Published on August 3rd, 2015 | by Tom May0
Coffin Dodgers – Review
There’s something instantly appealing about the premise of Coffin Dodgers – developer Milky Tea‘s first attempt at making a PC game after some previous background in mobile gaming and graphic design. An eclectic gang of seven senior citizens decide to face their impending mortality head-on by challenging the Grim Reaper to a high-stakes game of chance to get a second chance at life. That game of chance just so happens to be kart racing. With mobility scooters. It’s an amusing and relatively unique take on a rather staid genre. But if Coffin Dodgers proves anything, it’s that a fun concept will only get you so far. And that fun in concept doesn’t necessarily mean fun to play.
One glance at the game’s main menu would tell you that there’s a fair bit of content on offer for a £8.99 ($10.99 US) indie release. Like any decent kart game, you’re giving both your single player and multiplayer outings with a couple of different modes that try to do things a little differently than the vanilla race mode. Other than the story mode and quick race option, single player also provides time trials, as well as two ‘open world’ modes called ‘Explore’ – a largely aimless experience that lets you roam about in one big unified track comprised of all the smaller ones you come across in the story mode – and ‘Crazy Granddad’, which takes the spacious mega-track of Explore and throws in a timed scavenger hunt for bizarre knick-knacks. Meanwhile multiplayer has ‘Snatch’ for its online portion, which is Crazy Granddad but with other people to compete with, and the local splitscreen option has Explore again for those that fancy wasting up to four people’s time rather than just their own.
Anyone who’s played their share of kart games probably isn’t going to be surprised to hear that there’s nothing terribly enticing about these alternate modes. They’re distractions at best, utilizing a map that’s a little too big and winding for its own good. But that’s fine, right? It’s not the sort of thing that’d detract from a good story mode and a functional online multiplayer. Unfortunately Coffin Dodgers has neither, and what’s there instead is built upon a framework that just doesn’t play in an enjoyable way.
The ideas behind Coffin Dodgers’ story mode are entirely fine. The structure isn’t all too dissimilar to what you’d find in Mario Kart: four cup analogues where you race against AI-controlled opponents across three different races with the goal of getting enough points to qualify for the next ‘cup’, ending with a final race to wrap things up. Each cup follows a particular theme, and each of the three tracks under that cup are meant to be different. Sadly, the tracks all feel very same-y with nigh identical surroundings and a layout that doesn’t do enough to differentiate it from the one that preceded it. Variation doesn’t just suffer under each cup, I’d say it’s a problem across the board. These different themes that each part of the story mode adheres to aren’t so terribly different from one another when it comes down to it. Even now I’m having trouble remembering many differences between The Village, The Town, The Farm, and The Graveyard. These different themes amount to some minor changes in background scenery that has very little effect when everything ends up feeling so same-y. Turn the sky midnight purple and slap some tombstones on top of The Town track and you basically have The Graveyard. The final Showdown track inadvertently shows just how homogenised all the tracks feel when it combines the features of all of them together and the only things that really stood out for me was that there were only two laps instead of four and it felt a bit longer.
Coffin Dodgers even tries to add a few interesting wrinkles that aren’t so commonly seen in the genre; you’re given the responsibility of upgrading your chosen racer’s mobility scooter over time, for one. As with many things in Coffin Dodgers it sounds great on paper, but it falls flat in practice. You buy your upgrades with coins earned from doing well in races, though getting anything less than first place gets you a pretty meagre haul. The upgrades are also pretty expensive compared to what you earn on average, enough that you’re not going to be able to get everything by the end of those twelve races in total. So if you want more than a few of the upgrades, you’re going to have to put your nose to grindstone and replay some (a lot) of races. Maybe that still sounds fairly doable, especially if you don’t mind grinding it out for some tangible rewards. It’ll certainly make the woefully short story mode feel like it’s a lot longer than it actually is. But here’s the thing about replaying races: you can only replay a race from the screen that pops up immediately after finishing it. If you accept your placing and go back to the main story menu, that’s it. You’re locked out. You can never play that track again with the same save file. So if you want to get enough coins for all those upgrades, there’s going to be quite a few back-t0-back races to look forward to. It gets mind-numbing dull quickly, and matters aren’t helped any by the loose, unpolished gameplay that underpins it all.
