Dead End City review

If you’ve played past games from eastasiasoft, you’ll know that they tend to be on the short and easy side – experiences that last no longer than an hour or two, liberally handing out achievements and trophies. Dead End City stands out as a rare, but not entirely unheard of, exception. It’s a grungy vertical shooter with a post-apocalyptic setting, a la Mad Max, designed to test your mettle. One life, no continues, and no stage select menu. No permanent upgrades, either – unless you count unlockable characters with unique bullet formations. You’ll be seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen a lot here. Or ‘GAMEOVR’ as it’s depicted on the animated spinning number plate that appears upon death.

Dead End City opts for smoke spewing vehicles instead of spacecraft and aliens, with green haired punks driving motorbikes, off-road vehicles, and armoured trucks that circle around in Galaga-like swarming formations, even colliding head-on with your chosen chariot – as they’re known. Enemies attack in short waves, emitting easily distinguishable pink projectiles, many of which home-in to your then-current location, meaning you’ll be swerving from left to right a fair bit. At the end of wave a breakdown appears, tallying enemies defeated and damage taken.

Dead End City review

Stages are spread across such dusty locales as a deserted city, a mountain range with tumbling boulders, and a train depo with supply lines. As a stage draws to a close, the action slows down for a segment that plays not unlike Ikari Warriors or Commando, pitting you against ground troops while the screen auto-scrolls in different directions. Here, secret items can be found, and with the next pitstop being a lengthy boss fight, you’ll need every ounce of fuel and every scrap of ammo.

To master Dead End City, you’ll not only need to painstakingly learn attack patterns and memorise enemy formations – especially during the slower ground troop assault stages – but have a firm grasp on how the fuel and ammo system works. A slowly depleting fuel gauge acts as your health bar, with every hit taking away a sizeable chunk. Enemies drop fuel canisters of varying sizes when killed, which refills the gauge, and these are vital to collect – a tricky task when projectiles are also in motion. When the fuel gauge is full, enemies will drop bonus ammo instead – in lieu of different weapons, chariots have bursts of increased firepower. When extra ammo is maxed out too, only fuel cans will drop. This emphasizes using boosted firepower sparingly in order to generate more fuel. If you’re chasing scores, you’ll definitely feel tempted to unleash a searing wave of bullets to wipe out a wave; but you may end up with no fuel drops until maxing out ammo reserves.

Dead End City review

It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s something that also leads to a steep difficulty curve. As early on as the second boss I hit a brick wall, dying several times in a row. Eventually, I realised that slowly chipping away at the boss with the standard shot is the way to go, ensuring a steady (well, steadier) supply of fuel drops. You’d think that starting every game anew would lead to mastery of the earlier stages, but there still were times I came a cropper during the first two stages, with one section seeing a barrage of homing bullets and little room to manoeuvre.

Success here is never a given – you’ll have to work for it, adapting to new situations and sometimes crossing fingers that the next enemy defeated drops a fuel can.

If you’re wondering, there is no Easy Mode– just Normal and Hard. There’s also a Score Attack entailing individual stages and a Highway Mode unique to each character, with the latter granting two minutes to rack up a high score. These all have online leaderboards, further enforcing the focus on score chasing. Those looking to knuckle down are well catered for, with extras including a visible hitbox, an optional boss health bar, a choice of enemy projectile colours, scanline options, and the ability to rotate the screen left or right 90 degrees. By default, it’s presented in TATE Mode, with large black borders either side. Pixel Licker certainly understands the intricacies of the genre, and what fans will be expecting from something with a slightly higher price point than usual.

Dead End City review

Visually, it’s slick. Despite having 2D visuals, it looks far more appealing than some 3D vertical shooters released recently. The pixel art is tidy and well drawn, complete with a short animated intro. Imagine a late ‘80s arcade game from Atari or Midway, such as Badlands or Smash TV. There are extras to unlock here too, including an art gallery and a music player. Said extras are expensive though, taking dozens of runs to acquire enough cash to purchase. Incidentally, it’s also possible to purchase additional characters instead of unlocking them by defeating bosses without taking a hit.

It should be clear by now that Dead End City isn’t accessible to all and sundry – the whole thing is based around keeping a single health gauge replenished, with little leeway for error from the moment it starts until the final boss is defeated. This could even be the first eastasiasoft title where few are unable to unlock every achievement and trophy. Indeed, this is quite the change of pace for the publisher – and it’s pleasing to see something that demands a degree of commitment in their line-up, outside of their assortment of Japanese RPGs.

Dead End City

But there’s a caveat to all of this. I would hesitate to describe Dead End City as ‘hard but fair’ as it falls more into the camp of being difficult for the sake of being difficult, forcing you to learn from mistakes in a manner that could be considered brutal. The fact that each retry must be started anew means there may come a point where you’re reluctant to dust yourself off and try again. If you enjoy the challenge that only games like Ikaruga can bring though, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Pixel Licker’s Dead End City is out February 28th on all formats. Published by eastasiasoft.