By – Steven Smith

Deadstone Review

Irish developer Timeslip Softworks has released it’s first offering in Deadstone.  This game takes the classic twin stick shoot’em up genre and adds elements of tower defense, RPG-esque stats and a well told story line. Combining these features gives Deadstone familiar gameplay without making it feel like a clone of other titles.

The game opens with a series of still pictures and exposition.  While not overly original, research conducted on a space station orbiting Mars goes horribly wrong which creates zombies and you are the only one who managed to escape, it is very well told. The writing itself is dramatic, like something you’d read in a pulp detective book.  However, it is the voice acting that really grabbed me.  Given the writing style it would be very easy to have an overly dramatic, over acted opening monologue. Instead I enjoyed a gruff Irish brogue that added real character to the story.  My only complaint here is that this opening contains almost all the voice acting in the game, after that the story is told through a lot of reading.

There are three choices for the story line.  The first two are labeled Side A and Side B, which struck me with a bit of nostalgia for the singles records I listened to in my youth.  Buying a record with a single song on it meant the really good, popular song was on Side A. If you flipped it over and listened to Side B it was usually either a lesser known “throw away” tune, or alternate version of the main song.  Deadstone follows a similar formula. Choosing the Side A story will will give you a dark tale of science gone wrong and the struggles of those left to face the horror.  It is all told in the same pulp style as the opening narration.  Side B however is a very tongue in cheek version of the same story.  This storyline also pokes fun at RPG games in general. Your last choice for story options is No Story. This choice just let’s you play through the levels without any dialogue between players.

Deadstone Review 4

Deadstone is a small frontier community on the Martian wasteland. It is also one of the last surviving settlements on the planet.  Your job is to help keep it’s people alive, by killing hordes of zombies coming down the only road into town. Being a twin stick shooter, the whole game is played from a top down perspective. Zombies come from the top of the map and head towards the bottom.  A counter tells you how many civilians are in town. For every enemy you let pass, a single towns person is lost.  You lose the game by either letting all the townfolk die or by perishing yourself.

There are several methods for fighting the undead, and this is where Deadstone really excels.  You have a variety of weapons to choose from, some with unique benefits.  Pistols, for example, allow you to carry an infinite amount of ammo.  You still need to reload your weapon but there will always be enough rounds in your inventory to do so. There are also shotguns, rifles and automatic weapons.  Some may stun an enemy while others can shoot through one and hit another.  As you progress through the game, you can purchase new weapons and upgrades.  Newer weapons may have both advantages and disadvantages.

Shotguns deal more damage but have limited range whereas a rifle is more accurate but holds fewer rounds.  Weapon upgrades are universal and effect things like damage, capacity and reload speed. It is possible to play the entire game using only the starting pistol by purchasing the upgrades. You also have a small supply of Heath Kits and Bombs.  Health kits replenish a portion of your hit points. Bombs are described as shaped charges which blow up around you with out causing personal harm. If surrounded you can detonate a bomb and send all nearby zombies flying.

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If you don’t want to fight the incoming hordes yourself there is also a mechanical route. Before each level you are given a chance to lay down some mines.  As you advance in the game it is possible to drastically increase the number of mines you get along with the ability to build turrets.  They are expensive, however once built, this defense hardware will be persistent through the subsequent levels unless destroyed.  They also need a lot of upkeep.  Damaged turrets can be slowly repaired during gameplay or fully restored in between levels, which is more cost efficient.  Your turrets also have their own set of upgrades, which increase damage, health and reload speed.

Like with your other weapons these stat upgrades are universal and apply to all turrets, even those you have not yet built.  Each individual turret can be mounted with different types of weapons.  These follow the similar rules to your equipped weapons, so a shotgun turret will do more damage but a rifle turret has a much greater range.  By focusing on the mechanical progression path, it is possible to build an impressive defensive system.  There is even an option to build a Death Robot that follows you around and shoots zombies for you.

