Growing Up Dead

HIGH The swimming race around the lake.

LOW Level 5-1 is kind of a disaster.

WTF Is this ‘Pikmin Plays The Market’?

I know it can be a little difficult to get past the terrible, nonsensical title – believe me, I struggled with it as well. However, if one can set it aside, they’ll find something special beneath that terrible branding. Ray’s the Dead is the first game to take Nintendo’s well-regarded Pikmin formula and meaningfully expand on it to build one of the most emotionally enthralling strategy/adventure games I’ve played.

Ray’s The Dead opens as perfectly as one could ask it to, with the main character — the titular Ray — climbing out of his grave in a cemetery. The player has no idea who he is, although the nametag is a bit of a hint. He’ll quickly learn that he’s a zombie, and that the strange lightbulb sticking out of his head gives him powers that separate him from the rest of his ilk — specifically, the ability to resurrect zombies and turn them into an army.

This quickly turns into Pikmin-style ‘crowd management’ gameplay, as Ray works his way through the first level while learning how to make crowds of zombies attack enemies, break down barriers, and burrow their way to secrets. It all culminates in a boss fight with The Tall Man from the movie Phantasm — just the first of endless horror movie and ’80s references.

As the level wrapped up, I was fully on board with the gameplay, finding it to be a little more intuitive than Overlord’s imp-wrangling, although not up to the masterful level of Pikmin. Then something amazing happened — something triggered a memory in Ray’s decomposing gray matter and he had a flashback to his childhood.

Ray’s The Dead‘s central conceit — and most impressive feat — is the way it jumps back and forth between Ray’s adventures as the leader of a zombie horde and his childhood tale of friendship and tragedy. The story is a jumble of influences. There’s plenty of Goonies and The Karate Kid, but mostly it draws from Steven King’s reflections on growing up as an unsupervised youth. While the inspirations are obvious to anyone familiar with those texts, the story transcends its references and introduces its own memorable characters then builds strong relationships between them.

In an inspired choice, Ray’s flashbacks also serve double duty by teaching the player to use mechanics that they’ll need in the present timeline. For example, Ray learns how to block the attacks of skeleton-clad bullies one fateful Halloween, then fifteen years later he’s using the same trick to fend off vicious hounds. The same skills that allow a young Ray to sneak past camp counselors as a kid will serve him well when he needs to sneak through a well-guarded encampment to shut down toxic gas-spewing machinery.

Ray’s the Dead also knocks it out of the park with a fantastically-implemented morality system. The player gets to decide whether Ray is a helpful beast out to save the world from the nefarious polluter responsible for his resurrection, or the bloodthirsty leader of a horde of monsters that crave only carnage. The player demonstrates Ray’s character through a series of binary choices in which they can save a character or let them die, but unlike most games where these kinds of choices only serve to direct players towards a specific ending, there are concrete rewards for being a bad person.

In each binary choice, letting something bad happen to a character will reward Ray with batteries he needs to upgrade his energy meter. This slowly-recharging meter is what Ray uses to protect and control his horde — the larger it is, the longer he can use his powers before he has to recharge, and the easier combat becomes. As a result, making the ‘evil’ choice makes Ray far more effective in fights, while the rewards for being ‘good’ are left fuzzy and indistinct, to be revealed somewhere in the future.

The developers successfully use this mechanic to make a point about morality systems, and suggest that the only reason people would be tempted by an evil choice was if it provided large and immediate rewards. It takes boldness and character to be good in Ray’s The Dead — exactly as it does in real life.

While Rays mostly goes from strength to strength, there are a few weak points worth mentioning.

One issue is that there’s no button to make Ray stand in one place, so he can’t aim zombies without moving and it makes combat messy. Also, since he’s the same size as normal zombies and smaller than the large ones he can recruit, it’s surprisingly easy to lose Ray in a crowd, which sometimes makes navigating around hazards a chore. There’s also one absolutely terrible level where the combat ramps up in difficulty to an insane degree — it’s so abrupt that I actually contacted the developers to see if it was a bug.

Even with those flaws, I can’t hide how impressed I am by this work. It’s the best successor to Pikmin’s legacy that I’ve ever encountered. It’s got a great story, endlessly inventive gameplay, and a charming visual style. Yes, it’s gruesome, and yes, it can be a little upsetting at times, but Ray’s The Dead manages to be more than an assemblage of comedic ’80s references and borrowed mechanics — it rises above its inspirations and becomes a truly special experience.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Ragtag Studio and is available on PC and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the singleplayer mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was rated T by the ESRB for Blood, Crude Humor, Mild Language and Violence. While the game is certainly gruesome and occasionally bleak, there’s a good story here about growing up into the kind of person you were terrified of as a child, and whether it’s possible for the corrupt to find redemption. It’s absolutely safe even for younger teens.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options, which is going to be an issue in the combat — players can tell if their enemies are vulnerable to attack based on an outline switching from red to green. Failing that, players are going to have to learn to look for visual cues in the animation instead.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game with the sound off and encountered no difficulties. All information is provided via text, which cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, game’s controls are remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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AJ Small
AJ Small
2 years ago

Okay, references to Phantasm, nods to Overlord. I am interested.