Plague Road review for PS Vita, PS4

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PS4, PC
Publisher: Arcade Distillery
Developer: Arcade Distillery
Medium: Digital/Vita Card/Disc
Players: 1
Online: No

If looks were everything, Plague Road would be a must-have game. It’s got such a distinctive visual identity, even its little icon on the Vita menu is eye-grabbing: a man in a plague mask stares out at you with red eyes, with the surrounding area filled with a disconcerting shade of yellow.

The actual game is filled with more of the same. The main character wears that aforementioned plague mask, and completes his look with a black hat and trenchcoat combo. Other characters are equally striking, drawing inspiration from goth and steampunk fashions to create a style that’s undeniably unique. On top of that, the world looks like an actual hellscape, full of unnatural greens and yellows that convey the kind of illness and decay that you’d associate with an actual plague. I never knew that there was a stylistic sweet spot between “gorgeous” and “nauseating”, yet, improbably, Plague Road shows that one exists.

Unfortunately, that’s just about all that it does. The gameplay itself is an ill-conceived combination of JRPG and roguelike: you travel through ever-changing paths, searching for treasure and survivors. In the process, you stumble upon demonic-looking enemies, and engage them in turn-based battles.

I’d like to say that the combination of those two things is as inspired as Plague Road’s visuals, but that would be a lie. While the visuals are interesting to look at, they lose some of their power when you see the same trees and the same ugly skies and the same off-looking grass over and over again, in every new expedition. Likewise, I suspect that even people who love turn-based battles will be disappointed here once they realize that there’s not much benefit to engaging your enemies: they don’t drop any loot, which means you lose stamina and health and have nothing to show for it afterwards beyond the satisfaction of having bested another enemy. It gets a little more dynamic once you start factoring in multiple enemies and allies, but it’s still nowhere near being fun.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to appreciate the game, of course. As I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, Plague Road looks great, and that, in itself, is an accomplishment. But it’s also the sort of thing that can be appreciated in screenshots — since once you get to playing, you may find that it ruins the overall experience.

Grade: C-