What ever method you choose for dispatching the undead, each kill gives you money and XP.  You also get bonus XP if no civilians were lost during a level.  Money is used for purchasing the myriad upgrades and XP, naturally, levels up your character. The character progression uses the SCAM system, which stands for Speed, Constitution, Accuracy and Mechanics.  This is what allows you pick your path in the game. Speed seems to be a good choice for any play style, it makes your character move faster and reduces reload time.  Constitution allows you to carry more weapons, ammo and equipment along with increasing your health.  If you want to be a one man army loaded up with the biggest guns available then this should be your focus.

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You can further define your character with Perks.  Each level up you receive one stat point and one perk point every two levels.  There are a good variety of perks to augment your character.  Some perks have certain requirements, for example building the Death Robot is a perk that requires a high level Mechanics stat.  Other perks are available no matter what character setup you choose, these may boost money or XP earnings or can improve the efficacy of Bombs and Health Kits.  When killed some enemies drop a pickup item, which can be ammo, money, health or temporary boosts for speed or accuracy.  The perks for pickups have no stat requirements and include giving you more pickups, making them more potent or even cause them to slowly come float towards you.

When first playing Deadstone I was quite excited by the idea of a twin stick shooter with RPG character development, but after a while I stared to find the flaws in that formula.  The biggest issue was that, at first, the game seemed very sluggish.  Typically twin stick shooters are defined by their frantic gameplay. In this case both the player character and enemies moved at a slow to moderate pace.  It was not until after investing a few points into speed that I felt like I was playing a decent shooter.

While I enjoyed the mechanical advantages of the turrets, having persistent set pieces also means playing on the same set over and over.  The level design is very basic and since you are defending a static location the level never really changes. You spend the entire game defending a simple road in a flat span of land.  There are no rocks, debris or anything else to breakup the playing field. About the only variations are night missions and storms.  Occasionally, you will play a round at night, which means you get a flash light and some flares.  The level is exactly the same, just darker. Sometimes you play during a sand storm, this gives you somewhat reduced visibility and causes your RADAR screen to stop working for brief periods of time. Every few levels you get a survival mission. These place you in the middle of a small red square of Martian dirt surrounded by zombies.  You don’t have any townsfolk to save, you just need to survive for a specified amount of time.

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There is a decent progression of enemies and their abilities, which is somewhat lessened by the simplicity of the AI.  As you advance new types of zombies arrive with interesting and unique abilities. Some move faster, others can burrow underground or even teleport to show up right behind you, there are even zombies armed with guns.  The downside is that it takes several levels before each new threats is introduced, and then only sparingly and with the exact same AI as every other enemy.  Basically every enemy unit appears at the top of the screen and slowly moves towards the bottom.  If you are detected, either by shooting a zombie or being in it’s cone of vision, the unit changes course and heads directly towards you in a straight line.  Having such predictable enemies, especially slow moving ones, takes away some of the challenge.  I feel there was a missed opportunity to create some unique scenarios that required the player to develop a particular set of strategies.

My final issue with the game is that there is only a single save slot, which is very well hidden.  I wanted to do a side by side comparison of the Side A and Side B story lines for my own personal amusement.  Unfortunately, there is no way to start a new game without overriding the old saved game.  A lack of multiple save slots is a personal pet peeve of mine, especially in a game with level up and character perks.  I would like the ability to tryout a specific character path or perk then reload and make a different choice.

So while a bit disappointed in the developer for not letting me have multiple saves I decided to use the old manual back up and restore of the save file method.  Only I couldn’t ever find the save file.  I checked the usual places, the install folder, My Games, the hidden files in [username]/apps/roaming, all to no avail.  I did a full search of every file on my system with timestamps since I installed to game and still came up empty handed.  This is not too surprising considering the game was made with the Unity engine.  Unity has a tendency to use the Windows Registry for saving data. So the save games maybe in the system registry, which I usually try to avoid manually changing.  This might not be a big issue for some readers, but it did not sit well with me.

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Conclusion – Is it Worth Your Money?

Overall, Deadstone is an excellent game that balances several aspects of other game styles.  It doesn’t standout in any one area, meaning it’s not at the same level as a pure shooter or action RPG, however the way it combines these elements is superbly done.  Timeslip is still working on the game and releasing more content.  They have already introduced multiple difficulty levels and local 2 player co-op, and are currently adding a new Survival mode.  At $10 I think Deadstone is well worth the price for just about any PC gamer.  It’s not a perfect game but it gets a lot of things right.

