Right from the start, it’s hard to tell what Undawn is trying to be. Within the first hour, there are moments of action, crafting, motorcycle riding, town-building, decision-making, and resource management. This determination from the developers to cover all the basis isn’t unique to Undawn, but quickly descends into a ‘master of none’ situation, resulting in something that I struggled to truly engage with. Still, you’re here for specifics, so let’s get into it.
The setup is pretty simple, if not formulaic. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s been a zombie apocalypse! You are one of the few survivors, forced to trek through the generic grey wilderness in a constant struggle. On the road, you meet new friends – including Sherry, who I’ve dubbed ‘Tifa on a budget’ due to her striking similarities with the Final Fantasy character – as you stumble across settlements and holds, join groups, and unravel the reasons for the end of the world as we know it. I think it’s fair to say that if you’ve played basically any zombie game before, you know the drill.
The first thing you have to do is set up your character, and I have to admit, there is an incredible amount of flexibility when it comes to this. If you want to take the time to make your avatar a fitting representation of yourself, you can, right down to the minutiae. For those like me, who really don’t care what their zombie slayer looks like, there are some presets too, so either way, you can play how you want to play.
In terms of combat, Undawn delivers plenty of zombie-massacring moments a la Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead. This, as it should be, is where Undawn is at its best. The ammo system can be a little tedious, but if you’re looking for a game where you can spend as long as you want firing shotgun shells at the undead, this is it. The fight always seems fair, and you don’t have to wait to get into the action. In fact, after a bit of gunfire, I was having a decent time with this one, but then, everything else just got in the way.
Movement in the world of Undawn is decent enough, but it can be a little too easy to fire your shotgun when you’re just trying to sprint using touch controls. Things get a bit worse when you unlock vehicles, though. The motorbike is a great idea on paper. It serves well in Days Gone, so why wouldn’t it work well here? Touch screen controls, that’s why. Sure, going down a straight road is easy enough, but any turns require you to engage with some serious clunk.
Then, of course, there’s the crafting. I tend to find any sort of camp-building or fortifying mechanic tedious, it’s the reason I put down Fallout 4, and it’s nothing special here. I, personally, could skip the crafting. It could not be there for all I care. Still, I know readers might appreciate it, so I’ll delve a little deeper.
Using a workbench, you can create fixtures for homes before those homes in the various outposts across the game world. You can do that, but I chose to spend my time avoiding it outside of mandatory tutorials as, unfortunately, it feels just as clunky as motorcycle riding. I know, you’re looking for a different adjective to ‘clunky’, but this is dictionary definition stuff, it feels outdated, and I can only really see those who really have a soft spot for this sort of mechanic engaging with it for a long time without getting frustrated or bored.
There are parts of this game that just make no sense to me. In the first 30 minutes alone, you’re forced to take a bath, wash your clothes, and take a dump. All of this with timers attached, so you can’t do anything else but watch your character do these things. That is with the exception of taking said dump, at which point the camera gets all discreet and flicks away to a tabby cat perching on a windowsill while your avatar unceremoniously drops log out of view. I just don’t get it. Sure, it’s a survival game, but the timer on activities mixed with the game forcing you to do banal stuff I don’t want to have to watch myself doing, let alone my avatar, turns some sections of Undawn into a real chore.
However, my biggest gripe with Undawn is the UI, which is overwhelming. When you’re playing, the screen is full of buttons and options. There’s a main menu that consists of eighteen tabs, then besides the main menu button, there are another eight options for things like the perks menu and shop. There’s the survival menu which details your hygiene and hunger and so on and honestly, there might be more menus, but I sort of lose track there. It just swamps you with notifications, and that gets in the way of the core experience.
The problem with the plethora of menus and options is that it makes me feel like there’s something I should be doing, but I’m not. This is the kind of the opposite of that feeling you get in something like Tears of the Kingdom or Skyrim, where you feel such freedom that you end up finding new things to do on your way to quest locations. Both the appearance and the function of all these menus and options complicate things, and you can easily spend ten minutes losing yourself in the admin when you could be out culling zombs.
As with many mobile games, there are plenty of resources you need to gather in order to build new lives for survivors and sustain them. Fortunately, Undawn is pretty forthcoming in this regard compared to other mobile titles, offering plenty of introductory bundles and easy-to-collect early-game resources. However, there is, just like with the UI, too much going on. So many different medicines and things you need to survive mixed up with weapon skins and cabinets for your safe house. It gets confusing quickly, even if you just stick to the bare minimum.
There’s a caveat in this review in that this game clearly isn’t made for me. This, like many other mobile games, requires consistent hours of gameplay and real attention to detail for in-game resources. For me, there should be more of an emphasis on zombie killing, rather than fetch quests, crafting, and peculiar minute-long musical sections that feel, and I’m slightly sorry to say it, like filler. Especially that musical moment, which I won’t ruin for you, but is completely out of touch with the tone of the rest of the introductory segment, and does make you question whether you might have accidentally slipped something psychedelic into your morning coffee.
Fortunately, while the mechanics often do their best to get in your way, there are no issues with performance to add to that. I played on an iPhone 13 and had no problems, if anything, I was quite impressed with how smooth it all is. Still, smooth graphics don’t make much difference to how it feels to play, and for me, it doesn’t feel that great. Things are a bit easier using a mobile gaming controller, but even then, you’re a touch rigid, moreso when it comes to motorcycle travel.
I can’t round out this review without mentioning microtransactions, and while the game is fairly generous with gifts and rewards, adverts for in-game promotions are everywhere you go. Of course, you don’t need to engage with these, but they’re incredibly prominent, from first-buy deals to season pass upgrades. If you can find the value in the game, go ahead and open your wallet, but I personally think the game could benefit from scaling back slightly and drawing your attention to less but in a more meaningful way. Unfortunately, that doesn’t makes the big bucks, so here we are.
All in all, there’s something to appreciate in Undawn for a specific kind of gamer, though, to quote Bob Dylan, it ain’t me, babe. While the zombie killing is as fun as it should be, almost everything else drags Undawn back like a member of the undead with a particularly firm grip. That, sadly, is not a grip I am keen to feel again.
Despite a solid core of zombie-killing action and a seriously impressive character creator, Undawn finds too many ways to dilute the action into something that struggles to move at an entertaining pace. With overwhelming UI, too many resources to keep track of, and grisly movement mechanics in place, this is one for those who desperately want to replicate the motorcycle-riding zombie-killing thrills of Days Gone and few others.