ZombiU was one of the diamonds in the Wii U’s rough first year, but many said that the game — which heavily used the Nintendo system’s tablet-like pad — couldn’t be ported elsewhere.
Three years later, and that’s just what’s happened, and Ubisoft has done a surprisingly good job with the port.
Horror and survival games are on a bit of an upswing in the past few years, and hopefully Zombi will catch on with the crowd who loves to watch streamers on Twitch get scared.
Zombi is deeply moody and atmospheric, danger can come at you from anywhere, enemies are deadly, resources are limited, and it is incredibly easy to die.
Yet it achieves these things in a fundamentally different way than old-school horror games, and the ways that it showed off the the capabilities of the new Wii U have been adapted to single screens intelligently.
Old school survival horror games earned their reputation in large part by making the controls difficult to master. The best course of action was usually to run past enemies, but the controls were usually so wonky that was difficult.
In Zombi, any one zombie is usually within your ability to deal with. But if you run into an encounter unprepared, or get in a situation where multiple zombies are surrounding you, you’re toast.
The game is set in a devastated post-zombie-apocalypse London. Your first character is noticed by “The Prepper,” an unseen man who communicates with you through CCTV cameras and the speaker on your smart pad (which just so happens to look just like the Wii U GamePad). The Prepper leads you to a safehouse and then has you do various tasks around London to better prepare for your long-term survival.
Did you notice how I said “first character” earlier? That’s because when you get bitten by a zombie, that’s it. That character is dead.
You start again as a new character recruited by The Prepper. The world is still in the state that the last character left it in (i.e. you are still on the same mission and all the doors you unlocked stay unlocked), but if you want to get back all of the stuff you were carrying you have to find the re-animated zombie corpse of your last character.
If you die again before you do that, well, sorry. All of that stuff is gone.
This element alone makes the game incredibly tense, with the tension increasing the longer your current run with a particular character lasts. In addition to leveling up some of their skills, you start to feel a real connection with the plucky survivor who has lasted so long.
And when they die, there is no one to blame but yourself.
This is key to a game as tough as Zombi: it needs to be fair. Although you certainly will be caught unprepared occasionally and you will make the odd mistake in combat and your will likely get yourself cornered more than once, the game gives you the tools to avoid or overcome these situations. It’s (usually) inherently fair.
Yes, I died that one time, but if I had just pinged my Zombie radar instead of rushing in I’d have been fine. Yes, I died that other time, but if I had just shot the guy instead of using my cricket bat to conserve ammo I would have been fine.
The parts of the game that made it immersive on the Wii U transfer surprisingly well. Where before searching for an item meant you had to look away from the screen at the game pad, now the game creates the same effect by simply flipping out of first-person perspective and pulling into a tight third-person view of you looking through your bag. It’s still incredibly tense, as you get just a peripheral view of your surroundings and are ripe for attack from a Zombie.
Another core use of the Game pad was “scanning” areas. This meant holding up the WiiU’s controller and moving it around to get a view of the room you were in. This nettedf key additional information about your surroundings, but also somewhat obscures your view and holds you still. This is replicated in the new version of the game by simply showing a virtual scanning device on the screen. It doesn’t have quite the same punch as the original version, but it succeeds mechanically just as well.
On slight downside to the game that stays over is that sometimes it may be too punishing. Even on Normal and Easy settings, you can be incredibly quick to die. There was one sequence where I died and died again without recovering my items, which left me so deflated I needed to stop playing for the rest of the evening.
For some people, that will simply not be enjoyable. For a lot of people, in fact.
However, unlike the release on the WiiU, where the game had to buoy the entire hardcore fan base during the launch period, the new version of Zombi can live quite comfortably in its niche of horror and survival fans.
Zombi seems to get a lot more of its inspiration from the Dark Souls series. It takes confidence to emulate Dark Souls, a game that needed to be mechanically perfect to get away with its difficulty.
A lot of people feared that Zombi would be another Red Steel, a Wii launch title from Ubisoft Entertainment SA that looked like it would be a cool showcase for motion control, but was mostly an unplayable mess. The fact that Zombi can transfer away from the Wii U’s GamePad and still be great shows that it’s far more than that.
If you aren’t scared away by challenge, horror and maybe a little bit of frustration, Zombi is an essential play.