Twin-Stick It to ‘Em!
Amid the tide of recent (and not-so-recent) zombie titles popping up all over the place, Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is Konami’s way of frantically waving its arms within the crowd, yelling “Me too! Me too!”. Most other zombie titles present the zombie phenomenon in survival horror treatments, and, in the case of Deep Silver’s Dead Island, throwing some action and RPG elements into the proverbial blender before hitting “Purée”.
Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone says goodbye to all of that, as it is a shoot-em-up of the twin-stick variety. There are no tank controls, no stamina gauge, and no trigger button to tap for firing rounds into undead skulls. The game is almost exclusively controlled, as the name implies, with the two thumbsticks. The left stick controls character movement while the right stick is used for both aiming and shooting – press this thumbstick in any direction to immediately begin firing in that direction. There are no limits to your ammo, and you will continue firing until you release the stick. The triggers and bumpers are sparingly used for alternate firing and menu navigation.
Zombie Apocalypse‘s purpose is to provide a non-stop shmup, pure and simple. Story is at best a tertiary concern after action and character upgrades, but it IS there for those that care. The basic premise is as dry and uninteresting as the rotting corpse of one of the eponymous zombies after a long spell of roasting in the outdoor sun, and just as intellectually stimulating. A zombie infestation has swept through a remote Canadian island community, trapping several survivors on the island; the player must run through several levels filled to the brim with menacing zombies to find a way off the island. Sadly, no reason for the zombie outbreak seems to be given, nor is it explained why some people seem to be immune to the undead contagion.
“Less QQ! More Pew Pew!”
In the gameplay department, Zombie Apocalypse isn’t broken per se, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself in any meaningful way. During my time with the game, it played just fine, but the whole experience ultimately came down to two areas in which Zombie Apocalypse utterly failed to impress me. One is the four playable characters, each of which is a study in the art of stereotyping. The tough chick, the brusque rapper, and the annoying gamer are so done to death (pun intended, sorta) that they don’t even come off as remotely humorous. But insanely annoying voiceovers claw away any shred of tolerance for ill humor you may have, especially – and I know I speak from a biased point of view on this one – the nerd gamer, who is so out-of-touch with reality that he thinks their whole plight is some strange real-life survival-game mission, and who can’t assemble a sentence without throwing in at least three or four “pwns” and “noobs”. Top it all off with heinous British and Canadian accents, and you’ve got a recipe to make even the most heavy metal-hardened eardrums bleed for shame. The priest on a murderous rampage is the only character remotely tolerable, and that’s frankly too little, too late.
The second letdown of the game is its immense difficulty curve. While the first level is a cakewalk, starting with the first boss fight in level 2 and on to the nigh impossible level 3, the game becomes brutally unforgiving. The combined might of your team of four is oftentimes enough to ward off the horde, but lose just one member and the remaining squad just can’t stem the tide and will quickly wipe. There are no mid-level check points, either; you die, you restart the level – simple as that. To make matters worse, the camera is zoomed out to a point that reduces most zombies to nearly indistinguishable shapes coming at your character at varying speeds. Level 3’s Pyros were detectable as nothing more than fast-moving blue amorphous shapes holding a red shape, their gasoline container, running amid brownish amorphous shapes (regular zombies). The targeting system was also a bit vague, and I often found myself only scoring hits after blindly firing into any direction, using my spray of bullets to re-orient my aim.
Konami has implemented a few ideas to try to assuage the extreme difficulty of the game. Each teammate wields a different type of gun, from the constant hail of bullets from the automatic SMG to the single-shot capacity of the sniper rifle; pick your character based on which type of firing speed and knockback you’d like to have. Of course, you can switch between team members on the fly, but in the heat of battle this is often disorienting due to trying to pick out one squirming object – your character – in a sea of squirming objects on the battlefield. Each of the four survivors does have an ultra-powerful alternate-fire attack (or a healing ability for the priest) and an AoE zombie bait attack, but they have to be charged up and collected, respectively. Using one is fine, but you’ll often find yourself in need of one again soon after, only to realize you’ve already wasted it. Unfortunately, when playing in single-player mode, I found my AI teammates never used either special attack, relegating me to be the one-man army.
The Final Verdict
Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone tries to be a campy, tongue-in-cheek shmup action-fest, but quickly degenerates down into a frustrating, groan-inducing ordeal. The difficulty at first brought words associations like “Contra” and “Nintendo-hard” to my mind, but these quickly turned to “Ah shit!” and “Screw this!”. Many elements, like graphics, story and audio are, at best, unimpressive, and multiplayer just didn’t pack any punch the core game lacked (I often found myself stranded in ghost-town match-making screens, and was never able to gather more than a party of two together at any time). Perhaps this title, like the zombies it features, is best left out in the cold until it drops dead of its own accord.