Zombi for Xbox One is a horror game at odds with itself, frequently wavering between tension caused by inventory management and the decision to avoid or engage the undead, and moments of frustration with the games sticking to horror game conventions, slow response at times, and general drudge.
The dead walk
ZombiU rises again in the form of Zombi for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, trading in the WiiU gamepad for conventional controller and keyboard controls. While a competent launch title for the troubled Nintendo console, feelings could be found that the zombie title could do better if it weren’t shackled by the never good-for-gamers console exclusivity. Fast forward and we’re granted our reprieve from the typical zombie bad-ass simulator and put in the shoes of a random survivor in London.
Zombi does a fantastic job at throwing the player to the wolves, or zombies as it were, early on with little to no explanation. We the player wake up to a metro overrun by the undead, and are quickly in contact with a man calling himself “The Prepper”. This faceless guide serves as the tutorial and information hub from which we get tidbits about weapons, locations, and general exposition about the background as to what has happened recently.
As the story of Zombi progresses, we meet a few other characters that add in to the overall effort to cure the zombie plague and find there were prophecies, deception, and twists and turns that add to the overall dark tone of the entirety of Zombi’s narrative. While there is a story to Zombi and most of it fits well with the ambiance of a foggy and desolate London, Zombi also falls into zombie/apocalypse conventions almost too quickly.
As soon as the player is starting to explore and figure out the world, we’re sent on the typical errands for other survivors. We’re tasked with getting to a safe house, finding gasoline, tracking down medicine, and more. The real letdown here is that while Zombi indeed feels different mechanically, it had a chance to tell something of a compelling story, but there’s little to no backbone to the narrative. The game almost assumes that we’re already a bit familiar with the Ravens and Vultures and prophecies mentioned. Exposition spouted by “The Prepper” and other characters sprinkled here and there pairs with notes and newspapers found around the world as well, but after a bit it all blurs together and just becomes “another zombie story”.
Down to the guts
At the core, Zombi is a mostly similar experience to its WiiU counterpart with reworked controls, better visuals, and swapped out visual cues for the inevitable quicktime events to remove items, unlock doors, or open storm drains. The true core of what could have made Zombi truly special is the mechanics and thought put into the pure gameplay.
Players begin each life with a cricket bat and a pistol, one being the preferred option for close range and the other a great option if possible to “thin out the herd” as it were. Firearms and upgrades for them can be found throughout the world and upgraded at a workbench found in safe houses throughout the game world. Players need to explore and find storm drains to open up fast travel points to get back to the main safe house in the London underground. The consequence of death in Zombi is respawning as a new character, with some neat touches like their own slight backstory in the way of previous employment. You’ll see policemen, criminals, traffic cops, and business folk if you die enough, and the game keeps track of your progress through survivors, but sometimes is at odds with this concept. The games quest givers in one instance in particular refer to the player as being back, even if you died and revisit them. This slight oversight aside, it’s a nice concept that sometimes can reward players for returning to their now infected corpse to claim their goods. The downside to this is that it encourages players that dying is somewhat ok, if not desirable in some instances as a fast travel option. Also of consequence is that it negates the need to save often, but we’ll get to that.
Finding ammunition, healing items, and even planks around the world to barricade doors is easy enough by plain looking but becomes much easier with the help of your scanner, mapped to the left bumper. The scanner receives some upgrades through the progression of the game and can identify items within containers from a distance, informing the player of if it’s worth their time or not to even head in that direction to check out. The scanner serves as a black light as well, illuminating some of the darker areas a bit better than the standard flashlight, but restricting movement entirely while it’s pulled up.
The scavenge for ammo, medical supplies, and quest items could easily be tipped toward the players advantage, but thankfully, Ubisoft and developer Straight Right, dot the landscape in just the right ways with supplies as to make them valuable. The risk/reward valuation of Zombi is impressive and more often than not the player will find a situation presented where they must decide if those handgun bullets are worth going through 3 zombies to attain. Zombi also deserves great credit for making less of a horde and more of a singular focus on the zombie threat. We finally are treated to a game that doesn’t make the player feel as though a one on two engagement is a cake walk. More than a few times you may notice 2-3 zombies roaming the streets, and after your first attempt to take down multiples at once, you’ll certainly become more tactical about your approach.
Foggy London town
London serves as an incredible backdrop for zombie fiction, as fans of the 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later films will know, the fog, architecture, and general ghastly vibe that London can evoke is simply engrossing. Although some settings seem repeated in the underground sewers, and in the latter part of the game, players will find themselves treading old ground to find tedious diary entries, the setting still does well and serves as a great backdrop. The only complaint is that there are no true expansive views or breathtaking vistas that London surely has, mostly confined to cool looking shots of the moon shining through trees or bouncing off a creepy statue in the right way do well and deliver, but could simply be expanded upon.
With some extremely unsettling locales such as the Tower of London, a terrifying nursery, and Buckingham Palace itself, Zombi does a good job of getting some incredible concept art to fruition in a way that is captivating but may go unnoticed by purists just trying to “get the jobs done”.
Scarier than zombies; Glitches
While playing Zombi, it may be apparent quickly that the game isn’t really pushing the technology forward in any leaps and bounds, but it must be said that during our time with the game a few issues were glaring. Holding LB to bring up the scanner on Xbox One would cause the interface to blink in and out quickly, and while at first it actually looked like a kind of interesting gameplay mechanic regarding signal degradation, after it happened the entire game it appears it was just a fault of programming.
This blinking or glitching of the UI was noticed also when inspecting containers for that sweet loot, where the backing visual would blink uncontrollably and caused a few sighs while playing. These two could be forgiven as they’ll likely get patched out. But after playing for a bit and nearing the endgame there was a crash. Games crash all the time, but the motivation for saving in Zombi is fairly low to non-existent due to the nature of respawning as a brand new survivor after death instead of loading a save. Saving takes the place of a “start here when you shut down then come back”, but when the game crashes of course it serves as a fallback. After having not necessarily been under the impression saving was vital in the game as loot can also be recovered from your infected body, this crash wiped roughly 2 hours of gameplay out, including a tedious scavenger hunt across multiple maps for diary entries.
The Bottom Line
Zombi kicks off scary game season in a good way, giving us something different for better or worse. The scarcity of ammunition, consequence of making noise or engaging multiple zombies, and the general feeling of dread the game conveys is very well done. If you can ignore the story mostly altogether, you’ll find Zombi a nice changeup in the repertoire of the zombie hunter. Crashes and glitching aside, the game gives a few scares, that feeling that you’ll never truly be ok, and really delivers what can be boiled down to a solid zombie experience.