I have a lot of complicated feelings about Plague Road, which isn’t what I expected going in, and why this review took so long to write after its launch. On its surface, the base game is accessible enough. It’s a roguelike fantasy game with a relatively simple squad strategy layer that acts as the combat system. Not an entirely original concept, and your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for that particular combination of genres. There’s a warm sense of achievement and growth that only roguelikes can ever really give me; the crawl towards mere inches of gained ground is something I find soothing. Likewise, the light fantasy-strategy approach, while not something I play a lot of, is always a nice distraction that offers a decent level of depth to combat without being overwhelming and, therefore, frustrating.

For the most part, Plague Road succeeds at blending these two. It’s a slow game to start, which suggests that it will be a duller, more difficult experience than it really is. For the first hour or so, combat is overly simple, with only a single character — the Plague Doctor protagonist — to use in encounters. This also makes it somewhat frustrating, which is largely because, upon first play, I didn’t realise it was a roguelike. The repeated defeats and seeming lack of progress are something I always experience when beginning a game in this genre, so the sudden realisation helped place that opening hour into perspective. Sure enough, once I began encountering more survivors on the procedurally generated maps, the game opened up and the combat segments became both easier to deal with and more rewarding.

Plague Road’s greatest strengths lie in its art style and story. The plot is basic, but more than serviceable for pushing the narrative. The world-building woven into this is compelling. It’s a dark, steampunk-esque fantasy with a portentous, apocalyptic atmosphere that bleeds through every bit of writing and vocal performance. The art is highly stylised, almost painterly, and is in constant motion, closely reflecting the narrative by evoking a sense of passive hostility and alienation. It’s very distinctive and doubtless the aspect of the game that will stick with most players the longest.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the art style is the ways that the game’s sparse animation interacts with it. The actual number of animations allotted to game world’s various moving parts is limited; most attacks use the same range of motions. Movement animations for both the player characters and enemies is limited to a few basic motions that are repeated a lot. Rather than detracting from the experience, however, this enhances the art style in a unique way. The stilted, repetitive movements give the sprites a marionette-like appearance that complements the tall, slim build of the humanoid figures and the few points of articulation on their models. The horizontal scrolling nature of the game world combined with the smooth, persistent swaying motion of the environmental details gives the impression of a theatre performance, a charmingly simple way of creating the illusion of a living but alien world.

Visually, Plague Road is a vibrant and thoughtful stage play that picks up on and highlights the narrative themes. The doctor’s encounters with bizarre beasts and automatons connect neatly with the way that the game’s art direction draws attention to its surreal simulations of life, pushing the player to think about how life in this world works and what the titular plague must mean for its inhabitants. In addition, the natural alienation that comes with this kind of visual aesthetic is used to heighten the sense of the fantastical without blunting the emotional impact.

All this would make for a wonderful game experience were there not some elements that feel undercooked. These problems are occasionally difficult ones to overlook. As I’ve already mentioned, the early stages of the game can be a frustrating grind. In addition, the enemies in these early stages lack variety; you’ll see the same dogs and bandits over and over again for some time before things pick up. The sound and music, while interesting, are surprisingly sparse and so lack the impact that the visuals impart. The version I played (Steam) also had some minor but notable technical issues, such as text not formatting properly inside the text boxes and even one or two strange moments of missing information (the item name of a particular chest was just a garbled string of code, for example). These give it a distinctly unfinished feel. Though it is possible that they have been corrected or patched out of later versions/versions on other platforms, that they were still present after launch makes them worth mentioning.

My overall sense is of a project that has plenty of ambition for its scale, but with a development team that lacked either the resources or the time to fully realize it. The art and writing demonstrate a clear vision and a care for a unified aesthetic that’s rare even amongst indie games, but this effort is undermined as a complete piece in other areas. The strangely quiet world, when a more consistent soundtrack and use of sound would go a long way to fully tying the experience together, is a particular irritation. Nonetheless, there is a very promising core to Plague Road that shines through the clumsy execution. Arcade Distillery’s aesthetic is clearly a work in progress here, and their catalogue of upcoming games point to a commitment that suggests interesting things in their future as they continue to develop it.