ZOMBI Game Review: Slaughter As Self-Help

Ubisoft’s British zombie romp finally reaches non-Nintendo consoles.

I encountered a game-breaking glitch an hour and a half into Zombi. Cursory Googling revealed it was well-documented quest bug from the game’s original release as ZombiU three years ago, which had clearly stuck around for the port. The same is true of all the game’s weaknesses - and all of its strengths. If you played ZombiU, Zombi is the same game. If not, there’s a surprisingly interesting zombie game here for your Xbox One, PC, or PS4.

ZombiU was one of the few third-party Wii U launch titles to really harness the console’s potential (which few have done since). It used the Wii U’s GamePad in a number of clever ways: as a motion-control UV scanner, as a touchscreen minimap, and most crucially, to drag your eyes away from the TV to rummage around your non-game-pausing inventory. Those weren’t just gimmicks - they used the console’s unique features to heighten the tension of the gameplay. So how does Zombi port to platforms with none of those features?

Surprisingly smoothly. The Nintendo-specific features now map to button presses, and it plays as if the GamePad had never existed. Inventory screens, now an overlay, still don’t pause the game, keeping the original game’s furtive fumblings as tense as they’ve ever been. Otherwise, if you’ve played any first-person action game, you’ll be familiar with Zombi’s melee and ranged combat - maybe even disappointingly familiar. Luckily, the rest of the game is slightly different.

Zombi’s setting and story are a curious blend of cliche and inventiveness. It’s set in a quarantined London, which is exactly the bleak grey-brown you’re used to from this kind of game. But aside from an overabundance of sewers, that dreariness is kind of perfect for its miserable English urban locales. Ditto the types of zombie you’ll find wandering about: high-vis-clad police, Buckingham Palace guards, and spiky-haired punks are a pleasant and entertaining change from the Gap stylings of most zombie games.

The story, too, is at once overly familiar and happily weird. If you’ve seen one zombie-epidemic plotline, you’ve seen ‘em all. But this outbreak is apparently localised to London, and what’s more, has its roots in the work of alchemist, occultist, and Elizabethan royal advisor John Dee. One of the game’s various guide characters, the Prepper, is a full-blown conspiracy theorist and reptilian truther; another is a researcher desperately trying to save his wife. The story is much more significant than I expected it to be, and though it’s mostly handled through non-interactive voiceover, the interplay between the game’s various factions does create some entertaining moments.

But Zombi’s strengths don’t lie in its unwieldy combat, sluggish movement, or nearly-interesting story. Its cleverest mechanic - so clever it’s amazing it hasn’t appeared in a major title before - is the way it deals with death. When you die in Zombi, your character doesn’t respawn - they’re dead, permanently. Rather than respawning, you take control of a new survivor with randomly-generated attributes, while your previous character returns in the world as a zombie.* Want your gear back? Go find your zombie and kill it. Die on the way there, and your gear is gone forever. It’s Soulslike not just in that you drop everything when you die, but in that tension increases the further you get from your safehouse. This is a slower-paced zombie game than most, and it’s better for it. Trading on suspense and quiet rather than grue and noise works really well.

That you end up killing your former self is still ingenious three years on from the Wii U original. It’s kind of symbolic, too. Every time you respawn, you set out to kill the incarnation of yourself that failed the last time. You’re literally killing a weaker version of yourself in order to become more powerful. Is it catharsis? Is it a form of karma? Is it, in a sense, you conquering your own weakness? Everyone has something about themselves they’d like to change, and Zombi makes that process much more active and literal than any other RPG. It becomes a strangely philosophical process. I’m sure at least one self-help guru out there would love to use Zombi in their motivational talks.

Interestingly, despite its roguelike-like death mechanics and ostensibly open world, Zombi plays out pretty linearly. The scripted story takes you from place to place, and while you can explore independently, there’s not much point - all the key powerups are ones you get in the course of the narrative. There’s not even the degree of mandatory replaying found in many roguelikes. Upon death, you respawn back at the start of the game, but any shortcuts you’ve opened remain open, and your objectives persist from character to character.

Ubisoft’s half-gen scaleup of Zombi doesn’t bring much new to the table over its predecessor. But it does bring a modest but clever zombie game to many new players - players who are probably more likely to play a zombie game than the average Wii U owner. A unique infusion of roguelike mechanics into a surprisingly directed game, it’s still got everything it had going for it back in 2012. Even that gamebreaking glitch.

* The character-as-zombie thing also appeared in the 1986 adventure game (and Ubisoft’s first ever game!) Zombi. That has to be one of the longest gestations for a reboot in game history.

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