Deadstone Technical Summary:

Deadstone Review Sum

  • Time played – 6 Hours
  • Widescreen Support – Yes
  • Resolution Played – 1680×1050
  • Windowed Mode – Yes
  • Control Scheme – Mouse and Keyboard, Gamepad
  • System Specification – Intel i7 870 @ 2.93GHz, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9800GT
  • Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • DRM – Activation Key
  • Saved Game Location – Appdata\LocalLow\Deadstone
  • Bugs/Crashes – None
  • Availability – Official Site, Desura,
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  • trincetto

    I tried the demo because the review had made me curious about the game, but I was disappointed. The first few levels are indeed boring, the weapons don’t seem to do much damage and aren’t satisfying to use because there’s little feedback when you hit an enemy. Level design is pretty much absent, playing over and over on the same flat map.
    Maybe it gets better later, but what I’ve played of the demo didn’t leave me a great impression — which is a shame, because I love the ideas behind it.

    • Steven S

      I have no experience with the demo so I don’t know how long it lasts, but you pretty much hit all the negative points I found. For me the sweet spot seems to be somewhere between levels 10 and 15. In several play throughs that’s about the time when my choices in character development really started making a difference. For example, by concentrating on Accuracy and Damage Upgrades I was able to start dropping enemies in 2-3 shots with the starting pistol. Up until that point, however, the game does kind of drag. Which is not at all unusual for RPG games, but it’s still a little frustrating in an action shooter.

      • trincetto

        The demo contains the first 10 levels, if I’m not wrong.
        Looking at it from an RPG standpoint really makes sense: a bit dull, until you start shaping your character.

  • Timeslip

    Hi Trincetto. Developer here. I’d agree that the first few levels don’t show the best the game has to offer. The pacing of the early campaign has been brought up as an issue in a number of reviews, and this is something I’ve tried to address in version 1.02, which was released a few days back. This update doubles the number of enemies in the game, and halves their health, making the gameplay more frantic, and the enemies less bullet spongy. Now, 2 shotgun blasts take down most enemies, rather than 3-4. Weapons also have more ammo, meaning less reloading, and fire faster. They also unlock earlier.

    I’m hoping to do something about the other issue you brought up, level design, in 1.03 by adding a number of buildings and details to the map. This isn’t confirmed yet, but I’ll do my best : ) Thank you for the feedback!

    If you’d like to see the changes in 1.02, here’s a link: http://deadstonegame.com/forum/index.php?topic=44.0

    • Steven S

      Thank you for the update TImeslip. I just played through the first few days of version 1.02 and noticed a huge difference in the pacing. The gameplay is definitely more frantic now. With the increased spawns I’m actually favoring the SMG over any other weapon for it’s superior capacity and fire rate.

      • Timeslip

        Glad you’re enjoying the changes, Steven. I nearly always go with the SMG and Shotgun, the latter seems especially useful against dogs and phase shamblers. How do you feel about the movement speed of the character now? It’s been increased by around 12% in 1.02. Move speed is a tricky one to balance, as the action component demands a fast moving character, while the rpg component needs for there to be room for improvement.

        • Steven S

          The starting speed is much better, before I had to put my first few stat points into Speed to make the game more playable. The RPG aspect is indeed a balancing act, especially an Action RPG. The classic example is Morrowind, it’s a fantastic game but you have to play for a few hours before you can see that. With weaker enemies I’m actually more concerned about the weapon upgrades. Will it even be worth the cost to put more than a few points into Damage? I think that improving Capacity may be the obvious choice now.

          • Timeslip

            That’s good to know. It may be possible to increase move speed a little more without undermining the balance. The weapon upgrades are priced proportional to the average increase of weapon DPS. I ran the figures again since rebalancing the weapons, and the ratios weren’t very different. I’m usually inclined the spread out the upgrades, as each upgrade provides a uniform increase, so the DPS increase per credit is lower on the higher upgrades.

