There is a certain irony to playing Deadly Days, standing against wave after wave of zombie hordes, only to mindlessly consume hours of your own day with the proverbial, “One more turn.”
From German developer pixelsplit, Deadly Days is an action strategy rogue-lite where players guide a group of people through the zombie apocalypse. Looting abandoned homes, searching for survivors and mowing down the undead, the party gets by day-to-day in civilization’s ruins. Ultimately hoping to end the outbreak, players expand and level their group of survivors, building a zombie-crushing raiding party that consumes resources in a frenzy that would make George Romero proud.
Core gameplay revolves around a cycle of picking a daily mission map from a random selection of three, exploring and looting your way through the fog of war in your choice. Each map has varying difficulty parameters, along with unique goals like rescue survivors or collecting map pieces. It’s a balanced approach to let you weigh your strengths in selecting a mission and consider what resources are most needed. A level-one difficulty scavenging mission or a level-five supermarket raid? Well, there’s only a day’s supply of food before your party starves, so cross your fingers and suit up.
The resource system itself is equally well balanced, requiring mindfulness of survivor group size versus food stockpiles, mission rewards versus the daily-growing threat level, and the amount of scrap currency versus item, power and weapon unlocks. Deadly Days really drives each resource’s true value home through the seemingly lucky finds of vending machines in missions. An orbital strike laser in exchange for three food seems like a steal–until it starves of your party.
Deadly Days feels in no small amount like the action rogue-lite Okhlos: Omega. From its strategic, mob wave gameplay, to its pixel-art style, to its humor the games share a lot of common ground. While the ancient Greece-set Okhlos has a little more to offer in variety of enemies and unlockables, along with a tad more detail to its style, the gameplay never quite burrows under the skin like Deadly Days.
Each mission is a game of “beat the clock” before all-too-soon sundowns ramp up enemy spawns, forcing a retreat back to base. The homebase element of the game being pretty bare bones, with little to do beyond some inventory management and passive upgrades, I often found myself unloading the obligatory vendor trash and heading right back out into the fray. While the in-and-outness of it all sometimes makes the base feel empty of functionality or content, it bolsters the addictive, rapid-fire, bite-size action sequences that made a zombie out of my own self as the hours ticked away–an admitted personal problem of mine with all rogue-lites (looking at you Rogue Legacy).
Deadly Days’ initial tutorial gives an informative enough crash course that props you on your feet to hit the ground running, but there is a ton of content not touched on. Things like the homebase and item upgrades, or obvious things like scrolling out for a fuller map view.
Deadly Days rewards, and expects, repeated playthroughs in true rogue fashion. Doling out new items, weapons, base upgrades, one-use specials and characters with unique combat abilities like the murderer or the masochist, each game over offers a potential new toy. The enemy types also have a decent mix, with the increasing threat levels unleashing more zombie classes as the days roll on, requiring a keen eye on party members across the map. “Grabber” half zombies picking off your team one by one can really sour your day.
Despite some fun unlocks to suss through, the maps themselves all feel relatively the same and are Deadly Days weakest element. Mission goals are the only real distinguishing factor even with procedural generation, and those typically require no strategy mix up or diversity in technique. After enough sessions each level eventually takes on a “Groundhog’s Day” quality and loses a little luster.
To the game’s credit, it does attempt to address this through a high-score ranking system, offering post-end game content to players who aren’t quite ready to put the game down, but have seen all the main playthrough has to offer. So players who squeeze every drop of challenge at the hardest difficulty level, mastering the mob mechanics and unlocking all the items, still can face off against their personal bests through daily challenges, or top players around the world.
Looking at these leaderboards, there are clearly optimized builds for equipped weapons, power ups and passive items. Though given the disparity between top-tiered players and my paltry point hauls, I am as far as I can be from figuring out what they are. Once I found the starting specialization that worked the best for me of the three offered (warfare, scavenge and research) I stuck with it and didn’t experiment too much. A firm devotee of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” cult, I stuck with the groove that worked best for me and picked the same weapon and special item types over and over again. While it didn’t necessarily detract from my experience, a little variety in the level or enemy design could have added some fun complexity. Based on my approach there was no benefit to ever do anything with melee weapons but immediately scrap them.
Keeping a lot of things simple has its shortcomings for Deadly Days, but in the end really works for most of it. Fast-paced play sessions, reflexive team builds, minimalist graphics and even a micro-selection of uptempo, funky, unobtrusive music that sit perfectly in the background make the game great for quick, arcade-style pickup that slowly devours your entire night.
Deadly Days is available now for Windows and Mac and is scheduled for release on Nintendo Switch later this summer.