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The Last Stand Aftermath

I’m always on the lookout for good roguelikes, so a recent one I got into is The Last Stand: Aftermath, which is a zombie roguelike that mostly does what you’d expect (but really well) and has a few neat tricks up its sleeve. Beyond some excellent gameplay and a really addictive game loop, what kept me invested and coming back to it is how smart it is; roguelike staples that have made me quit other roguelikes are done smartly here and are not keeping me from enjoying the game; a really interesting take on health systems make the game stand out from the competition. There are issues as well, like a lackluster story despite an interesting premise and a long continuous run needed to complete the game, and I want to give my impressions of the game thus far.

The Last Stand: Aftermath (TLSA for short) is like every other zombie apocalypse premise out there, but it has a neat twist; you are infected and you are making a one-way trip. Your settlement needs you to travel the zombie-infested city roads, suburbs, woods, and other locales, with the one still-functioning car and gather supplies, as well as complete certain tasks; your settlement has been left behind to fend for itself, but a new breed of the virus is starting to spread and they don’t have much time before they are completely wiped out, so they are desperate and ask you to reach checkpoints no one has ever reached before. Thus, they give you anything they can spare – whether that is a broken pistol or a flimsy board – and a shot of antiviral (a vaccine created for the last mutation of the virus that can pause the spread of the virus on you for a little while), and sent you on your way with survivors ready to retrieve the car and the supplies you gather once you’ve fallen. This is a great premise; you have the heroism of a survivor facing impossible odds to try and save their settlement; the melancholia of a one-way trip for a person who knows they will die either way; the bittersweet moments of triumph only to be faced with even more problems, since going back is not an option. It’s a shame that nothing is done with that premise, either in terms of gameplay cohesion with narrative elements or with interesting stories and characters placed in this dire situation. It’s clear that developer Con Artist Games made this premise as a reasoning for the gameplay mechanics and never wanted to do anything more with it; that’s fine, but I wish they were a little more ambitious with their narrative, especially when considering how ambitious they were with the gameplay ideas and execution of them.

TLSA starts at “The End”, a hub area for the player to pick their starting character and unlock or equip gear and acquire upgrades. You get a choice of three characters, each with their own loadout, which can define your playstyle early on; getting someone with no guns means that melee or stealth will be vital, or getting someone with resources that are not easy to come by means that you will get a head start on crafting something you need. It isn’t as significant later on, once you permanently unlock equipment for the armory or progress beyond the first checkpoint, however, new load-outs can be acquired after leveling up 10 times and those load-outs will have good weapons, which means you can skip locations or avoid risky decisions until you get closer to your target. After selecting a character and spending your resources, you set off on your mission which always starts at the same point and demands you make it as far as you can on the map; this is one of those roguelike staples that I hate, however, TLSA cleverly works with this formula to create something that improves upon it. Essentially, the last point on the area of the map is like a boss level; there are lots of zombies, devices that you need to interact with that will make noise and draw their attention, and you need to survive that level to move on to the next part of the map. Defeating that level makes that area less demanding because the game allows you to skip levels provided you have enough fuel, however, there seems to be some tinkering in the background that is very smart. Fuel will be more plentiful, zombies will be more spread out, your statistical upgrades will help allow for more mistakes and an easier time to gather up resources; it also just feels like the game is pushing you forwards, as gas canisters are a lot easier to find and there are fewer distractions along the way.

Before moving on, let’s establish the basics first: TLSA is a top-down, ARPG, roguelike. It is about gathering resources, fending off zombies with guns, melee, and gadgets, crafting and scavenging alongside surviving and progressing. Combat is a big part of the loop and it feels overall great; there is an issue with how the game handles height in combat because often you will be on elevated ground (or zombies will be) and neither ranged nor melee combat can handle that. Beyond that, guns feel good to use and there is versatility and variety to be found in the arsenal offered; pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, LMGs, rocket and grenade launchers, improvised guns, shotguns, and I haven’t finished the game yet so there could be other types I have not encountered yet. All of these offer their own pros and cons, as well as attachments that can enhance certain aspects of each weapon such as damage or reduce noise. Similarly, melee weapons and thrown equipment also have a large number of types and uses, and all weapons feel worthwhile at some point in the game; obviously, using up grenade launcher ammo on regular zombies may be a waste, so less powerful variants of pistols and shotguns have their use early on, but there are good weapons to hold on to for the later stages of the game. Moreover, the player always needs to be scavenging for resources to progress (fuel) and to craft new items that will help their run, like weapons and ammo, but also batteries to power up equipment that can help (like caches with ammo and weapons or radios to level up their knowledge) and other goodies that will lead to restoring stamina/health or crafting unique weapons.

