Love and zombies aren't normally associated with each other — except possibly a love of eating brains — but in Akaoni Studio's Zombie Panic in Wonderland the titular enemies are all about hugging people to death in the fairy-tale setting of Wonderland.
In the main Story mode you'll find yourself in the role of Momotaro the Peach Boy, a character of Japanese mythology, and eventually encounter Dorothy from Baum's Wizard of Oz and Snow White of Grimm fame as you try to stop the spread of "amorous zombies" throughout Wonderland.
As this is an arcade-style shooter, the means of stopping zombies is to blast them to oblivion. The gameplay is reminiscent of arcade classics Cabal and Blood Bros. and, closer to home, Shootanto: Evolutionary Mayhem on WiiWare. Players use the pointer to shoot enemies and background objects whilst moving an on-screen character who must avoid enemy fire — and embrace — to survive through a total of nine stages, divided into three levels thematically related to playable characters.
Zombie Panic offers a fun arcade-style experience thanks to some decent level design: enemies come in waves, but never feel too overwhelming due to responsive controls and a clever use of destructible scenery which not only provides additional ammo for your secondary weapons, but can be used against the zombie hordes. Shoot down a tree or wall of a building with zombies nearby and they'll get clobbered by it, in addition to explosive scenery bits that dispatch nearby foes more directly. You won't get too much extra ammunition for your secondary weapons so you'll want to reserve your heavy machine gun, flame thrower and RPG for later parts of each stage when you'll find yourself facing larger numbers of enemies and tougher foes like undead sumo wrestlers.
Although there are only a few levels, it won't be a walk in the enchanted park due to some rather tough opposition. Initially you're confronted with some bog-standard brain, uh, huggers, who just amble towards you and can be dispatched by a few shots to the head, but it won't be long before you're faced with zombies that hurl rocks, shuriken-flinging jumping ninja zombies and dive-bombing crows amongst others. Many of these foes are repeated and re-skinned to match new scenery, but the variety of designs keeps things from getting stale.
If you get hit you lose a life, so you'll want to keep moving and learn to use that dodge button to avoid attacks. Though you can only move left and right, each stage is wider than your display and pretty much everything you can see can be destroyed: from trees and fences in the foreground to distant castle minarets — something to keep in mind when you're facing increasing numbers of zombies, and are wishing you had more ammo for your heavy machine gun. Keep in mind you can't really afford to lollygag about because you have a time limit to clear each level, so be sure to keep your focus on the undead rather than redecorating the vicinity with bullet holes!
Boss fights lack the time limit because they're challenging enough on their own, with each one matching the theme of the level. Whilst the boss for the first Japanese-themed level was fun, featuring destructible parts that caused it to gradually transform and change attack styles, the later bosses aren't quite as interesting; combined with the fact that boss stages have less scenery to destroy, they started to drag on a bit, unfortunately. Once you've finished Story Mode you can try it again at an increased difficulty or play completed stages on their own in Arcade Mode, where you'll discover an extra stage to play that's not present in the main story. There's a local leaderboard with the top five scores, but though Story and Arcade modes have score counters there's nothing to indicate which of these are represented in the Ranking table; nor do you get to put up any initials to indicate whose scores they are, which will be disappointing if you're also a big fan of co-op play.
Though the characters have no bearing on gameplay, it's still cool that Dorothy and Snow White are made available to play with after you encounter them in Story Mode and all three characters have additional skins to unlock. The anime-inspired character designs are one of biggest strengths of Zombie Panic in Wonderland, especially as seen in amusing cut scenes composed of a mix of still images and text. In-game graphics and animation are nicely done, even if some of the zombie sound effects got a bit repetitive. The soundtrack deserves special mention as it complements the various stages and is surprising in its diversity: from traditional-sounding Japanese songs to pop-metal guitar and brooding cinematic pieces. Though the rest of the game is competently executed, it's the bags of charm contained within that gets it a solid recommendation from us.
It's fair to say that without the care and attention put into the design and audio-visual presentation of the game we'd have thought it was merely okay, but seeing Snow White saucily swishing her way to the next zombie massacre makes up for shortcomings elsewhere. Arcade fans looking for something irreverent and over-the-top are advised to stock up on zombie repellent and download this one for some shooting fun!