It's always a pleasant surprise when a game surpasses your expectations. Suffice it to say, this reviewer's expectations were modest going into Rock Zombie — the goofy synthesized guitars, expressionless character models and mangled English dialogue all seemed to lead in one direction: pain. But you can't go into every game expecting it to be the next big masterpiece, and so it's only in the mindset of its intended audience that Quaternion Studios' hilariously off-kilter beat 'em up manages to show its best side. It may be rough around the edges and hold limited appeal for anyone un-enthused by "so-bad-it's-good" projects, but Rock Zombie has a cheesy charm that's sure to appeal to both fans of old school brawlers and lame B horror movies.
The premise sounds like it was ripped from an exploitation film: three witches who play in a "female rock band" (for some reason, the game finds it worth mentioning that all three of the band's members are women) are giving a totally tubular concert when suddenly it's interrupted by — you guessed it — zombies! Grabbing their magical guitars, the bodacious babes run off to kick some serious undead butt and deliver some hysterically weak "one-liners." If you're rolling your eyes already, steer far clear of this one — the story only gets sillier as you play on.
That being said, there's something delightfully awful about the way the game chooses to tell its story, from its muddy "comic book" panel cutscenes to the aforementioned dialogue. It's nearly impossible not to laugh at botched lines like "Too slippy! I'm loosing control!" and exchanges such as "What's going on here?" "It seems like a zombie apocalypse to me." Your mileage with such goofiness will depend entirely on how much you enjoy trashy fun outside of the video game medium, but whether intentionally or not the story scenes in the game can be quite funny.
Gameplay-wise, the three witches find themselves in a serviceable beat 'em up that takes them across 21 levels. You can perform a horizontal or vertical swing with your guitar, execute one of a few special attacks, or chain combos together using your rather limited move set. Enemy forces come in a number of varieties, including ones that crawl on the ground (requiring a vertical chop to defeat) and fat zombies that vomit in your direction to hurt you (and thus are better to take on from behind). The controls work well enough for the most part, but occasionally collision detection is your witch's worst enemy; in particular, characters can get stuck on background objects and the vomiting zombies seem able to hit your character from an unfairly long distance.
There are boxes to break and coins to collect — the latter of which unlock collectibles in the Zombie Museum — but you'll spend the majority of your play time hacking away at the undead. This can get monotonous, especially since the levels only get longer as you make progress. In an apparent attempt to break up this tedium, there are a couple of levels your witch will spend inside a car and on the back of a motorcycle. Unfortunately, these overstay their welcome even more so than the normal stages — your only goal in either is to take down as many zombies as possible while fighting the "slippy" controls. There's just not much to engage with, which makes for a rather bland experience.
Graphically, Rock Zombie has some nicely decorated spooky environments for the witches to fight their way through — the graveyard area's statues make for a particularly nice zombie-killing backdrop. The character models don't fare as well, with their faces set as expressionless no matter what happens on screen. Of course, as a game featuring a rock band full of witches, the soundtrack encompasses a number of endearingly schlocky synthesized heavy metal tracks that will leave no impression whatsoever on you.
It's hard to fault a game like Rock Zombie. It's a perfectly serviceable beat 'em up with a number of ridiculous choices that, whether intentional or not, will probably make you laugh. It's not the most technically refined gameplay experience you'll ever have, and a lot of the elements just don't add up, but it's campy enough to make you believe it was trying to be epic — and that might just rope you into trying its cheesy brand of arcade action.