Matt’s note: I loved Zombi U but haven’t played this one–that said, I did love lots that Nick didn’t about the game (characters, setting etc.) So if roguelike zombie killing in London piques your interest, I’d still 100% heartily recommend Zombi U; it’s one my top games of this gen. I can’t praise it enough–it was a beautiful way to start off the Wii U and flew under almost everyone’s radar. I’m looking forward to getting my own hands on the update. That said, Nick wasn’t quite as fond of it, and I want to play it myself and see if it was the Wii U -> everything else transition that didn’t do it any favours, or if it just wasn’t his cup of tea. There’s no such thing as an objective review!
After getting off on most certainly the wrong foot, I was relieved to enjoy Zombi for what fun it offered, even considering the array of disagreeable design decisions demonstrated from the onset. Zombi has successfully stuck the landing in the realm of PS4, Xbox One and PC after jumping from Wii U exclusivity, but the inherent process of shedding tablet-infused high jinks during that leap has taken away the only factors that made this title distinguishable from every other piece of zombie fiction. The name change captures this notion neatly – Zombi U minus the Wii U became Zombi, a generic name for a generic game.
Let’s start positive. The setting of Zombi is interesting and each location in the game looks distinct from one another, even if they all feel similarly drab, unsafe and vaguely displeasing. London streets, sewers, apartment blocks and… a castle… are all interesting backdrops for killing the dead.
Combat situations play out roughly the same throughout the game, jumping between frantic close-combat scenarios and open spaces littered with walking corpses, with the odd unique event popped in here and there. The levels are linear and straightforward in design, and gameplay becomes predictable once the player picks up on the pacing. However, the action is fun, with a wide yet manageable selection of weapons – and limited space to store them – offering variety in methods for delivering satisfying damage against enemies. Firearms are fun to use, though it is drilled into the player very quickly, and excessively, that ammunition is rare; it doesn’t take long to become comfortable with the cricket bat. I love the mechanics for preparing and swinging melee weapons; it’s logical and painless, yet still requires a bit of effort and time management to pull off successful hits. There’s nothing scarier than moving in to swipe a zombie and missing completely, placing yourself within reaching distance.
I found I quickly learned to anticipate a zombie around every corner, and prepped my melee weapon to suit. Executing the walking dead quickly feels like clockwork, which backfires when reaching enemies strapped with scuba suits, flammable tank included. “Flammable”, which means the tank is ridiculously explosive, as demonstrated upon exposure to any measure of contact rating above a pinch; even if you take the head of a scuba zombie off with one clean swing, the tank explodes, and you are instantly dead, obviously. Idiot.
The player’s character – or “protagonist”, I guess you could say – is as blank as can be, and can be interchanged with literally any other person in the world, as they repeatedly are following each consecutive death. If you pass away during a fast-paced situation – wherein NPCs frantically shout narrative and encouragement at you – a new similar-sized human will pop neatly into your space, and these NPCs will carry on dialogue as if you’re one and the same as that freshly animated corpse over there. The game pretends there is some logical way for the new protagonist to know what their predecessor was told and what tasks they’ve completed. Of course there technically is – the player – but this situation makes it glaringly obvious the game is addressing you, yes you, with the controller in your hands, and using you as a crutch for the narrative, as opposed to weaving an actual narrative. The player is never given a moment to be immersed in this world, because there’s never a moment when the protagonist feels anything like a real person; they are merely a vessel for your real-world puppetry.
A follow-on issue with having a nothing-whatsoever character is that it makes death mean absolutely nothing. “Oh no! When your character dies, they’re gone! Forever! What a game changer!” Beyond the spawning of a new zombie with your predecessor’s appearance and loot to defeat, the world remains entirely unchanged by the loss of your character, and death is a mere momentary hindrance just as it is in every other shooter. The difference is that these other shooters don’t hold this intrinsic game mechanic high as a unique selling point. I’m really not sure what the development team were going for; you can’t expect players to mourn the loss of a plain white canvas, and even less so when they have an entire art supplies store on call.
While most of my frustrations with Zombi rarely rise above niggling-pain-in-the-bum status, there are some major issues with the execution of narrative and audio that cannot be passed. The writing is, of course, an absolute joke, relying on every zombie trope you’ve ever seen/read/played before to string together any excuse to go from this level to that, this survival situation to that crowded gunfight. Even by video game standards – which, as an aside, everyone seems to have silently agreed are at a certain height which is significantly lower than they ought to be – the overall narrative is uninteresting and the dialogue consists of dull, trite drivel, and is horrendously framed for a contemporary video game. There are relatively shining moments of sensible, logical and interesting monologue, but I hope you’ll excuse me, for an example of this eludes my memory.
The delivery of the narrative is far from passable in Zombi, with poor game design choices failing to accommodate for any consistent or immersive narrative. In one instance, I completed a mission: “Find and return these notes”. I stood and obediently waited for an NPC to complete his soliloquy so I could receive my next quest. After a minute I realised my new objective was already shown to me and removed from my HUD; was I supposed to draw my attention to the objective and ignore the speech? If I was supposed to be captivated in the story as I pretended I was, notify me of what to do next after you allow the narrative to have its moment in the sun, and not as it begins. Unless you recognise the plot is utter nonsense, in which case oh, silly me. Of course.
At another point, a character that had recently accused me of foolishness, selfishness, and, above all else, betrayal, and subjected me to the silent treatment chimed in to cheekily tell me he used to “shoot gnats up the arse” with a weapon I’d just picked up. If your character is so unbelievably furious with me, don’t have him telling me totes quirky anecdotes hahalol. This is some basic shit to miss.
Technical issues with audio execution plague this game. While the music, sounds and voice are well performed and recorded I’m sure, there are several awkward situations where audio alone brought the game down a peg or five, due to the implementation of these recordings. In the above case of the silly soliloquy, each line was separated with three whole seconds of silence. This sort of delivery does a lot to spoil any shred of atmosphere. The protagonist’s rising grunts to screams as they swipe at zombies is more horrifying than any noise from any enemy, and unsuitable for the tone of the title. This could be an attempt at sneaky subtext referring to the animalistic horrors residing within living humans, but I highly doubt that.
The change in music one might expect to signify an impending battle, or a resolved conflict, is often misplaced so that one may be mistaken for the other. That moment when the thumping, driving score suddenly cuts, and you continue to fight a group of zombies in complete silence gives the impression that the game is somehow at fault, as if it accidentally pressed skip on the stereo, or unplugged the power. This is poor implementation of something that could have built an immersive experience.
In the end, I’m not entirely upset I played Zombi. I had anticipated a survival thriller with plot, strategy, sacrifice and consequence, and instead was delivered a shallow plate of refried, lukewarm action, more in the vein of Call of Duty than The Last of Us. As a spooky, snail-paced and content-light shooter, Zombi does pretty well. As advertised, it underperforms.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Zombi by Ubisoft.
Props to Ubisoft’s trailer team, this promo has better direction and plot twists than the game itself. Even if all the reviewers’ quotes are delusional nonsense.