But then it turns out that the upgrades themselves aren’t anything special either. Your speed, acceleration, handling, melee weapon, and your control over pickups are your big upgrades. But you’d have a hard time feeling said upgrades once you get them, and some of them – speed and acceleration in particular – feel actively detrimental by the time you get them thanks to overly twisty late-game tracks that your shiny new mega-scooter is just too fast for. I muddled through my first playthrough with only middling upgrades and did well enough against the particularly luck-based final race. It was only during my second playthrough of the story mode for the sake of being thorough that I discovered how to earn so many coins. Take it from me: it isn’t worth it.
But even if you’re not interested in grinding out enough coins for all those disappointing upgrades, you’re still not entirely free of that questionable decision to only be able to replay races from the results screen. Thanks to the story’s conceit with the game against the Grim Reaper, characters are eliminated at the end of each cup if they didn’t score high enough. At first it’s only the dead last loser who has their soul torn from them, being left a mindless zombie kart racer so that the races can continue to have the requisite eight competitors. But in each cup afterwards it ramps up exponentially, with more characters being eliminated every round. That can include you if you’re not careful, which thanks to how replaying races works means you’ll have to start the story over again if you had a particular bad run of luck. That is unless you keep trying at each race until you place first, just to be sure that you don’t end up on the chopping block thanks to a nasty twist of fate that seem all too common in kart racers. Perhaps I’m being overly cynical but it almost feels as though you’re being encouraged to grind in order to pad out what little there is in Coffin Dodgers‘ story mode. With the races often feeling like something of a chore already, this doesn’t seem like an especially effective move on Milky Tea’s part.
Aside from the inclusion of a chargeable melee attack (that happens to be pretty haphazard to use on a controller) and an absence of a sorely missed hop, Coffin Dodgers follows the general concept of a kart game quite closely. Wacky courses with a number of obstacles, speed boost pads, ramps, and object pickups. But the obstacles are few, the speed boosts and ramps often feel like they have little-to-no benefit over just avoiding them entirely, and the objects you pick up are either ineffective, handle badly, or a combination of the two. The driving itself feels floaty and cumbersome with a lack of control that isn’t entirely negated by upgrades. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of playing Coffin Dodgers is the poorly tuned consequences for crashing. Whether that’s crashing for driving too fast into a solid wall or obstacle (which isn’t in itself a bad idea, at least if the karts handled better and the crashes weren’t so poorly handled) or from being taken out by an opponent’s weapon, you’re thrown from your mobility scooter and treated to a few seconds worth of watching your character lifelessly ragdoll about. You then reappear exactly where you first became unseated, which feels more than a little jarring thanks to the small eternity you just spent watching your character slide forward in some grim mockery of progress. A few seconds might not sound like a lot but that’s often all the game needs to throw you from first all the way down to fourth or fifth. Worse if you’re unlucky enough to have another rocket shot at you just as you respawn. The process begins anew and now you’re dead last, and, yes, this just happens to be the last lap. It’s the kind of punishment that only compounds on the often infuriatingly random nature of the kart genre, something that could do with having less attention drawn to it rather than more.
Finally, there’s the online multiplayer. Or at least there should be. Despite the most recent patch to the game trying to make the multiplayer both more viable with the inclusion of bots and more enticing with some new achievements, finding an online game of Coffin Dodgers has been, at least in my experience, an impossibility.
There are things to like about Coffin Dodgers, namely in some aspects of its presentation. The art style may be a bit simplistic and rough around the edges compared to what you may be used to but there’s a certain charm to the game’s low-fi, colourful looks, even if the tracks tend to blend together as a result. And the music also strikes the right level of madcap appropriate to the increasingly manic situation of OAPs, zombies, and the Grim Reaper racing about town in a decidedly Danny Elfman-like tone, though after hearing the same few themes it will quickly begin to wear on you.
Even as a budget indie title, it’s difficult to excuse all of Coffin Dodgers‘ faults and recommend it, no matter how much I went into the game wanting to like it. Almost every aspect of the game feels half-baked and underdeveloped, and while it’d be nice to believe that with some more time Milky Tea could have pulled off a more compelling game overall, the fact is that Coffin Dodgers already had that chance during a period of early access on Steam. After ending the story mode a second time with the not-so-secret character you unlock, there’s a new ending that teases a potential sequel with a new cast of characters. Again, the concept intrigues me. Hopefully, if Coffin Dodgers 2 ever sees the light of day, it’ll be in the form of something more refined than what’s currently on offer.
Coffin Dodgers is available now on PC via Steam.