Dead Island, taken as a franchise, is a strange one. It was first introduced to the world with a trailer that, while emotionally impactful, had very little to do with the game itself. Then when the game itself was released, the plot tried its best to deliver the same kind of dramatic payoff that you would find in AMC’s The Walking Dead, but instead lands with all of the seriousness that you might expect from a story that opens with a rap song titled “Who Do You Voodoo?” Fortunately, the thrill of annihilating the undead with friends eclipsed any shortcomings in the narrative (likewise with Riptide). Then there was Escape Dead Island, which… just no. Poor mechanics and an unlikable cast made for an experience that is best forgotten. Now along comes Dead Island: Retro Revenge, a spinoff title bundled with Dead Island: Definitive Edition that throws all of that seriousness to the wind. And you know what? It’s all the better for it.
In this 16-bit inspired title, you play as Not Jack Black as he discovers that his cat Rick Furry has been kidnapped (catnapped?) by random thugs. Having witnessed the abduction take place, he decides to do what any individual with a fascination with Youtube cat videos would do: let the streets run red with their blood. It’s a hilarious premise, and it’s this brand of insanity that I wish was more prevalent in the rest of the series. Perhaps Techland felt that a humorous game of this genre would draw too many comparisons to Borderlands. But just look at this trailer and tell me you wouldn’t have enjoyed this character in the main series.
While the genre might be classified as a beat-’em-up title, it’s more like a mix between Runner2 and something like a Charlie Murder or Castle Crashers. Your main character, Max, automatically runs from left to right on one of three tracks and has to either avoid or destroy any enemies or obstacles in his path. He has four basic attacks: high, middle, low and a back attack to deal with anything coming up from behind him. Killing certain enemies will fill up a bar that acts as a fuel gauge for a super weapon (such as a weed whacker with saw blades on it or a crossbow… with saw blades on it). And if you really find yourself in a pinch, a quick press of R1 will unleash a magical attack that ranges from a mystical dragon igniting everything on fire to a screen wiping discharge of electricity.
The concept sounds really simple on paper (and it is), but once you get to the later stages, you’ll soon realize that you can’t just button mash the same attack command to see you through to the end. For example, using a body blow on a Leader will get you wrapped in its intestines, while doing anything other than a low kick to Zombie Dog will ensure you find yourself on the bad end of a rabies shot. And with only three hits before you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage for a do-over. You’ll get the occasional health drop though as well as weaponry like flaming sledgehammers and electric machetes to cut down foes more easily and rack up more points.
And points are what will ultimately keep you coming back after you’ve already mastered the core game. After all, there are only three chapters each containing eight stages each, which will go by quick depending on how quickly you acclimate to dealing with all of the hazards thrown your way. Dead Island: Retro Revenge also has leaderboard support, which should help motivate building up multipliers during each stage. Beating the game unlocks a Marathon Mode that challenges you to see how many stages you can clear in one go, as well as a Survivor mode for seeing just how many waves of enemies you can survive.
It was right around the second or third chapter where I wished there had been some form of checkpoint system in the game, as reaching near the end only to have something catastrophic occur (such as a clump of enemies in a row that saps your health) and force you to start over is the worst. I recognize that such a short game would be made even shorter by such a concession, though the later stages would still provide plenty of challenge even without the hassle of having to repeat content. Besides, there’s always the added modes and leaderboards to keep players who really want to continue with the game to remain invested.
Purists of 90’s arcade titles will be enamored with the game’s aesthetic. Dead Island: Retro Revenge has a CRT mode enabled by default that makes it appear as though you’re viewing the game through an arcade cabinet. And the pixelated sprites look like something out of the same era as Double Dragon or Final Fight. On the audio side of things, it was a little bit light on the music and some of the enemy sound bites were kind of annoying. Max’s one liners were a nice touch though.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Dead Island: Retro Revenge since it was being offered as a freebie with another game bundle. In fact, as of this writing I don’t even see it for individual sale on the PSN. However, it turned out to be a solid diversion with a very humorous setup. The gameplay is simple, but requires a lot of split second thinking on the part of the player. It can be frustrating at times, but strangely addictive in others and given a little more polish could’ve stood on its own as a worthwhile addition to the franchise rather than just a pack-in title. If you have some downtime during in between fashioning nail bats and running over walkers with your friends, it’s worth taking the time to download and try out. It may not have a ton of staying power, but if you received it as a free bonus, who cares?
Short Attention Span Summary
If you’ve ever wanted to play a game centered around rescuing the video game equivalent of Grumpy Cat from a horde of enemy marines and zombies, then Deep Silver has the game for you. Dead Island: Retro Revenge is a pack-in title for Dead Island: Definitive Edition and a throwback aesthetically to 16-bit games of the 90’s. Your main character, Max (who sounds suspiciously like Jack Black), runs automatically and it’s up to you to choose the correct attack for dispatching the foes that run across your path. It’s an experience that lacks lasting appeal, but is strangely addicting during its short campaign. There are a lot of games out there that are offered for free, but can hardly be considered worth your time. Dead Island: Retro Revenge is worth firing up, if only for one afternoon.