Review: Fail-Deadly (Win/Mac/Browser) A Free RTS You Play to Lose Against Yourself

fail deadly 3It’s that time of the year. The harvest has been wonderful this season. I am up to my armpits in wonderful triple-A sequels from all the biggest franchises in gaming today: The Elder Scrolls; Call of Duty; Assassin’s Creed; Saints Row; Batman; etc. The gaming life couldn’t be better. So how is it that I find myself slipping out late at night more and more to play a free indie RTS in my web browser? I’d like you to meet my mistress, Fail-Deadly. Shh! Don’t tell Skyrim!


Fail-Deadly couldn’t make a worse first impression. The title of the game slips out of my head faster than my anniversary date. The graphic style matches the all too clichéd retro 16-bit Indie aesthetic every third privately produced game uses these days. It straddles the line between real-time strategy and tower defense, two genres not exactly known for innovation. The game sports only a single map, completely devoid of terrain, and naught but one game mode. Heck, if it wasn’t for the Unity startup screen, I’d have assumed it was written in Flash. How then is it that this siren continues to pull me away from Riddler trophies and the Stormcloak rebellion night after night?

Because Fail-Deadly is fresh, original, and outright brilliant!

fail deadly 2The game begins on an empty map with a line down the middle. A red, nuclear missile armed headquarters is randomly placed on the left side, while the green HQ is placed on the right. You don’t play as either of these color coded hate mongers. The player takes control of a third, unrepresented team supplying arms to both red and green. Your goal is to create such a bloody quagmire of carnage that red and green launch their nuclear stockpiles at each other, thus eliminating two of your side’s rivals in one fiery instant. It is a delightfully twisted concept not usually seen outside of the diplomatic models of large 4X games like Civilization or Europa Universalis.

Every five seconds you are given a random unit production building, tech upgrade, or air strike to place on either side of the map. You have five seconds to do so or it’s Game Over as your stalling will reveal your nefarious intent. The timers are set at an infuriatingly perfect point. When the red forces are knocking on the green HQ’s front door it feels far too long, while those same five seconds tick by entirely too fast when both sides are happily pounding each other to a pulp in a perfectly balanced stalemate and you’ve just been handed a game changing production upgrade to dispense. The result is a fast paced game where you can’t act but once every five seconds, must act every ten, preserve both sides headquarters, and yet still keep the blood flowing to build the Threat level to the point where they nuke each other.

The main goodies you’ll be dishing out to the warring factions are production facilities for infantry, tanks, and helicopters. Each of these will automatically  generate units at a its own steady rate. These units form the basic rock-paper-scissors mechanics of the war. Although every unit’s ultimate goal is the enemy headquarters, they are not the mindless ‘creeps’ that dominate the tower defense and MOBA genres. Infantrymen will divert across the map to attack choppers who will change course to chase down armor units. This dash of autonomy not only avoids what could have reduced the firefights to single line attacks but makes the game feel more alive and adds to the nearly out of control feeling. Airstrikes will occasionally be given to you and are an easy out for erasing past placement mistakes while stationary defense guns are a fail-safe useful for backing up an HQ when things tip too far one way or the other. Where things really get really tricky are the tech power-ups. Each side can be upgraded three levels in the categories of weapons fire rate, armor, and production speed. These upgrades are the wildcards that will, more likely than not, cause your carefully engineered Jenga tower of destruction to come crashing down. The effects of a technological upgrade are significant, immediately noticeable, and permanent. Teching up a loosing side by doubling their rate of fire may stave off a seemingly losing proposition only to drastically swing the balance back the other direction a minute later. Fail-Deadly is nail-bitingly dramatic spectacle that frustrates in all the right ways.

fail deadly finUnfortunately, there are also a few unnecessary frustrations. There is a small border around the map edges where buildings cannot be placed yet there is no visual indication as to why this would not be allowed. Quite the opposite as it has the same faint grid lines as the rest of the map. It’s almost as if the viewport for the map is too large and non-interactive areas that should be reserved for the game’s interface have been left transparent. The random allocation of your next deployment, while keeping the game immensely repayable, is also an Achilles heel. One game started off with a point defense emplacement followed by two airstrikes making for an absurdly boring start. Another session began with a tank factory followed by two production upgrades and a infantry base quickly leading to failure. There will be games where the deck is simply stacked against you due to a bad roll of the dice. I also can’t help but feel that a little bit of terrain would go a long way in livening up the maps. Perhaps if the game catches fire we can hope for a full campaign featuring puzzle style challenges using preconfigured maps and building assignments with a more random skirmish mode on the side. A final missed opportunity is that the game has a score mechanic to grade your victories, yet no form of leaderboards, either online or off-, is present.

Even with these niggles, Fail-Deadly has kept me coming back for more time after time in a season where my hard drive is dominated by multi-million dollar blockbusters. The graphics, while milquetoast, are clear and easily distinguishable even under the most intense of firefights. Fail-Deadly’s generic bang-boom-ack sounds of war are wisely kept at low volume allowing an amazing soundtrack that combines overly dramatic world music with a twist of chiptunes to take center stage. The sudden silence and muffled call that the nuclear weapons are ready is both chilling and exhilarating, just like its concept of a puppet war.

Fail-Deadly was created by Josh Sutphin, a game designer whose previous credits include the PlayStation 3 online frag fest Warhawk. You can download Fail-Deadly for Windows and Mac PCs or play in a web browser via the Unity plug-in, all for free, at his blog thirdHELIX (Direct link to Fail-Deadly). An iOS version is currently in development with a release date of “soon”.

Reviewer Rating: 4/5 Stars – Chilling and Exhilarating4star


  1. sure the idea is great, but once you get the hang of it this game is INCREDIBLY easy and almost boring. By my third match I had gotten a score well over 1,000,000 and there was very little challenge in keeping the two armies balanced for as long as I wanted.

  2. Wow, nicely done. You are a much better strategist than I. While I did eventually get to a place where I could handily win most games, it took a whole lot more than three.