscares. The worst one was when the game tried to pull the, oh-the-games-haunted-and-its-going-into-your-source-code gimmick, where it pulls up a blue error screen for about three seconds, before going away and you continuing as if nothing even happened, to which I said, out loud, “Wow they literally just tried to pull that off.” The other ones aren’t as lame or predictable as that but they lack subtlety, which makes or breaks most, if not all good horror games. You’ll be driving along when suddenly your car teleports into tunnels of gore, with screams from the damned echoing, before, again, being dropped into the game yet again like nothing happened. The horror in this horror game becomes just a gimmick used to make the game more interesting. There are no interesting mechanics, the story isn’t engaging, there are basically no characters, and the gameplay mostly involves holding down the W key and waiting. While it is polished, and performs well, it ends up being just a thin, watery horror game with no really redeeming qualities