There's certainly no shortage of zombie-themed titles on the 3DS eShop, and it would be easy to lump Escape from Zombie City in with the seasonal shovelware shuffling onto the scene just in time for Halloween — but there's a little more to the story than that. The brainchild of developer Tom Create — responsible for the GO Series on DSiWare - Escape from Zombie City invaded its native Japan well over a year ago, and has just now washed up to infect our western shores. A decently fun top-down shooter with an impressively eerie atmosphere, it's worth a second look for anyone who likes a little survival-horror in their arcade action.
The infestation starts in Story Mode, where you take control of young Johnny Johnson, lone survivor of a military task force charged with wiping out a zombie invasion. That was Plan A, and unfortunately for Johnny, Plan B is an indiscriminate bombing raid that threatens to level the entire area. With only a few hours 'til bomb drop, your mission is simply to make it out alive.
You'll move through the compact levels, making your way to the exit as the countdown timer ticks away while blasting away at massive packs of zombies with your weapon of choice. Along with your trusty infinite pistol, you'll find an explosive shotgun, rapid-fire machine gun, slow-and-steady magnum, flame-thrower, gatling gun, hand grenades, and flares which can be used to create a safe-zone; zombies can't pass through their light. Ammo isn't as plentiful as you'd expect in a game like this, however, which introduces a significant survivalist bent; the default pistol is slow and weak enough that you can easily find yourself cornered (and dead) if you're stuck with it, so conserving ammo and saving the big guns for the biggest groups is a key part of making it out alive.
There are several different types of colourful undead enemies to butt brain-buckets with; alongside the standard variety cannon-fodder, you'll run up against explosive zombies, quick zombies, time bomb zombies, police and military zombies that drop useful weapons, and — every so often — a classic arcade-style boss. It all makes for a solid shooter, though apart from the bosses and some simple but memorable motorcycle missions, there's a strong sense of déjà-vu; this is a by-the-books arcade game that doesn't do much to shake up the move-and-shoot formula.
For a slight change of pace, you can always escape to Endless Mode. While the name conjures up images of iOS-inspired, randomly generated zombie infestations, the reality is a subtler change. You'll still run through the same Story mode levels, but this time the clock will start ticking from five minutes at the start, and you'll need to rely on time bonuses — from rescuing civilians, surviving for a certain number of metres, or blowing up enough zombies — to keep the game going. You'll also get to pick your weapon, with either an unlimited supply of ammo for one, or limited ammo of the whole set.
One of Endless Mode's best features is that it gives high-score junkies dozens of new targets to aim for, saving your longest distance and most zombies killed with each individual weapon, at each difficulty level. The game also keeps track of your fastest runs and most zombies killed for each level in Story Mode, and assigns you a Clear Rank based on your performance, so score chasers are certainly well catered for.
There are three control options in Zombie City: the default type A has no strafe command, while options B and C both let you use the 'L' button to strafe, and differ only in how you'll select your weapons. Strafing sounds like it would be essential, but it actually slows your character down so much that it's rarely as useful as you'd like. In all three control schemes, you'll move with the Circle Pad, lock your character in place for 360° aim with 'R', and fire with 'Y' (which takes a bit of getting used to). Everything controls relatively well, and using the Circle Pad to swing young Johnson around fast enough to engage brain-eaters coming in from any direction is especially satisfying.
In terms of gameplay, this is a fairly standard top-down shooter with a few small twists — fun, if mostly unexceptional. There is one thing that Escape from Zombie City does exceptionally well, though, despite its cartoony graphics and super-deformed zombies: it creates an incredibly tense atmosphere.
Part of that comes from the music: a single, unsettling loop of lethargic synth-pad that drones on as a you plough forward through the zombie hordes. Part of it comes from the size of the hordes themselves; with what must be upwards of a hundred confetti-coloured zombies surrounding you at certain moments, you really will feel outnumbered and overwhelmed, literally fighting for a place to stand in the claustrophobia-inducing corridors. Part of it comes from the fact that your undead opponents like to latch on and not let go, stopping you from firing and forcing you to jiggle the Circle Pad every few seconds to regain control of your character as they slowly drain your health. And part of it comes from a Resident Evil-style handicap in the controls: zombies move much faster than you do when you're firing a weapon, effectively making you choose between attacking or putting what distance you can between your character and the undead masses — it's always a nerve-racking choice.
To top it all off, there's the time limit. It's especially pressing in Endless Mode, but it's there in Story Mode as well, where the three difficulty levels — in addition to changing up the AI and ammo availability — start ticking away towards zero from three different times. Easy gives you an overgenerous twelve hours, Normal counts down from 2:50, and Hard starts at 2:05. The timer carries over between levels, deaths, and — whether intentionally or not — even while the game's paused, and on Normal and Hard mode it really does raise your heart-rate. Sadly, running out of time simply triggers the same generic Game Over screen as dying any other way, instead of an actual apocalyptic bombing raid — surely a missed opportunity.
Zombie City's visual presentation is another missed opportunity, unfortunately. It's uninspired and more than a little bland, with tiled environments, lots of recycled assets, and a Flash-game look that doesn't do it any favours. The zombie sprites, at least, are pleasantly cartoony, but they repeat so often that they quickly lose any charm or novelty, and they're stiffly animated even by undead standards. There's no stereoscopic 3D effect at all, most likely as a result of the game spanning both of the 3DS' screens; that's a setup which introduces its own minor headaches when you need to aim across the hinge. The targeting-line does help, but it can still be frustrating if you have the misfortune of getting detained between screens by overly grabby zombies.
The sound design, on the other hand, is a master stroke in conspicuous contrast. When juxtaposed with the colourful cartoon visuals, the dirge-like background music and genuinely terrifying wails, moans, grunts, and gunshots create a disturbing, disquieting atmosphere that adds to the tension and makes playing the game with headphones a "lights-on-only" option for the more timid among us.
Escape from Zombie City needs something to help it stand out from the brain-dead horde of eShop shooters, and depending on what you're looking for, it just might have it. If you're after an undead experience with good looks and fresh gameplay ideas, it's best to let this one shamble on by. But if chasing high scores and high blood pressure at the same time sounds like your idea of fun — and if you can look past the decidedly musty presentation — Zombie City packs a decent-sized portion of putrefied arcade fun.