Originally released in the waning days of 2012, ZombiU generated a palpable wave of excitement leading up to its launch. Heck, we even put the thing on the cover of that magazine we did that one time. And yet, it seemed to rapidly fade into obscurity after hitting store shelves, landing with a dull thud instead of the big splash Ubisoft had predicted. If I were to guess, I’d point squarely at its Wii U exclusivity as the primary reason for it not being more popular at the time. That’s the reason I didn’t play it, and that’s got to mean something. Now, three years later, ZombiU has gathered a second wind, it’s shed its “U” and it’s ready to try claim its place amongst the survival horror greats. I’m not entirely sure Zombi succeeds at doing that, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying to find out.
It’s the zombie apocalypse, and London is screwed. This was all foretold in The Prophecy, but nobody paid it much attention because honestly, why would one of the world’s most iconic, powerful cities be ground zero for a world-ending disease? Surely these sorts of things only originate in horrible, marshy, backwater towns in countries whose names nobody can pronounce? In any case, the queen wouldn’t stand for it. Except the queen is dead, as is pretty much everyone else. Everyone but you. And everyone else who could also be you. And this other guy who’s obsessed with doomsday prepping. It’s a long, terribly convenient story, and it’s full of formerly-dead people.
Zombi‘s narrative is bonkers, but interesting. On the surface, it frames the game as a non-linear experience, wherein you’re able to leave your relatively cosy safe house to roam the zombie-infested streets of London and gather supplies that’ll keep you alive. And in a way it is, because you’re able to revisit areas on your map, hoovering up any chocolate bars, medipacks and boxes of bullets you couldn’t carry on your first excursion there. But at its core, Zombi is a linear experience, and the supplies you gather aren’t much more than fuel to push you through the game’s story. The various areas of London you visit often contain locked doors and inaccessible nooks, which open up to you once you’ve found the requisite means to open them, which gives further incentive to visit locations you’ve already explored – although the story will often lead you back there anyway.
Without a doubt, Zombi‘s greatest strength is in its powerful atmosphere and the various mechanics that enhance it. The audio design is absolutely chilling, with sound effects and music that are great at keeping you endlessly uneasy. Inventory space is heavily limited, so you’re forced to be very picky about what you take with you and what you leave behind. This becomes far less of an issue in the later stages of the game, once you’ve filled your safe house stash with Molotov cocktails and fat medkits and more bullets than the US Armed Forces could use in a decade, but early on it feels utterly devastating having to leave even a single can of juice behind. To make matters worse, the game doesn’t pause while you’re fiddling with your backpack or rummaging in dustbins. Again, this becomes less of a heart-crushing mechanic the more you play, but games very rarely make me sweat the way Zombi did when I first started playing it and was too scared to peek inside my backpack for more than a few frantic seconds at a time. It may seem a simple feature and it’s not a unique one by any means, but it’s still thoughtful game design, and I do wish the developers had managed to maintain that feeling of overwhelming helplessness throughout Zombi‘s length.
Perhaps its most-lauded feature is its permadeath. When you die in Zombi, the character you’re playing is dead forever, and the weapon skills you’ve nurtured with that character are gone too. That’s not strictly true though, because they’re not dead forever. Instead, they return as a zombie, and more importantly, they return as a zombie that’s still strapped to that all-important backpack o’ goodies you spent so much time collecting. You effectively become a stinking, putrid mini-boss. You don’t even have to empty your health bar for this to happen either: if a corpse grabs you and sinks its teeth in you, that’s it, you’re done. It’s another simple, but ingenious mechanic that adds real weight to every bad choice and careless move you make.
“…early on it feels utterly devastating having to leave even a single can of juice behind.”
BUT! As with most of the game’s features, I wish the permadeath had been expanded on, made to be more meaningful than it is, because it inevitably feels a bit hollow. My first character was a gardener named… Daniel Something. Or Dylan Something. Maybe. He didn’t make it. Sorry Daniel Dylan Something. My second character, who’s still happily alive and semi-kicking, is a poet named… Alice Something. Alice Scott maybe? Again, I don’t really know. And there’s the problem: dying eventually feels like it’d be more of an inconvenience than a real, gut-wrenching tragedy that’d leave you sobbing violently in the corner of your shower with only the hot water running. I don’t care about these characters I’m playing, or who I’ll play next once this one shuffles off this mortal coil. To me, it’s a glaring missed opportunity. I get the sense it might actually have been intentional, because creating too much of a connection between you and the characters might’ve angered and alienated players when they inevitably perished, but in a game that touts its extreme difficulty and punishing nature at every turn, sometimes it feels like the developers pulled one too many punches. That said, dying in Zombi is shit. It feels horrible. But the anguish it causes is more mechanical than emotional, a challenging irritation rather than a heartbreaking catastrophe. Years later, I still remember the characters in Left 4 Dead and its sequel, even though L4D is mostly a straightforward shooter. I won’t be able to say the same for the mannequins I’ve possessed in Zombi.
The action is pretty solid. There’s emphasis on melee combat (although this may be self-imposed, because I tried to be as Shaun of the Dead as possible), but there’s a surprisingly vast array of ranged weapons (although not much ammo for them) like silenced pistols, crossbows, shotguns and assault rifles, along with thrown weapons like Molotov cocktails and grenades. Close-range encounters are tense, mostly because of how a single slip-up could get your cheek bitten off, especially when facing a horde, and the melee weapons deliver a meaty enough wallop.
Compared to more recent zombie games like Dying Light, it feels a bit archaic – but at the same time it’s often more threatening and dangerous, far more grounded in dark, claustrophobic horror. Once you’ve got access to some of the more substantial toys, the game does start feeling too easy, because huge numbers of enemies are no longer able to easily overwhelm you. This does occasionally create a bit of dissonance between the narrative and the onscreen action, when characters are screaming at you to “GET OUT OF THERE” and yelling “THERE’S TOO MANY OF THEM” when there’s literally not a single zombie in sight because you mowed them all down with your shiny new AK-47. Thankfully, the game does attempt to balance this by introducing special zombies that swing the odds out of your favour.
Zombi is filled with loads of special little touches. I like the way your character raises their backpack above their head when you’re in deep water, leaving you unable to defend yourself should the undead appear. Walking through a sheet of falling water kills your flashlight for a few seconds, potentially obscuring a zombie in total darkness for just long enough to fill your pants with fright-juice when the light flickers on again. Being able to close doors behind you to buy yourself some time – and use planks to reinforce them – is a great inclusion. Again, the audio is spectacular, using a variety of sonic methods to keep your hairs permanently raised. The visuals obviously can’t maintain the same high standard, but they’re effective enough to keep you ensconced in the deadly atmosphere.
The game’s far from ideal, obviously, and the PC port is especially shoddy, hogging far too much of the resources of my high-end work PC than it should, enough so that it often actually forces me to restart my machine to get things behaving normally again. There’s also Uplay, which as always, is just… no. No. Look beyond its flaws, its missteps and its half-realised potential, and Zombi offers an entertaining, disturbing challenge, one that’s well worth the $20 asking price. For added kicks, be sure to play it on the Super Mega Ultra difficulty mode that enforces a permanent GAME OVER when your character dies.