Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
It’s been three long years since the undead meandered their way onto Nintendo’s all new console and for the Wii U, and its unique controller, ZombiU was a near perfect showcase of what Nintendo’s ambitious design could bring to gaming. With maps and inventory being tied to the gamepad, the Wii U forced you to look away from the television screen, but while your attention was diverted the game-world continued on regardless. It was these types of interactive nuance, channeled through the gamepad, that made ZombiU so memorable with our original review saying, “Think Dead Space without actually being able to see the things coming your way when managing inventory and the like - all because you’re looking at the wrong screen.” So the big question over this new release of Zombi is can the game survive when it is removed from the tech that it was designed specifically for and around? Those seeking an adventure in an undead apocalypse will be glad to know that Zombi defies the supposed limitations that it constrained itself to with the Wii U gamepad and reanimates into its very own beast on PlayStation 4.
As zombie stories go Zombi is definitely one of the better ones out there, even now, and the true masterstroke is that location and narrative are wonderfully married. You play as a random Londoner, a typical joe, and you are guided through the apocalypse via radio by The Prepper. This voice has seen it all and sits almost in the ether, directing you towards survival through a ravaged London. And what a gloriously decayed London it is, from the grimy and often ill-lit underground to the opulent corridors of Buckingham Palace, this is a wonderfully realised and fascinating location to explore. As you push on through the game these locations link via shortcuts that are activated by opening manhole covers - a mechanic that both makes sense geographically by tieing locations together and also helps to reduce a huge level of backtracking. Further into the story the narrative device of being led by a singular voice starts to splinter and serves well in opening up a story in which what you are told is only a portion of what you should actually know.
Straight out of the box, so to speak, one of the first things to resonate is that the graphical upgrade that you may expect in moving from Wii U to PlayStation 4 is largely not evident. Textures seem more blurred than you’d expect, as if it has been done to hide the game’s more lo-fi origin and frame-rates, while largely stable, do on occasion fluctuate to worrying levels. These seemingly raggedy production values are no deal-breaker, in many ways they actually help add to the slowly crumbling city that surrounds you. While it may sound like given credit where it may not be due, Zombi does such a fantastic job of immersing you in its nightmare that you’ll largely forget any shortcomings in the visual arena.
Much of this immersion comes from one of the game’s core conceits that if you die, that's it. When your character dies, and they will die, you’ll be assigned a new random character each with their own identity, job title etc. You will become oddly attached to these random zombie-swatters, and when you realise that you’ve had a character for the last hour you’ll do your damndest to keep the alive as long as you can. It’s an odd sort of involvement to develop with a character but it is affecting all the same, wonderfully counterpointed by your first task usually being to go find your previous characters zombified remains, cave their skull in and steal back your supplies in the shape of your B.O.B. (Bug Out Bag).
The greatest achievement that Zombi manages to pull out of its raggedy, previously buried sleeve, is that you will neither miss the original controller or feel that the PS4 version is lacking comparatively to the original. There have been great pains clearly gone to here to make sure that Zombi is its own beast, and it’s not that those clever little features that made ZombiU are missing or shoehorned but rather they exist here in a way that makes utter sense to the platform. There are a number of examples of this and a great example of the subtlety in change while maintaining the original core concept is with the inventory screen. On Wii U your inventory would be rooted to your gamepad, any changes or equipping of items would require you to look away from the main television screen. In this iteration when you access your inventory the game does not pause, the inventory screen also takes up essentially all of the screen and you’ll have to scroll through multiple pages to access those things at the bottom of your bag.
So while the gamepad may not be there to physically make you look away from your screen the debilitation of how it is implemented here keeps the tension levels high as you scurry through your items while hearing the undead shuffling your way. This considered approach to continuity of experience is similarly handled throughout: keypads take up the full screen while the world still moves around you and the scanner still forces you to stand still and look around, tied here to the L1 button. Combat is still largely the same except for the addition of a few melee weapons, providing an oddly satisfying and almost slapstick shovel to greet the undead’s heads with. Guns are once again nothing more than a way to attract any nearby undead and typically the weapons are largely inaccurate, fairly representing an untrained person trying to fire a weapon under the unique stress of being eaten alive. Again it all ties together so well, every mechanic, every weapon, every location - it all just fits.
Aside from the local multiplayer there’s nothing that has really been omitted here of note and the core offering is so engaging that you’ll actually not care. It’s a difficult task to make the zombie genre something fresh and interesting as every angle has been beaten to death with a cricket bat. What Zombi has achieved, both three years ago and now, is to bring an experience to the player that feels new and one that understands exactly what the players want, a clever title dripping with atmosphere and tension. It’s a testament to the design on Zombi that even today there’s not much on the market that can truly compete with its vision and execution. Even for those who experienced the original release, enough time has passed to revisit the zombie uprising in this new format. This seems to be an apocalypse that keeps on giving, and to quote a certain Mr Stipe, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”.