ZombiU released as a third-party exclusive for the Wii U in 2012 and while it met with mixed critical reactions, it quickly became a cult hit. This is because those who really loved survival/horror enjoyed the game’s purposely slower pace and reliance on thrills and chills as opposed to ceaseless action. While one could easily categorize the game as “action,” it certainly has distinct Resident Evil-like traits that permeate the product to its core, and these elements truly are the highlights. Now, the title comes to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC as Zombi and even though it looks and feels a little old, it remains an effectively freaky adventure that’s probably worth the $20 price tag.
However, it’s a little disappointing that Ubisoft didn’t really do anything to upgrade the visuals for this re-release. As far as I can tell, the game looks exactly the same as it did on Wii U (if I’m remember the Wii U version correctly), although the “dirty screen” feature from the previous version is gone, so the picture is a bit cleaner. Aside from that, there isn’t much to talk about. The graphics are about what you’d expect from a 2012 Wii U product which is to say…not that impressive. Even so, the designers do a decent job of instilling fear and evoking real emotion, which serves to override the generally lacking visuals. It’s a matter of atmosphere and artistic presentation as opposed to ultra-crisp and realistic graphics; excellence in the latter category isn’t always necessary for immersion.
The sound seems to be about the same, too, but this was better than the graphics in the first place. There’s plenty of ambient and background effects that will prickle the hair on the back of your neck, and the soundtrack is surprisingly good. I think the implementation of the audio effects is a big highlight because they ramp up our sensitivity and general involvement. Good effects and music, properly combined in a horror adventure, should generate strong feelings of urgency and anxiety, and we get that in bunches in Zombi. The developers don’t quite push the necessary boundaries in my estimation, leaving us wanting more without showing us the full Monty, so-to-speak. One of these days, a development team is going to shock me with its audio bravery. I hope.
For the most part, this port isn’t particularly special. As I said above, the technical elements haven’t really changed and neither has the basic gameplay. It runs about the same and the only changes are obvious, such as the elimination of multiplayer (it needed the tablet on Wii U). There are a few smaller omissions – for instance, when your friends fall online, you can’t loot them anymore – but overall, there are no drastic additions or deletions. It’s basically ZombiU for different platforms and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’ve already played the game on Wii U. If you have, I can’t imagine why you’d bother with it on PS4, Xbox One or PC; the changes just aren’t significant enough to matter. But for the rest of you:
London has been overrun with swarms of the shambling undead. The game also tells you that this isn’t an entirely new occurrence, as the Black Plague that decimated Europe in the 1300s also resulted in a zombie apocalypse. In fact, in the 1500s, mathematician and spy John Dee predicted the zombie plague would arise again, and so it has. It’ll be your job to survive long enough to solve Dee’s puzzle and locate a cure before the undead eradicate all of humanity. The only problem is that you’re not given much in the way of weapons and ability at the start, so you definitely have to focus on caution and strategy. Don’t mistake this for a slam-bang action-fest ala Zombie Army Trilogy; this is a modern survival/horror quest that demands your attention and diligence. Be careful out there!
Exploring this dark, decaying London is tricky business, to say the least, but you do have the assistance of “The Prepper.” He’s a little paranoid and probably a lot crazy but he’s also ex-military, and he knows the city. He’ll guide you through the ultra-dangerous metropolis, fix you up with a safe house, and warn you when you’re about to enter a life-or-death situation (which is basically all the time). From your safe house, you can venture out and collect fresh equipment and find the necessary clues. Remember, this is about saving humanity, not just yourself, and to find a cure you have to unravel an ancient riddle. If you do happen to run into the undead, you had better be on your game, because these things are shockingly deadly. That’s part of what makes this game stand out.
If you’re the kind of person that likes to take their time, that enjoys preparation and a bit of micromanagement, and you just so happen to like scaring yourself silly, this game is for you. Where Zombi excels is in its ability to be disturbing and challenging. The zombies don’t come at you in racing bloodthirsty hordes; you often only encounter a few at a time and that’s more than enough to cause a problem. You’re always battling a lack of ammunition and on top of which, you’re no superhero. You can easily die at the nasty groping hands of the undead, so you have to take a cautious and determined approach: Yeah, you’ve got a melee weapon – a handy cricket bat – but it won’t do you much good if you’re surrounded. See if you can tackle the zombies one at a time, or make good use of a special item or tool (Molotov Cocktails are useful).
The interesting part is that when you die, that particular character is dead. You respawn as an entirely new survivor with a new name and occupation and unfortunately, you’ll start fresh. This means that if you want the gear you had collected before, you need to return to the place your previous survivor died and get it back. It reminds me a little of getting back to your corpse in the old Diablos, you know? Sadly, if you happen to die in your efforts to reach the equipment, that stuff is gone forever. This creates plenty of tension but at the same time, I found it needlessly annoying. It does force you to be careful and weigh your options, which I will always support, but this hobby still has to be fun. Then again, if you’re a total masochist, you could just play on Survival Mode. Die once and done.
The Wii U’s second screen acted as the map and motion scanner; in this new version, the map is in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. To me, this makes playing easier and more intuitive as I’ve never found the second-screen gamepad on the Wii U intuitive. Anyway, the map that acts as your radar is a little persnickety, in that it won’t just pick up zombies. No, it will also pick up anything that moves; i.e., rats and birds. And it won’t pick up zombies that are dead but might suddenly come to life and try to eat you when you slink on by. Again, all of this sort of teaches you to be ever-vigilant and not to let anything go un-investigated (or un-smashed) but even so, such features seem more annoying than anything else.
Other problems include the mediocre and awkward inventory management, which absolutely should’ve been streamlined for this re-release. The narrative isn’t anything special, either, which is unfortunate because this is the kind of game that really could’ve benefited from a solid story. Oh, and you come across some of those good ol’ backtracking quests as you progress, and that’s a huge pet peeve of many fans of the genre. So yeah, there are still flaws that rankle at times and continue to detract from the overall enjoyment. But they can’t eliminate the remarkable sense of fear and urgency that continues to assault your senses throughout. Despite the clear drawbacks, I can’t overstate the game’s total effectiveness in terms of a sensory-stimulating adventure. It really does work.
Zombi is a game that might seem too ponderous and frustrating for many. But for those who appreciate a challenging atmosphere that tasks you with marshalling your fears and taking a studious approach to survival, it’s a definite must-try. Yeah, the graphics and parts of the gameplay are outdated, and irritation and tedium can rear their ugly heads. But beneath it all beats the heart of a true-blue survival/horror game that thrives on its excellent environment and overall impact. This is exactly the kind of game you’ll want to play at 2 a.m. with all the lights off, even if you’re a veteran of the genre. It’s becoming harder and harder to scare the desensitized masses with copious amounts of blood and gore, and generating real fear in the human mind is an art form. Remember that.
The Good: A creepy and nigh-on unparalleled atmosphere. Good soundtrack and background effects. Puts a premium on instilling fear and demanding caution. Rewards those who take a slow, calculated approach. Generally well-designed and presented. Perfect for true survival/horror fanatics.
The Bad: Graphics haven’t changed much at all. Interface and presentation is still a little awkward, as is the inventory management. Can feel a little unforgiving. Story is weak.
The Ugly: “If you don’t make it back to get your equipment and you have to start over with nothing…”
8/20/2015 Ben Dutka