Review: Zombie Blaster (DSiWare)

A grave disappointment

Throughout DSiWare's long and not always distinguished history, we've seen a lot of games come and go. From puzzlers to RPGs to interactive storybooks, we've spent the past several years wading through every single release, doing our best to separate the rare diamonds from the dirt. Zombie Blaster interested us simply because, in all of its years, DSiWare hasn't manage to accumulate many on-rail shooters. That in itself is a bit surprising, as you might think that the touch screen would be absolutely perfect for the genre.

You might think that. And then you'd play Zombie Blaster, and you'd never think that again.

Sometimes when reviewing disappointing games we can find some merit in whatever intentions the developers had. Maybe the final product isn't as polished as we'd hope, for example, but we can at least appreciate what the game tried to do. With Zombie Blaster, we can't even determine if there were good intentions here to begin with. If there were they were certainly shed very early in development, because what we have here feels more like a cynical parody of a game, whose only joke is that somebody might be gullible enough to pay for it.

Of course, it's not all bad. There are a few redeeming elements of Zombie Blaster; they're just overshadowed by how tremendously awful the game is.

It begins with a short cut scene that sets up the plot: your car needs gas, so with some ridiculously floaty animation you pull into the filling station. It's here that you meet the zombified attendant, spew out some awkward dialogue in broken English, and run for the hills.

During this scene there's actually a pretty nice sequence: the car speeds up a mountain, plowing over zombies as it frantically winds its way along the narrow road. It's the kind of thing we looked at and thought, "That's a game we'd like to play." It still doesn't look very good, and the animation is still terrible, but at least plowing over zombies mindlessly while also trying to keep an eye on the road would be fun.

What we get instead is a game that has you tapping zombies and other creatures with your stylus. That's it.

You glide somewhere, wait for the baddies to appear, tap them until they're gone, and move on. With only 12 stages and a measly three guns there's not much variety here, but that wouldn't be a problem if the game was fun. Unfortunately killing zombies in this way is indistinguishable from the thrills of tapping selections on the menu screens of superior games.

The controls are handled decently enough. L and R swap your weapons, you reload by pressing either Down or B, and you tap the screen to fire. You couldn't ask for a simpler layout, but Zombie Blaster seems to have some built-in failure mechanism that prevents you sometimes from hitting what you've tapped. There's no real reason for this, and no skill or lack of skill behind it. It's just that the developers realized you'd never miss a shot if you could just tap your targets, so they built in some automatic misses. That's an approach to the problem, but we probably wouldn't say it's the best one.

There's also a huge issue of taking damage from things that are nowhere near you. One creature might step right up and swing its arms around like a child throwing a tantrum, and you'll take damage. Fine. But then you'll kill him and continue taking damage from another creature swinging his arms the same way, who appears to be about 60 feet away. Sometimes you get hit, sometimes you don't, and it doesn't seem to matter where anything is in relation to you. It's not exactly rewarding gameplay.

Visually the game looks awful. It's the sort of thing that might have been commonplace back when Wolfenstein 3D was cutting-edge gaming. Even that encouraged exploration, though, and it loaded you up with fun weapons. Zombie Blaster just puts a bunch of low-polygon monsters in front of you, waits for you to tap on them, and then scoots you along to the next. Sometimes the game will even then scoot you right back to the previous bunch of monsters, who have reincarnated just to pad out the tedium.

Environments are not interactive, which isn't an issue in itself, but at times it feels like a deliberately cruel joke. You'll be presented with bells, swinging pumpkins and even an actual carnival shooting gallery, but you won't be able to shoot any of it. These are exactly the sorts of things you'd expect to be able to hit for bonus points, and that would indeed be nice, but nothing happens when you tap them except that you waste a shot. This, in conjunction with things like the lack of a sound effect when you splash into the water in one level, leads us to conclude that the game simply isn't fully programmed.

Every so often the action will pause to make room for some stilted, choppy dialogue whose only mercy is that it advances too fast to read. Other times the stage will end with a boss fight, and we learn that Zombie Blaster's idea of introducing difficulty is just to give a monster a few hundred more hit-points than everything else. There's no challenge at all. You're still tapping; the only difference is that now you're tapping more.

There is a local leaderboard that retains your five highest scores. That doesn't sound like much but we'd love to meet the person crazy enough to play this more than five times. There's also local download play, which allows you and a friend to cooperatively tap away at jerky origami zombies while you daydream about more fulfilling activities, like sitting in the corner and crying.

Perhaps at a lower price point Zombie Blaster might earn a tacit recommendation as a mindless time waster. This late in the DSiWare life-cycle, though, there's too much else available, and nearly all of it is a lot more fun.

Conclusion

If the name Zombie Blaster sounds generic, rest assured the game makes no attempt to dispel that suspicion. You tap baddies with your stylus while it drags you back and forth to make you feel like its levels are much larger than they are. Its graphics seem unfinished, its hit detection is awful and its dialogue reads like it was transcribed by Cookie Monster. There's a two-player cooperative mode and a screen that keeps track of your five highest scores, but the only way to really win at Zombie Blaster is to not buy it in the first place.