“This is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the Viking Dead.”
Dead in Vinland doesn’t contain any zombies but this turn-based semi-historical survival game hits so many of the same beats as AMC’s The Walking Dead that I had to keep reminding myself just what I was playing. And as beautiful as Dead in Vinland’s hand-drawn graphics are, the game doesn’t shy away from heaping on the misery.
It starts on a depressing note with Vikings Eirik, Blodeuwedd, Moira and Kari fleeing their village under cover of darkness. Leaping into a boat, they make it to an apparently uncharted island, only to be visited days later by a demanding tyrant, the Viking equivalent of The Walking Dead’s Negan. Unsurprisingly, things go downhill from there as they, or rather you, struggle to keep the family alive while meeting Viking Negan’s demands for tribute.
Although Dead in Vinland contains turn-based combat elements, resource management is ultimately key. Each member of your group has their own hunger, sickness, thirst, fatigue and depression levels and if you allow any of these levels to reach 100%, the person in question will expire. Dead in Vinland’s pleasing aesthetic can lull you into a false sense of security; I honestly didn’t believe that the father of the family would kill himself. But sure enough, when I failed to pay attention to his mental health, his children found him dead the next morning. “Sobering” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
However, there’s a snag with this system which stems from Dead in Vinland’s desire to both tell a story and to deliver a more conventional survival experience. Developer CCCP has put a lot of work into ensuring Dead in Vinland’s characters are a likeable lot: you’ll come to appreciate each and every one of them from the stoic Eirik through to his surly but ultimately well-meaning daughter. But should any one of the initial four characters die the game ends there and then, which undermines CCCP’s good work. You end up fearing their demises not because you care about them, but because of the fear of a “Game Over”.
Since you can also recruit another two non-family members, whose deaths don’t end the game it also ends up devaluing your other survivors, who occupy a notional lower tier.
“Hey, we’ve got vacancies in our camp for two more able bodies! Want to join?”
“Sure! Hang on.. weren’t there six of you when last I saw you, and that’s why you said I couldn’t join? What happened to those others?”
“They left. They certainly didn’t get so ill they vomited up their own spleens.”
This oddity aside, Dead in Vinland is grimly entertaining. You’re constantly juggling plates and even with six party members you’re forced to make some tough decisions. Do you send Kari out to gather more tinder, knowing that she’s so fatigued she’s close to dropping? Yes, you could send her father instead but without the water he’s gathering, your Persian friend could die of thirst. And then you’d be down one heavy-hitter and the next time Kari ran into trouble she’d be dead for sure.
CCCP also deserves credit for the way it has handled Dead in Vinland’s needs system. Whereas some survival games have a tipping point for each character state, e.g. “hungry and not hungry”, Dead in Vinland’s approach is more nuanced. A character’s skills, combat, crafting or otherwise are affected by degrees according to their physical or mental state. The hungrier a character becomes, the less effective they are which can leave you pondering just who to feed at the end of each calendar day; I spent a good two minutes struggling with the potentially life-altering decision of who to give a slightly mouldy steak to. And don’t even get me started on how long it took me to choose which character skills I was going to level up.
Dead in Vinland’s turn-based fighting system is eye-catching and, for the most part, fair. Random encounters only occur if you’ve tasked one of your survivors with exploring outside your camp and your other party members can weigh in to protect that survivor. And while there are no massive magical Final Fantasy style-attacks, seeing your character lash out comic-book style, causing a geyser of blood to erupt from a foe’s neck is gruesomely satisfying.
The game does have its issues; apart from the way that the death of a family member ends the game, there are occasions when luck plays too great a part in whether your survivors live or, indeed, die in Vinland. And because conversations between characters are randomised, while you learn a great deal about your survivors, there’s not a huge amount of ongoing character development.
But every day your survivors haven’t died of thirst or fell exhausted onto their own swords is one day closer to giving Viking Negan a taste of his own medicine – and Andrew Lincoln and Jeffrey Dean Morgan voice-overs aside, what more could you ask for? For the most part, Dead in Vinland is a gorgeous-looking, entertaining survival romp that is well worth hopping into a longboat for.