Stripped of all its Wii-U specific elements, Zombi is a monumentally unfair first-person survival horror game set in what used to be London, before the “Blight” showed up and turned most of its inhabitants into zombies. It’s got a hefty dose of the first-installment Ubisoft jitters, where it feels more like an elaborate proof of concept than anything else, and its transition to other consoles is shaky at best.
What impresses me as a survival horror fan is that Zombi actually sticks to the original formula, although it’s a little linear. You’re given a series of missions in the ruins of London, and carrying them out requires you to explore, gather supplies, and gradually accumulate the tools you need to circumvent the obstacles that you passed earlier: C4 to clear obstacles, a lockpick, a claw hammer to pry off boards, etc. Every bullet is precious, health items are at a premium, and an individual zombie presents a clear and present danger. Two at once is tricky, and if you’re up against three or more, you’d better have a grenade handy or you’re in serious trouble.
The big tension generator here is permanent death. Your character is a cipher, just some random civilian or low-ranking soldier who’s managed to stay alive to this point. You’re rescued off the streets and shown to a safe haven in a train station by a mysterious voice on a radio who insists that you call him “the Prepper,” who is oddly gleeful at the fact that the zombie apocalypse just jacked London in the throat. In exchange for his well-stocked sanctuary and the use of his equipment, including his cool custom “Prepper Pad” with night-vision scanning, you investigate the ruins for him.
If you should die in the course of doing this, which is likely, your present character either becomes a zombie or is left dead on the floor. You respawn immediately back at the Prepper’s safehouse in the identity of another newly rescued London survivor, with a randomly generated gender, name, occupation, outfit, and ethnicity, with a set of starting equipment. Any weapons skills your old character learned are gone, and you have to go find your old character’s body if you want to salvage his or her equipment.
At first, I was on board with this, as it makes encounters that would be trivial monster bashing in other games into high-tension struggles. All your characters have bad knees or something, so they take falling damage given the slightest provocation, and you can often hear them whimpering with fear or effort as you fight or run away. These are standard-issue shamblers, but they move surprisingly fast for all that, and several have had the bad taste to die while wearing riot gear or high-pressure oxygen tanks. Dealing with them can be tricky.
As I played, I was less enthused with it. The Prepper and all other NPCs react to replacement characters as if they’re the old one, which gets bizarre and breaks immersion, and the game isn’t shy about throwing you into high-risk situations with little warning. The explosive zombies can easily be a one-hit kill, which is truly aggravating when they show up directly in front of you without warning. I’d feel more comfortable with the permanent-death mechanic if the player was a little more durable, so “gotcha” deaths weren’t quite so common, or if there was some hand-waving to justify the instant, interchangeable replacement. (Maybe you could have a stock of survivors to choose from back at the base, who all basically know what’s going on.)
That’s really a minor issue, though. The big problems with Zombi go back to it being a port of a Wii-U launch title. Many of its features are there to justify the use of the Wii-U’s second screen, so you spend a lot of time using a “scanner” to find items or clues, and the inventory is flat-out janky. The graphics are serviceable at best, and in some of the worst areas, look a bit like you’re viewing the world through a thin film of petroleum jelly. The inventory is limited, uncustomizable, and counterintuitive, with quick-select options that constantly undo themselves, and since thrown items like flares or grenades don’t stack, you’re likely to spend most of the game with your backpack full.
There’s a good game to be made on the foundation of Zombi, much in the same way that other Ubisoft franchises didn’t really hit their stride until the second or third installment. Removing the Prepper would be a good start, allowing the player to explore as they see fit and pursue whatever missions or goals they like without limitation, along with a more modern inventory system (or just the attache case from Resident Evil 4). The idea of a zombie-apocalypse “Metroidvania” set in what used to be a modern city is an excellent hook for a game, but Zombi is too busy showing off Wii-U features that aren’t there anymore to fulfill that premise.
Reviewed By: Thomas Wilde
This review is based on a digital copy of Zombi for the PlayStation 4 provided by Ubisoft.