This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.
The road never changes. If you’re at all familiar with the Death Race franchise originating in the 70’s you’ll be well equipped for the premise of Death Roads: Tournament. This game wants you to take the wheel in a universe that is one half deck builder and one half Road Rash. It’s a top-down strategy game where you maneuver your vehicle into position to unleash a flurry of attacks on your enemy. After clearing a stage you can choose your path across the United States toward the finish line of the Tournament and enter the safe haven. It’s a simple premise with the unique ability to modify your car by customizing your deck.
You’ll start with the base character “the dude” and gradually unlock more cars and drivers. You’ll choose a starting node on the West Coast and begin to work your way toward the East Coast. There are pit stops and repair shops along the way and small risk/reward checks that could help you along your path or leave you pulling into the nearest rest stop on fumes. The overall pacing of the nodes felt fair, with a greater challenge the closer you get to the finish line, however, the combat felt a bit too random. Which, I know is a bit of a low blow for any game that has “rogue like” elements.
As you start each stage you’ll find your vehicle in the middle of the screen, most of the time the majority of enemies approach you from the rear. This makes logical sense as you’re supposed to be racing and your car’s perspective is moving left to right. This fundamentally breaks down though when the majority of the early attack cards you have are only for forward-facing attacks. For instance, if you have a missile barrage that does damage in front of you, but all the enemies are behind you, you’ll spend half of the encounter just trying to use movement cards to get behind your enemy. It feels like there’s still some balance to the combat that’s needed for all the time spent tinkering with my deck to feel worthwhile.
The art style and vehicles all look great with little touches of movement in the animation to make it feel like you’re moving at a fast pace. Explosions and special attacks look good and feel very satisfying when you’re able to line up an attack that kills multiple enemies at once. The dirty electric guitar feels like a great compliment to the dusty Route 66 vibe. It’s the sort of thing I imagine pissed-off truckers listening to. The UI takes a bit of time to get used to, but most of the driver’s seat dials and buttons make sense contextually and add to the overall automotive theme.
Overall I think Death Roads: Tournament shows great promise, and the team has been in almost constant communication with their audience on Steam. They’ve patched and shared roadmaps all while taking feedback, which is always a good sign. I think they could have something unique and fun if they can dial in the fun loop, particularly around the combat and attack cards. My recommendation is to transition the bulk of combat away from just ramming your car into the enemy. It’s far more satisfying when you can land a missile strike. Furthermore, most of my time was spent watching the enemy attack me, some kind of option that has enemy moves animate quicker or conclude faster would make me feel like I am in greater control.
Right now, the price of entry for Early Access on Steam is $14.99, and while I think it’s a fair price, you should know what car you’re getting into. Because of the random elements, you’ll feel like a brilliant tactician one run and a student driver the next. They should try to make the attack cards more versatile and vary the enemy spawn points to make the deck building feel more impactful. Gripes aside, I love the world the team at The Knights of Unity has made and hope they can continue to develop a passionate audience. There’s still a quarter mile left to the finish line, but it is in early access. If the art style and screenshots look like something you’d enjoy, then it’s probably worth the price of entry. However, if you’d rather wait to see what tweaks the team can patch, that’s probably the safer bet. As for me, I look forward to giving it another run after they’ve pumped up the tires a bit more.