    • trincetto

      That’s great to hear! I hope my comment didn’t appear too negative, it wasn’t my intention! The game sounded very promising judging from the review, so my bad impression was probably the demo’s fault (in fact the last levels it includes where gathering pace).
      In my opinion a bit more polish could make the game really great, even small things like particles when you hit an enemy would help make the weapons feel stronger and more responsive. The new addition and changes sound good, nice to see a developer with such a positive attitude!
      I hope you can experiment with the idea of having levels with building: it would make the tower defence part more strategic and interesting, allowing the player to create choke points for the enemies. Otherwise even different looking maps would be fine to break the monotony. (although I know Mars isn’t the most colourful planet!)
      Thank you for the reply and best of luck with future projects!

      • Timeslip

        Not at all, I think your post was entirely constructive about the parts of the game that didn’t appeal to you, and that’s what I need to improve the game. I’ll likely update the demo after the next update is released. The buildings will likely be more a cosmetic thing, to add a little variety to the main map, which admittedly could do with it. What sort of particles did you have in mind for when enemies are hit?

        • trincetto

          I was thinking of some blood particles, sparks or something similar coming off the enemy, to help visualise that the hit has registered. Maybe even a small animation of the zombie reacting to the impact, or its sprite blinking red from the hit.
          Having replayed the demo (I especially love the Side B idea!), the game IS fun and most of my criticisms could be solved with a bit of polish. For example the det-pack is cool, but the explosions don’t feel like they have much impact; add a black mark on the floor and some screen shake and maybe the detonators will be more exciting to use.
          Maybe these are silly suggestions, but in my opinion small things like these can help the how the game “feels”.
          I’ll make sure to try the new demo, once it’s updated!

          • Timeslip

            Although the game is in concept, quite violent, I’ve made a point of avoiding blood. This was partly due to uncertainty about age ratings, and partly to avoid alienating a younger audience. I had a go at adding a screen shake, but just wasn’t happy with the effect, and ended up removing it. May have another try at it. Cracks on the ground after using det packs could be an option. I’ll have a think about adding a little more polish to the game. If you have any more suggestions, let me know : )

          • trincetto

            I can see why you would want to avoid blood, but maybe you could try adding some generic yellow sparks when you hit an enemy? The problem with the first levels is that, unless you put points on accuracy (which the first time I didn’t), the weapons don’t feel powerful: you hit an enemy two-three times and the bullets just disappear while the monster keeps walking towards you, as if nothing happened. You don’t feel as you’re damaging the enemy, because there isn’t enough feedback.
            To me, some new animations would help a lot. For example I would add some gun movement to make it looks like it’s shooting, the player’s arm shaking while using the most powerful weapons, maybe a yellow reflection from the muzzle flash appearing on the armour.

            Getting a temporary boost for your weapon should be exciting, but right now you barely notice it: you’re killing enemies in less shots, but otherwise it’s the same. Why not have bigger projectiles, fire bullets or something similarly ludicrous — I mean, the idea of picking bonuses from dead monsters is very arcade-y and silly in itself, exaggerating the effect shouldn’t look too out of place.

            Another thing that annoyed me is that the death animation for enemies is always the same. A shotgun blast in the face shouldn’t have the same result as three bullets from a tiny pistol!

            I hope I’m not too critical! As I said, the game is already fun on its own, I would just add some polish to help its “feel”.

          • Timeslip

            Cheers for the suggestions. I’ll look into ways of increasing the feedback. I quite like the idea of new animations, and will add it to the list of potentials. Especially like your idea of different death animations, so if you shot an enemy with a shotgun, it lifts them off their feet and hurls them back. The thing with animations, though, is I can’t do them myself, so it might be something to consider if things go well when Deadstone gets on Steam. Effectively, there are loads of things I’d love to do, but being a small, new studio with one full time developer creates a lot of restrictions. I’ll look into doing something with the weapon power up too, change of colour or some other effect. Thanks again!

          • trincetto

            You’re welcome!
            That exactly what I meant with the death animations, although I understand that animations are expensive to make, especially for a high-resolution game.
            I hope you’ll do great on Steam and can’t wait to see what’s the studio’s next project!

          • Timeslip

            Thanks, trincetto : ) If you’d like to stay posted on what’s happening to Deadstone, feel free to drop by the facebook page @ https://www.facebook.com/Timeslipsoftworks . All the best!