Deadbeat drug dealer Butch wakes up in the trunk of a car and climbs out into a top-down urban hellscape. It’s up to him, with the help of his mysterious handler ‘Anaconda’, to battle through the Garage, an underground mall formerly owned by shady corporation Smith Investments. Cue horrific encounters with mutated vermin, zombified citizens, botched experiments and more.
With movement and aiming on the left and right sticks respectively, punching, swinging and shooting is handled with 'ZR', and you can kick watercoolers, traffic cones, rats and severed heads with 'ZL'. There’s a weapon wheel on 'R' containing an ax, plus the assortment of firearms you’ll find on your journey. Careful ammo management and timed reloads are the order of the day – your health won’t last long against a face-munching member of the undead horde if you’re jamming fresh cartridges into your shotgun.
While exploring the blackness of the Garage, you’ll kick doors open into new areas which are then illuminated. Secret rooms containing equipment or notes to read are found through cracks in walls. The facility is in a right old state, with fires and fluorescent strip bulbs providing most of the lighting. Zombie Dynamics pulls some neat environmental tricks, with pipes running across the ‘ceiling’ and bulbs falling to the floor around you, but the Garage is dark and it can be tough to make out details. To make matters worse, the picture gets noticeably softer in handheld mode – a brightness adjustment setting would have been very helpful, especially if you’re on the move during daylight hours.
Garage wears its references on its sleeve, shirt and cap. The story is B-movie horror shlock through and through, and no trope is left behind. There are humorous moments but, like the films it nods to, it’s a little hit-and-miss. The screen crackles with occasional static and a persistent scanline effect evokes old CRT televisions and VHS video nasties. This works well enough in-game, but not so much with the painterly character portraits that pop up alongside dialogue boxes, nor the high-def hell hound on the title and loading screens. A screen-bending psychedelic sequence further muddies the waters and the different art styles never quite gel.
The base twin-stick mechanics are competent, though, and as the game progresses you’ll need to outmaneuver smarter enemies that carry arms (guns, not limbs). Items and enemies appear on-screen only when Butch has a clear line of sight to them, which increases tension but limits possibilities for player creativity. Of Garage’s many influences, Hotline Miami is writ largest – from the retro styling to the trippy narrative and thumping soundtrack – but that game enabled players to see all enemies on the map, strategise and chain combos with a kinetic and addictive flow; Garage is far more rigid and linear in its gameplay. That’s not necessarily A Bad Thing™ but it’s certainly a different experience and you won’t be achieving that sort of visceral ‘flow-state’ here.
Instead you’ll find keys, shoot exploding barrels, hunt fuses to power up generators, kick debris onto land mines and watch CCTV footage for clues to enemy positions. You’ll also come across passcode-protected caches containing goodies or letters that flesh out the story. A few vehicular set-pieces offer a change of pace, although these interludes vary in effectiveness. Collapsing ceilings and regular checkpoints prevent too much backtracking and, although the darkness can be disorientating, levels are never labyrinthine.
It’s disappointing, then, to find lengthy loading times between areas. While docked, we counted 45 seconds from start-up to title screen. Levels generally load in 20-30 seconds, although restarts are more-or-less instant. The pixel art is a veneer over a heavier game engine and, as such, you’ll spend a lot of time staring at the loading screen over the course of the game’s thirteen chapters. Performance-wise, there’s a touch of slowdown when things get busy, but nothing like the stutter of tinyBuild stablemate Mr Shifty at launch.
Garage is – somewhat fittingly – a hodgepodge assembly of parts co-opted from cinematic and gaming sources. It offers some effective jump scares and decent top-down action against squelchy enemies. The pixel aesthetic it adopts is fine but also emblematic of the game as a whole – a well-intentioned affectation that lacks real direction or substance. With nothing new or interesting up its sleeve, Garage’s zombie apocalypse setting feels very tired and it lacks the readability, coherence and sheer style of Hotline Miami, a game the developer is clearly in awe of. However, if you’re desperate for some gory twin-stick shooter action with a horror bent, it scratches that itch well enough to warrant investigation. It’s just hard to shake the feeling you’ve played this game before, and better.