In Plague Road, you play as a red eyed doctor clad in dark armor, an Italian doctor’s mask and a debonair wide-brimmed hat. The world is currently being ravaged by a disease mutating its inhabitants into monstrous beasts. The doctor must explore the plague-ridden wastes searching for survivors while battling bandits, rabid wolves and other creatures with his pistol equipped with a short bayonet and a menacing sword. The doctor’s goal is simply to save as many people as possible. After finding them, he brings them back to a farm he found and essentially builds a new city upon that land.
Each stage starts with a well-written, voice-acted poem which elaborates on what is happening in the world as well as showing what the doctor is thinking.
Hear now a tale of a city once blinded
By walls built from fear of what lay outside it.
Where a sickness did fester and a doctor resigned
To uncover the fate of those left behind.
The poems are the method to which the story is told in Plague Road. I found it to be a creative avenue to pursue storytelling, but it is rather limited since these are far and few between.
There isn’t much to talk about here. Some decent music plays while you are in the menu and at the farm. The firsts three stages of the game share the same song which is not particularly complex or interesting. It is mostly just a few ominous chords playing repeatedly. I feel that the reason for this is to emphasize the desolation and devastation the world around you has experienced, but it would have been better had there at least been the sounds of insects other worldly sounds. The sounds of cracking twigs under your feet and the occasional howl of a wolf, for example, would have added a lot to this game.
There isn’t any special battle music, either. The music the keeps on going without interruption. That may be fine for a platformer, but in an RPG where battles take place on a separate battle screen, a change in music is generally important to help keep a player interested.
The art design is really well done. The character models are detailed and unique. Each model has had a lot of love and attention poured into them by the devs. The character models are 2D and you are set on a linear 3D map which allows you to move in all directions. Everything is well-drawn and has a distinct look.
Unfortunately, there isn’t very much to be found in the end. There are only five stages in total, and the first two look almost identical. On top of that, as you progress through the levels, you discover that every single screen looks the exact same. The only thing that changes is the length and the placement of caves which lets you exit the screen to the north. The final three stages have their own unique designs, but it falls into the same problem the first two had where each screen simply looks the same as all the others.
In the end, I didn’t find myself too impressed with the visuals for this reason. If there had been more set pieces and screens to mix and match for the levels, I would have found it to be much more interesting to progress and explore. Unfortunately, it kind of falls flat as it is.
Plague Road makes fantastic use of the touchscreen in handheld mode. A tactical RPG like this is really benefited by touch controls, so I appreciated this being featured here. Other than that, I didn’t notice any other Switch features, such as HD rumble, being used here.
You begin Plague Road on a small farm with a few facilities to select from. There aren’t really any instructions, so players need to test the facilities out to learn what they do. You aren’t actually in control of the doctor while at the farm. You simply scroll on the screen and select the buildings with the courser or touch them.
The first building is a shed with the option to “view survivors”. It will be empty at first, but you will find cloaked survivors while exploring the stages. When you go back to the farm and select the shed, you will be able to check out the survivors and see what class of character you found. These will be at random along with their stats and special abilities. You can have a max of 20 survivors in the shed at any time.
The second building is the Barn. You will notice an empty progress bar below the name. Below that, it tells you that the next improvement is the doctor’s health and stamina will increase by 25%. At the bottom is the option to “Retire Survivor”. By selecting that, you can pick a survivor you don’t wish to use. That character will then disappear from your shed, and the progress bar will be slightly filled. Once it reaches max, you will gain the stat increase.
There is another building called the Hunting Lodge. You will notice that the next improvement on this one is called Double Shot. By retiring enough survivors here, you can teach the doctor new attacks starting with double shot. This building can be upgraded twice in total.
Picking Your Team
When you leave on an expedition, you can select up to four survivors to travel with you if you have any. There are a variety of classes to select from such as your engineers who serve the role of your tanks, witches who have a variety of abilities which can affect the enemies and the playing field and nurses who are obviously healers.
You may gravitate towards certain kinds of characters depending on your play style which is the beauty of this sort of game. Do you prefer having an army of slow, but powerful engineers? Do you want to utilize a witch with the ability to halt all enemies on the screen then attack from a distance? Or, do you prefer having a balanced team capable of close and mid-ranged combat? These options are all possible, but take care that none of your allies lose all their HP while in battle. This game employs a perma-death system, so anyone who dies will stay dead.
Going on Expeditions
Once you have your team ready, you can embark on your quest. It is at this point which you take direct control over the doctor. The game takes place on a linear, side-scrolling map which you can walk around in all directions on. The doctor runs while you are going from left to right, but he walks while you move up and down. That can be somewhat annoying. I found myself just wishing that I could smoothly run in all directions.
Generally, in the first area of the map, you will find a random character asking you to bring him or her specific classes of characters. For example, one of these people is a bald machine with the Monopoly man’s mustache named Bevins who asks you to bring him two engineers and a peasant. This will unlock a train which allows you travel to travel directly to the stages you have unlocked. This also unlocked the Machine Room in the farm which allows you to teach your engineers new attacks. Each one of these characters who asks you to bring them specific classes unlocks a new training facility for that class on your farm.
Exploring the Map
Everyb time you enter the map, it will be randomized. Be carefuol that you do not return to the farm prematurely or you will have to restart the map entirely. Only go back if you have absolutely no choice. You can progress through the stages by looking for arrows pointing to the outside edges of the screen. These allow you to move from one area to the next. You simply need to progress until you find a cave requiring that you have defeated so many enemies to move on to the next one. On the stages, you will come across randomly placed enemies, chests containing potions and survivors who you can send back to the farm.
A Tactical Grid-Based Battle System
If you have ever played games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, then you will be familiar with how the battle system in this game works. You will encounter enemies on the map then be taken onto a separate battle map. Here, your allies will be placed randomly on the left side and the enemies will be place on the right side. At the top of the screen, you will see a series of icons indicating the turn order. When your character’s turn comes, you will be shown where the character is able to be moved via those ground tiles being highlighted. Simply pick the best spot then you will be able to select an attack to use. Those attacks all cost a certain amount of your stamina, and you will be unable to perform those action if you don’t have enough stamina. Each turn your stamina will be recovered by a certain amount, so sometimes you will just need to let a character rest and recover for a turn.
You will need to be careful in battle. As previously mentioned, when a character dies, it is permanent. However, to complicate matters, if the main character dies, you will be returned to the farm only to discover you lost your entire team. I did not care for this mechanic whatsoever. If I would have to lose my entire team simply because the doctor died, I would have rather just had a game over screen and be returned to the main menu.
I found this game to be a somewhat limited experience for $15. With just a few songs to listen to, somewhat repetitive battles, a limited number of stages and only about 5-7 hours of playtime to complete the game, I felt like around $10 would have been a better price for this game.