An amusing premise can't save this cart racer from mediocrity
Disclosure: An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for this review
Edit: 2016-August-03 - Images removed due to upload issues
Coffin Dodgers is an interesting game. It made a strong first impression - the visual style is pleasing albeit basic, and its narrative framing is unique and amusing - but once that first impression wanes, there is very substance to the game to back it up. More than anything, the game feels thin and lacking in content.
Coffin Dodgers is a cart racer in the vein of Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing from UK-based developer Milky Tea Studios. Set in a retirement village, the game's characters drive "pimped-up" mobility scooters which have been armed with a variety of weapons. After the Grim Reaper settles in the village, seven of its residents make a deal with him: if they win a mobility scooter racing tournament, the Grim Reaper will allow them to live.
This tale forms the basis of the game's campaign mode. Though it is very basic - a short scene to open and close the story, with occasional text between races, is the full extent of the narrative - it is fairly amusing and provides a reasonable justification for the rest of the game. It makes the game feel weirdly charming despite the grim overtones (even if the player wins the tournament, the six other competitors are doomed to their fate at the hands of the Grim Reaper). At one point, I was driving around as the Grim Reaper wielding an Uzi; it's difficult to not at least appreciate a game that allows that.
The charming nature is built on by the visual style of the game. Technically the game's look is rather poor (some elements are reminiscent of an upscaled PS2 game or Crazy Taxi on the Dreamcast), but the use of bright colours and a consistent style makes the world inviting nonetheless. There are only a limited number of track settings, but those that are present are well-designed and visually pleasing. Each setting typically has three tracks, and has elements that are unique to those tracks. For instance, "The Farm" tracks have UFOs that are attempting to abduct sheep. This both gives these levels a distinctive look and adds a new hazard as the UFOs beam can damage the scooters.
However, the goodwill that Coffin Dodgers has earnt up to now does not overcome the fact that the rest of the game just isn't that good. The game's sense of style is almost entirely undermined by the sound design and a clunky interface. The music initially sounded fine, but as far as I can tell most of the tracks are variants of a single theme. Within just a two or three races, the music starting feeling very repetitive and was borderline obnoxious towards the end of the game. It certainly isn't helped by the fact that there is not much other audio in the game - engine sounds are quiet, there is no voice acting or narration either in or between races, and the weapon sound effects lack impact.
Furthermore, the game's interface is poorly thought out in places, and there are numerous small issues that should have been fixed prior to launch. There is just a general lack of polish, and it seems, at times, that Coffin Dodgers shipped before someone got around to finalising the UI. For instance, there is no way to differentiate between tracks within a setting - they are merely called Track 1/2/3. It's functional, but feels like a placeholder.
More irritating are the restrictions in story mode. It is only possible to retry a track from the results screen; once I moved on from that track, the only way to go back and try for a better ranking is to start story mode from scratch. This isn't helped by the fact that a race cannot be restarted midway through in story mode (despite the option showing in the pause menu). Multiple times I knew I wouldn't get the result I wanted, but I was forced to play out the remaining laps to get to a working try again option. It's a baffling decision to do this, as all of the other modes allowing restarting mid-race. Another inconsistency is that the tutorial at the start of story mode instructs the player to avoid traffic cones, yet XP is awarded for hitting them. Stranger still is that XP seems to have no function outside of incrementing a counter in the menu, again leading me to wonder if the game was released before it was really ready.
The game has a roster of eight playable characters (seven retirees plus the Grim Reaper), but it's not really clear why. As far as I could tell, every character plays exactly the same. There didn't seem to be a "this guy's fast but weak" versus "this guy accelerates slowly but has a great top speed" sort of trade-off, which is something I would have expected when given a choice of racer. This seems mainly due to the fact that the upgradable scooter is shared by all of the characters. The vehicle upgrades are purchased using coins earnt in story mode, though the upgrade remain functional in the game's other modes. An upgradable vehicle is nice in theory, but like the rest of the game feels very shallow; just maxing out top speed was enough to win all of the game's story races, rendering the other upgrades (acceleration, grip, melee weapon, item pickup slots) largely pointless.
These periphery issues could largely be ignored if the actual racing was of a high enough standard. It's fine, but nothing to write home about, and certainly not good enough to excuse the other issues with the game. The handling generally felt good, though taking anything more than a gentle turn results a massive loss of speed. Coupling with the inability to drift through corners, this meant the handling was perhaps a little too sensitive - a slightly too sharp turn could easily result in going from 1st to 5th place. The game's frame rate frequently drops for seemingly no reason, making it all too easy to oversteer by mistake. With a few tweaks and performance improvements, the racing would be serviceable, but in its current state it quickly becomes frustrating.
In terms of combat, there is a melee attack (swing a walking stick at the racer in front) and item pickups. The melee attack was tricky to use effectively, as its hit area seemed to be very small. The item pickups are pretty much the standard fair - oil slick, missile, gun, shield, EMP blast, boost - and there is nothing particularly new or noteworthy compared to other games in this genre.
In terms of content, there isn't much to Coffin Dodgers. The story mode goes through all of the tracks in the game (4 laps per race), yet can be completed in under two hours. After beating the story mode once, the Grim Reaper is unlocked as a playable character. Replaying the story mode with the Grim Reaper reveals a hidden ending, but the rest of the mode is identical. The Grim Reaper even continues to taunt the player, meaning that the Grim Reaper is basically taunting himself. The hidden ending also closes with a potential sequel tease, which is a little difficult to swallow given that this release is so lacking in content.
Outside of the story mode, there is 2-4 player local split-screen, time trials, an exploration mode and the "Crazy Granddad" mode. The open world mode is neat, as it appears to show how all of the game's tracks form a continuous space, but other than that it feels pointless. The Crazy Granddad mode is a Crazy Taxi inspired mode where players must race towards an item, and the direction towards it is indicated by a large arrow at the top of the screen. The winner is the player who collected the most items at the end of the time limit. This mode is fine, but I can't see it having any lasting appeal.
In conclusion, Coffin Dodgers is an interesting concept, but the game as a whole falls flat. The lack of content and the general unfinished feeling makes it an overall unsatisfying game to play. With some fairly major patches, Coffin Dodger could be molded into a reasonable cart racer, but the state it was released in is not that. As it stands, there is little reason to play this game.