One of the areas that TLSA does particularly well in is that the devs made a really solid loop and feel for the game and then made smart decisions surrounding the systems to keep them interesting and fresh even after 20 hours; in other words, they synergized their systems in compelling ways. For example, the starting chunk of the map is as important at the start of the game as it is at the end, however, the reasons for its importance and the way the player interacts and strategizes in that chunk evolves with the game. In the early stages of the game, the player is more likely to stealth around tougher zombies and be more careful, not using their antiviral or any ammo (if they can help it), and being more willing to retreat. In the latter stages (or during a “supply run” that is specifically about getting resources and not progressing through the map), that can be effective (depending on how you’ve spent knowledge) but the early chunk of the map is a good place to farm for some resources that can prove the difference in the latter stages; an example is the infected blood sample that drops from special zombies (which are the same archetypes from Left 4 Dead) and allows you to spent them to make an antiviral shot from specific equipment, which means that you can use your shot knowing you will have enough resources to make another and save you a battery, allowing you to spend it on weapons, healing items or caches. Speaking of which, caches are also a great example of synergy in systems and smart design. Early on, there is no reason to actually open caches you find (they require a battery to power and can give you items that can help you or a resource to spend on your next run); you are not certain on your ability (or survivability) to not waste them, so you’d always chose to signal them for pick up and use the resources for permanent or run-based upgrades for your next run. Because of that, you want to find them to make your life easier on the next run; after you survive that chunk of the map, finding those caches early on will mean that you almost always take the items over the resources, because now you know what the special zombies look like, what levels to avoid or go for, and what your survivability chances are.

There are many synergies within the systems like those last two, but the one I want to focus on is the health system and how it synergizes with the core loop. Health is divided into chunks and can only be restored with health restoration items – so far nothing innovative. However, your character is infected and your infection will keep spreading and consuming your health bar unless you use the antiviral which will pause it for a specific amount of time; once it consumes a chunk, you lose that chunk of health and gain a mutation instead. The mutations can be minor upgrades with no downsides (like a bit more movement speed) or massive upgrades with hefty downsides (like 50% more melee damage, but melee uses 25% more stamina). Those mutations can be really fun, but what amazes me is how that system essentially works as a time mechanic (in the sense that it makes me hurry and make strategic decisions) without ever making me feel anxious or cornered into a style I don’t like. That is why I never play games like Dead Rising or Spelunky; being hurried into a dumb mistake in the latter or choosing between two NPCs to save and side quests to do in the former, always made me paralyzed at the thought so I never actually wanted to play them. TLSA achieves the same thing; I do make dumb mistakes because of the “ticking clock” and I skip content that I want to experience because I need to choose between that content and something else. The difference being, I’m making those choices – they are not made for me. Rushing to start a generator (which makes a noise that draws zombies to your location) before dealing with special zombies is a dumb mistake that I have made numerous times, but it is a risk that I was willing to take (and suffer the consequences) because I felt that was the right thing to do, not because the timer forced me to.

Despite the many positives, TLSA is not a game for everyone. Personally, I found it very easy, to the point wherein later stages the biggest danger was real life (i.e., needing to be somewhere while this run keeps going); I would like to see more difficulty options with more resources obtainable as an incentive, but that is up to the developers. Moreover, there are design decisions that don’t land as well as others and don’t quite have the same synergy; the best example is the weight system and the stamina bar. As you sprint, dodge, attack, and climb stuff, you use stamina and that stamina regenerates over time; due to various factors, that stamina bar will get lower and lower, and requires the player to use items to restore the full length of the bar. One of those factors is being over-encumbered (meaning carrying too much stuff); credit where it’s due, this does not restrict movement speed or abilities, it just makes the stamina bar deplete quicker. However, the balance is laughably off to the point where the weight system for the inventory becomes a curiosity; was the point to actually make me drop stuff or be considerate of what I’m picking up? It fails so miserably at making inventory management a strategic concern that it might as well not be there or players not even realize that it is; it’s so easy to get stamina healing items, or to craft them, or to survive moments where your stamina is low with brute force from the weapons/tools you have from being over-encumbered, that it makes it worth not caring about what you pick up for the most part and only care when being close to progressing the game.

Having said all of that, TLSA (obviously, given the length of this article) is a game I’ve thought about a lot and have enjoyed even more; I’m almost never wanting a hardcore roguelike experience and have bounced off games that I love because of traits of the genre (like Dead Cells which I love to play, but grew weary of after 25 hours of failing again and again, and barely reaching the mid-way point). TLSA is a shorter, less intense experience that has some clever balancing and synergy to make it as replayable and fun as most other roguelikes, for players like me who enjoy a less intense experience. At its core, it is a great-playing ARPG-roguelike; smart synergies of well-thought-out systems, great design decisions surrounding the game loop and progression, dress up that core into something that I found satisfying, addicting, and chill, which makes for a great combination, especially in the roguelike genre.  

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