As much as gamers nowadays may enjoy sprawling narratives and innovative gameplay from indies and big-name developers/publishers, sometimes simplicity is nice. A game that is a throwback to the simpler arcade days where score was king is a good change of pace in the current landscape, where games are meant to be experienced in large chunks. On the surface, Zombie Party does just that with its promise of almost instant action. There's some depth but not too much — and for a game like this, that's perfectly fine.
Zombie Party is split into four somewhat-distinct modes. Adventure mode is basically arena-based combat, where you fight off waves of enemies until you reach a showdown with a boss. Defeat it, and you'll be able to move on to the next area and restart the process. The locations are randomized, and although the title suggests all-out zombie combat, they only make up a small part of the enemy roster. Spiders, mummies, skeletal centipedes and large one-eyed aliens are just a few of the foes you'll face, and the only thing they have in common is that they're dumb enough to follow you and not worry about getting in the way of your gunfire.
Dungeon mode bills itself as a roguelike, but it is very similar to Adventure mode except for a few differences. Stage layouts are randomly generated instead of being open arenas. There are chests that hide loot, and you must find the exits in each stage instead of simply clearing out enemy waves. The end result is always a boss, and there's no set path for the environments you encounter.
Arcade mode is more of a challenge compared to the other modes. You have a time limit of five minutes, and the goal is to kill 10,000 zombies before time runs out. No boss characters are present for you to fight, so it's you against the seemingly endless horde. Unless you're coming in with a ridiculously powered-up character (more on that later), you're barely going to make a dent in reaching the goal.
The final mode is Deathmatch, and it is the mode least likely to be played by anyone. To be fair, the mode has some good ideas, like the expandable arena. Levels start off as being very small, so deaths can occur almost immediately. Shoot explosive barrels in the stage, and the arena starts to expand. Survive long enough, and you'll end up with a stage that can be as sprawling as the ones seen in other modes. The drawback is that the ordnance and gunfire can be blinding. With loads of explosions and gunfire filling the screen and no indicators to locate yourself, you'll be flying blind most of the time, so the experience is tough to enjoy.
The basic twin-stick shooter mechanics are in full effect, but the various additions keep Zombie Party fun. Jumping may seem like a small thing, but it's very useful when you're trying to get away from an all-encompassing horde. Guns cover the standard categories like SMG and shotgun, but within those categories are loads of different gun types with their own firing rates and bullet strength. There are also add-ons that can be applied to each of those guns, so you can have a pistol with wider shots or a deployable turret with rainbow bullets, just to name a few. On top of that, you can equip up to three different secondary abilities at a time, such as throwing lighting bombs or using a sword alongside your guns. Combat feels fresh due to the multitude of weapon and power combinations that can be used.
The presence of coins also keeps things interesting. After every wave, you can use any points gained from leveling up to increase one of your stats, and you can use the coins to buy guns or ammo. All of the upgrades disappear when you die; similar to a match in Counter-Strike, a fresh game means starting from scratch. Unused coins go to a bank upon death and cannot be used to buy temporary upgrades in the next game.
While coins contribute to temporary upgrades, they also serve as a means to permanently unlock everything in the game. It is never explained, but permanent upgrades to your character can be purchased with the coins that you haven't spent. More characters, guns, pets, and hats can also be obtained this way. There's a nice tug-of-war going on between spending the coins in a current game to advance or saving them all to obtain something new, but that's marred by the fact that earning coins feels like a slow process. It feels even slower when you see the high prices, so you're very conscious about the amount of grinding that's needed to make any headway into the unlockables.
Aside from the grind, the part that will irk some players is feedback — or lack thereof. This doesn't relate to the guns so much as it does you getting hit. You might see yourself blink when you get hit, but that effect can get lost amidst the chaos. Given your relatively low health bar, it's easy to take too many hits and die, but there's no warning that you're getting close to your last unit of life. There's no warning beep or sustained blinking, and death will catch you by surprise.
Games like this tend to be best enjoyed with multiple people, and Zombie Party allows for up to four players either locally or online. The good news is that offline play with friends is better than solo play, and the chaos is more manageable and the grind is much less noticeable when multiple people are earning gold. The bad news is that there's no way to properly gauge how good the netcode is, since no one is playing online. There's no one searching for a game, and hosting a game means you hope that someone will show up and then realize 30 minutes later that no one will. Since the online community is absolutely dead, it's best to think of this as a strictly offline affair.
The presentation is fine in certain areas. The pixel graphics for the characters and the environments are good, but the more impressive part is that they can fit loads of characters of all sizes with no slowdown, even when tons of other particle effects are in play. The small body parts that fly off when blasting a horde with a really powerful gun are a nice touch, and the blast from more powerful guns is cool to see, even if it obscures portions of the map. The music starts off in chiptune but ventures into generic action territory after that. The audio is not terrible, and it gets the job done.
Where the game falters is in the sound effects. We've long been inundated with realism in our virtual gunshots, so it can be a shock to hear the various beeps and boops that constitute gunfire. Even if you've been thoroughly acclimated to retro gunfire, you'll still wince at what's here since it sounds off. The pistol is fine, but the more powerful weapons sound weak. Compare the meaty machine gun sounds in Smash TV to the tinny machine gun fire here, and your weapons fail to convey any power.
Zombie Party is best enjoyed in short bursts with friends. The shooting is fun because of the guns and mods that can be employed, and the variety keeps the fighting fresh. Even though the game sports quite a few modes, there's no escaping the grind if you want to make some headway. If you can stomach that, this title is perfect for quick bursts of gaming or as a nice break between bigger, more involved titles.
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