“Slightly kung-fused maybe”
Ray’s The Dead is a 1980s-inspired zombie action-strategy-puzzle game developed by indie developer Ragtag Studio with an impressively meagre $51,773 via Kickstarter and, after a turbulent 6-year development with repeated delays, was eventually released in October 2020.
This highly unique title has Ray, a brain-eating zombie, form and command an army of zombies to help him traverse the puzzle-laden maps of his 80s reference-filled world. Initially unsure why the nearest cranium always ends up in his mouth, he soon learns about his past through playable flashbacks, while an evil corporation unleashes a riot-inducing green mist on the town in the present. The dual narrative conveys the closeness of a group of friends that experienced a traumatic childhood, and its 2D hand-drawn feel of the characters on the smooth unity-rendered 3D backgrounds gives it a gruesome cartoon look.
Ray’s army can be made up of 4 different types of zombie (standard, dogs, assassins and muscle-bound beasts) each with their own strengths and weaknesses and their own assigned button, allowing you to send them off to attack different targets at the same time. You can also group your team together when you need to stealth past guards and shield against oncoming attacks. This gameplay loop is relatively repetitive but deepens as you progress the story and unlock extra zombies for your army. It even requires some strategic thinking when you have to fight a map full of enemies and obstacles.
The action represents the largest part of the gameplay and is interspersed with puzzle and stealth sections. The puzzles generally consist of simple switch-based mechanisms and are integrated brilliantly into the levels, such as uncoverable areas that only dogs can discover or buttons that need to be pushed with a severed arm (ala Evil Dead) while moving along on a conveyer belt. Stealth is unpolished by comparison, with enemy detection distances different from the border shown on the screen and bugs that mistakenly revive a defeated enemy.
Unexpectedly, it’s the smaller sections of gameplay that give the title its personality. Karate Kid-esque training has you karate-chopping and blocking dodgeballs and other scenes have you send traders on a trading floor to buy or sell shares. Unfortunately, this amusing gameplay and the 1980s characters referenced to throughout the game, such as Mr. T and Alien’s Ellen, are utilized far too sparingly despite their potential. They would have also been great replacements for the standard-fare bosses currently on offer.
The game’s soundtrack is overflowing with addictive 1980s charm and largely excellent atmospheric tracks, but the tracks themselves are quite short, which means they start to lose their appeal by the 4th and 5th time of hearing them during longer levels.
So pervasive and overbearing are the game’s faults, that it can’t help but turn the experience into a negative one. The most immediately obvious is in the form of the script and gibberish speech which are – to put it bluntly – awful. The script tries to be both funny and tragic at the same time and fails to achieve either, while the Team America-esque voicing is akin to scratching your fingernails down a blackboard. Thankfully for your sanity, the latter can be muted in the game settings. In addition, the ‘voicing’ rarely matches the tone of the text and the character’s facial expressions, confusing the message the game attempts to convey. A voice cast may have been too expensive for their budget, but even beeping sounds (aka Ace Attorney) would have been a vast improvement.
With a game that aims to be irreverent, it’s quite hard to tell whether inconsistencies are intentional features in a mish-mash of 80s glory or a general lack of focus. Personally, I’m of the latter opinion as the game has too many competing ideas to succeed in any particular area. The story, for example, appeals to your sympathies when presenting the tragedy of Ray’s childhood, while also single-handedly having him reduce the population of his town through his brain-eating antics. It also focuses a lot of time on Ray’s group of friends and the events they’ve experienced, but they lack personalities, meaning that the conversations are mostly made of up Ray’s mumbles and his sidekicks incessant rambling. If you cut down on the story and added extra depth to the gameplay such as upgradeable zombies and playable 80s characters, then this game’s key strengths might have shone through.
Another inescapable and highly frustrating issue you’ll soon come up against when playing the game is the numerous progression-halting bugs, which force you to restart and do the level all over again.
So while Ray’s The Dead has an interesting and unique gameplay mechanic paired with nice visuals, its convoluted story and prior-mentioned issues make it hard to recommend. And although its 80s references and zombie theme captured a niche audience on Kickstarter, it’s difficult to say whether this inconsistent effort could appeal to a larger more mainstream group – even when its issues have been fixed.