Now, I forget which it is: are we, as a culture, at the point where we’re past the whole “zed” thing thanks to a glut of undead-themed artistry, or was it that we’re past the whole “being past the whole ‘zed’ thing” thing thanks to a glut of critics railing against an assumed glut of undead-themed artistry? Brain… hurt…
Regardless, here’s Zombies!!! (add the “!!!” yourself from here on out) the mobile adaption of Twilight Creations’ boardgame of the same name, courtesy of devs Babaroga. Is it yet another in a long line of successful jumps from tabletop to tablet? Or… wait… here it comes… right now… is it… dead on arrival? Or.. maybe just okay. Always a third option I suppose.
Now, there’s something of an inherent bias when it comes to boardgames (as well as console releases and PC titles) ported to mobile devices. Wouldn’t you know it, maybe the reason we have so many great ports of preexisting games is because those games are already games, and games known for being good games. (Well, it was a revelation to me. Games!)
Point being, the base Zombies digital game is identical to the cardboard one, mechanically speaking. Players are survivors rushing towards a helicopter escape via the rotted streets of some Smalltown, Anywhere. The twist is that those streets aren’t laid out from the start: each turn a player draws a tile and chooses where to place it, and the very last tile is the helipad. The map is built as the game progresses and, barring some probabilistic fluke or unimaginative friends, is never the same.
This is big. While Zombies has other mechanics that pull the appropriate genre-conscious strings–players can scavenge health and bullets which help in fights with deadies, and every turn affords the opportunity to play some gruesome trick out of a hand of event cards–it’s the evolving, unpredictable map that really evokes the surreal panic of a zombie apocalypse. You can run, but where to? Will your pal put the hospital down next to you, with all it’s life saving medicine? Or will he block off your road with, ugh, the friggin’ gardening shop.There’s opportunities for dickery with the events cards, too, specials you can play once per turn. Some are just location specific bonuses to combat, or allow for extra moves in a turn. Others let you swarm a player’s location with zeds or prevent said player from moving, the latter being deadly effective in a game where movement and scavenging are key to survival. The coveted “Alternative Food Source” stops all combat until your next turn, great for making a run at the helipad, or for delaying another player’s attempt at a combat victory.
Ah, yes, the combat victories. Zombies actually presents two ways to win: the first (and most interesting, honestly) being to escape via the helipad, the second being to… uh, just sort of kill 25 zombies. Hmm. This… makes a kind of sense, sort of. Without the possibility of a combat victory, games could drag on longer than most would bear, especially considering that even with combat victories a match can take a while.
But, at the same time, the combat victory is a rule that seems like it’s only there to patch up a hole in the game’s hull, and obviously so at that. Combat isn’t the interesting thing about Zombies; it’s only basic dice rolls modified by a player’s ammo count and health, after all. Bullets are spent to bolster low rolls. Get a 4, 5, or 6, and you kill the zed. 3s and under mean you have to re-roll by spending a heart. Run out of hearts, and you die. “Dying” in this case meaning you respawn at the center of the map with half your kills and the basic health and ammo count again. Not exactly the most dire of apocalypses, this.
These are gripes, but small ones. The combat victory ultimately doesn’t take away from the panicky joy of a good Zombies match. Even when a player is close to popping that 25th head, chances are someone’s close enough to the helipad to at least try a desperate rush to the chopper.
What can, and does, take away from the specific joy of Zombies, however, is a totally nonsensical art style. It’s a testament to how solid Zombies is as a game–that is, as a series of interlocking rules and mechanics–that my biggest issue with the digital title is how it looks. But, gods, it looks bad. Big cartoony heads, a bright, too-busy map, featureless zombies, characters hopping around on discs like boardgame pieces come to life–it’s the worst kind of casual gaming genericness. The characters even speak in some kind of word-bubble Simlish in the cutscenes preceding each match. Bleh.
I could forgive (or at least tolerate) this look if it was implemented fully. But it isn’t: the event cards in Zombies digital are lifted straight from Zombies the boardgame, which means vaguely Zynga-esque pablum sits next to grisly, darkly comedic pulp. What should have been a sweaty, surreal nightmare is instead a knock-off Candyland (but Princess Frostine is eating Lord Licorices’ brains). You could assume the devs were aiming for a wider audience, but, if that’s the case, why not cut the cards featuring, oh, you know, a detailed closeup of a half-eaten hand?
As an admitted “mechanics guy,” I can’t fault Babaroga’s Zombies!!! too much for going half-kiddie on the aesthetics. (But I can call said choice out as dumb.) In terms of the base game, there’s not much value added here. If that base experience is all you’re interested in, and you’ve both the means and the friends, just buy the boardgame. Still, this digital Zombies!!! adds some extra modes (including a neat-enough horde-style survival mode) and the ability to tweak the rules if you care to. If the promised online multiplayer (the game’s local play only as of writing) materializes, Zombies!!! could be a fitting solution for those who like their undead apocalypse games cutthroat,unpredictable, and without the added difficulty that comes with orchestrating a tabletop get-together. It’s a game that’s faithful to the original where it really counts, but only just.
The game was played on the iPad for this review.