Plague Road is a game that defies the constrictions of definition. It amalgamates so many disparate elements that it feels both familiar and refreshing. Set in a world ravaged by an indelible scourge, you play as the Doctor, a beak-masked hero who left the disease-ridden city and is now trying to make their way back to their home, even if it’s been ravaged by fate.
The game tasks you with working your way through various and randomly generated areas in order to reach your destination. The world of Plague Road is unforgiving; at the beginning of the game the Doctor is summarily wiped out but saved by a traveling merchant and taken to safety at an abandoned farm. Thus begins the gameplay loop Plague Road builds itself upon: you go out into the world, pushing your way through oppression to find survivors of the apocalypse that are willing to aid you, thus making the Doctor stronger and stronger until he can push on into new zones. These survivors can be used in one of two ways: you can recruit them into your party as you venture forth, or you can “retire” them into various dilapidated buildings on your farm that will raise meters, which then strengthen the Doctor with stat boosts or skills.
As you push onward in Plague Road you’ll be greeted by enemies in the form of bandits, wildlife, mystical beings and clockwork machines. When they reach you, a grid turn-based battle begins. Although there are occasionally obstacles on each map, most fights are duked out based on the type and range your attacks have, the amount of stamina it takes to execute them and the distance each party member can move. Although there is a hefty variety of characters to choose from, they repeat often and are only delineated by the barest of statistics. You’ll often find yourself favouring certain types and sending the repeats to build up your base.
The presentation lends itself to the desolate world the Doctor finds himself in. Although most areas are elongated hallways with connections to new zones, they are creepy in an interesting way. Skeletons hang from swaying trees, cobblestone streets are punctuated by a red dusk and piled up corpses drive home that sense of destruction. Likewise the sound effects are stark and gruesome against a solemn and windy soundtrack. The ambience is grim, and Plague Road is intriguing because of it.
However, while elements like rescuing survivors to build your party and base, a strategic-minded battle system and roguelike tendencies sound like the perfect formula, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Your menagerie of party members are useful, but not endearing. While there are visible improvements to the buildings in your abode, they don’t feel like anything more than the metrics of leveling up they provide. The lack of a wide variety of enemies married with the regularity of finding combat also dulls the experience a little. It feels like the developers just missed the mark in terms of what they were trying to achieve, and that's a pity.
Plague Road is a valiant attempt at combining divergent concepts into a cohesive and interesting package. But as interesting as it may be to make the first roguelike base-building strategy RPG, it’s missing a layer of depth to drive it beyond curiosity into the realm of compulsory design. There’s plenty to like here, and if you’re in the mood for a morose adventure down a bleak path to a ruined world this may be for you. If you’re just looking to casually save the world from an outbreak, however, you may want to think carefully.