Way of Defector tasks you with surviving real-life inspired scenarios as you guide a North Korean defector to freedom in South Korea. The choices you make along the way will determine whether you complete this journey unscathed or end up being dragged back to North Korea for some terrible punishment.
The first thing that hits you about Way of Defector is what a terrifying experience this must have been for the people who made it through this dangerous journey. Developers, Dev Arc, interviewed real North Korean defectors about their experiences and used that to create an incredibly moving, thought-provoking game.
Way of Defector is essentially a board game. You move your character from location to location across China and perform a variety of tasks; all of which are determined by rolling dice. If you get a 5 or 6, then you successfully act. If you don’t, then, well, you don’t get to do anything.
Your aim is to gather five pieces of information on a broker who knows how to get people to South Korea. Once you have this information, you need to traverse this dangerous board to reach the broker and arrange safe passage.
This is straightforward enough, but there are Public Security Officers who will try to capture you and take you back to North Korea. There is also the fact that you need to eat as this journey takes months to complete. You never feel completely safe which I imagine is the same feeling that North Korean defectors have as they try to navigate this journey.
Each day you can perform a total of three actions. Each action can only be done once per day, but you can spend more time to add extra dice to your rolls. I won’t bore you by delving into each action. Suffice to say that you can earn money, spend money, rest and eat food and inquire about various things including information on the broker. There might seem like a lot, but you can only use specific actions in specific locations so it’s quite straightforward.
Essentially the beat of the game is: work for money, buy food, inquire about broker information, move to the location indicated, collect information, rinse and repeat. There is more to it than that, but I have broken it down into its simplest form.
Resting is something that you will need to do frequently. If you let your hunger meter run out you lose health each day you don’t eat. It quickly starts to snowball. You can also lose health through some of the choices that you make and then there are conditions. Conditions are inflicted through your choices or for failing on dice rolls. They will hamper you in different ways, and resting is the only way to remove them.
I mentioned the crackdown meter; it goes up a point each turn, and once it fills, Public Security Officers move around erratically and actively search for you. This the most dangerous time in the game, but you can prevent it from happening by reducing the gauge with the inquiry action mentioned above.
Way of Defector has five characters with different traits. They each have strengths and weaknesses as well as starting positions on the board. This means that your play styles will change with each character, but the goal and mechanics remain the same. Their addition is nice and once you save one person you’ll want to save another.
While each character offers a different challenge regarding gameplay, the main reason you will want to save them is not mechanical but emotional. That is where Way of Defector excels, in taking you on an emotional journey. If you played this exact same game, but you were helping convicted murderers escape to another country it would not have the same payoff. Instead, you feel you understand the quirks, flaws, and strengths of each character by the end. It has to be said, though, that the game is challenging (especially when playing as the unlocked characters). I have only managed to save one person despite numerous attempts and close calls.
I like this game. The concept is uniquely interesting. Far too often there is a tendency to see North Korea as a joke. Media and politicians laugh at its strangeness and can make us forget that there are real people just like you and me that are suffering under an oppressive state run by a dictator. North Koreans are at the point where they would make this enormous journey at the risk of imprisonment or death. Way of Defector brings home just how bad it must be for people to attempt this horrific trek.
My issues with Way of Defector are with its game elements. Mostly this relates to the dice system. The game resolves almost every decision through a simple dice roll. This includes capture, recovering health, gain money, gather the much needed broker information and so much more. The fact that you are always one unlucky dice roll away from capture and death emphasises how much luck plays its part in real life, but in a game, it ends up being frustrating.
I would not be surprised if people booted this game up, moved twice, got seen by a Public Security Offer, got captured, died and turned the game off never to come back. I don’t think much would have been lost by removing the dice rolls and having dialogue trees or at the very least giving more ways to alter the outcome.
It is understandable that the developers want the journey to feel unfair. After all what happens to these people isn’t even slightly fair. However, I feel that they needed to remember that they were also making a game. For people to understand and play long enough to receive the message it needs to be playable. Once you get the hang of how the game’s systems work and how to move through the map things become easier, but it takes commitment.
Speaking of the game’s systems; some things feel very out of place. For example, reducing the Public Security Crackdown meter by gathering information doesn’t make narrative sense. It feels like the developers couldn’t find another way to manage the gauge.
Having ‘quests’ is another strange choice that seems very out of place and poorly chosen. In a game that is inspired by real world, horrific events, quests seem to be an overly ‘gamey’ term to use considering what these objectives mean to these people. Perhaps this is a poor translation after all Dev Arc are South Korean.
This brings me on to the rest of the writing in the game. Mostly, it does a poor to middling job at explaining things. The English doesn’t always make sense, and the game is littered with spelling mistakes. This is undoubtedly due to the game being made by non-English native speakers. However, it does impact the tutorial and explanation of the game’s core systems.
Way of Defector is punishing and unforgiving. If I wasn’t reviewing this game, would I have given it so many chances to shine? Probably not. And that would have been to my detriment. I clocked four hours on Way of Defector. That feels like enough considering how cheap the game is and the repetition of the actions you perform. However, if you wanted to wring it for everything it has there are achievements for you to hunt. Unless you have fallen head over heels in love with the dice-based gameplay, I doubt you will. However, it is a unique game that forces you to think about North Korea and consider the pain and suffering of its population. Due to that, and it being extremely cheap, I can recommend it to you.
Way of Defector is a tricky game. It really affected me, and I found myself becoming attached to the person I was trying to guide. However, since the dice rolls felt so unfair and removed my agency from the outcome it always left me feeling unsatisfied. Perhaps the developers were going for this. It’s a game that makes you consider the world at large and the suffering that some people have had to go through just to live without oppression. I can recommend it for that reason alone. But if you are expecting a deep and rewarding gameplay experience you won’t find it here.
This article was originally published on Old Grizzled Gamers. Unfortunately, this site is no longer with us. To give this review a new life, I’ve reposted it here. Enjoy!