I’ve enjoyed getting my ass kicked by Death Road to Canada, an action-roguelike that released last Friday inspired by The Oregon Trail. In Death Road, you’re driving north to escape the zombie-filled USA. Along the way you encounter new survivors who learn new skills, consume resources, and die—the characters you end the game with are often totally different ones than your starters.
Death Road is hard. After probably 15 runs, I’ve only made it to the Canadian border twice, and I’ve died both times. Along the way I’ve been killed , had my car keys stolen by a gator, lit myself on fire with a molotov, and totaled countless cars in my quest to reach the land of hockey. What’s keeping me coming back for more punishment? Death Road’s ridiculous celebrity cameos.
By default, Death Road randomizes the stats and appearance of the survivors you encounter on the road. Mixed into that random roster, though, are handmade celebrity knockoffs. So far I've run into Lunk (Link), Rambeux (Rambo), a medieval knight, an E. Honda lookalike, and a few others. These celebrity survivors are rare by default, but you can choose to make them appear more frequently, which you should do because it makes Death Road feel like an insane fan fiction road trip through armageddon.
Each cameo is an exciting deus ex machina, like encountering the Mysterious Stranger in Fallout. You’re rolling down the freeway in an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and you stumble on someone who looks an awful lot like a hitchhiking Jason Voorhees. Do you take him in? Although Death Road is usually silly, the game does expose you to some moments of seriousness and mortality, and these rare encounters with recognizable characters are the perfect counterweight to the game’s difficulty.
All of the special characters have a unique weapon, mechanic, event, or gimmick: ‘Alvis,’ a stand-in for Elvis, is an absolute brawler who croons as he bashes enemies with his bare hands. If you keep him alive, Lunk finds treasure chests that upgrade his weapons. Anime Girl, I'm told by developer Kepa Auwae, "gets steadily more 'kawaii' as time goes on until her head gets huge and mutated. Then she explodes, which can be good or bad depending on if she's surrounded by zombies anyway or she's in your car."
But these characters aren’t superheroes: they bleed, they still need to eat, and they can be temperamental. One run, Lunk yelled “KYAAAAA!” in the car and lowered the morale of another survivor. That was nothing. Later, Lunk—maybe because he had low morale, I have no clue—did Link’s patented spin attack in the vehicle and killed two wounded characters. Thanks, buddy.
And there are companions who are outright detrimental, which I love. Not long after I accepted Garfield (a person dressed in a Garfield costume, more accurately) into my group, the scary cat mascot teleported everyone to a hell realm littered with bones, and the hardest zombie siege I’d seen in 10 hours of play. Garfield did this twice. I survived only because I had Lunk in my party to chew through 150 zombies. At the next opportunity I led Garfield into a swarm of undead and watched him get devoured.
One of Death Road’s creators tells me that there are about 33 recruitable special characters, and that more, like Sheriff ‘,’ are in production. “A lot of the design of Death Road is around this surreal setting with tons of rare events, such as finding unique characters,” says Auwae. “We want to keep surprising people, even if they play the game over and over.”
Auwae also says that some playthroughs can trigger ultra-rare interactions with characters and other events. “We did a streamer event with and one of the streamers, Pixelmonkey, got a really weird special character that I didn't know existed. He got the Contender, who is a really tough boxer. Then he had a teleporter accident with her, and she got spliced into a dog. Everyone else in his party died after, and he kept feeding her skill bonuses. So he ended up with this weird half-human half-dog Dogtaur with boxing gloves and massive amounts of health. He almost beat the game solo with this character. It was such a tiny chance of happening that I didn't even know it was possible, just rare happenstance.”