Rock Zombie Review
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: side-scrolling brawlers aren’t exactly my favorite genre. While a few catch my eye every once and awhile, the truth is that I only picked this game up because the game’s concept of rock band witches beating down hordes of zombies with their guitars was something I found amusing. Beyond that, the game had just come out and its Steam trading cards were selling for a lot despite its relatively low price (I actually ended up making more back than I paid for the game). I’d normally never give a game like this a chance, and that makes me a little sad inside because of how much I ended up enjoying Rock Zombie.
This falls into the “flawed gem” category
Every so often, a game will come along that’s undeniably bad in many ways, and yet full to the brim with enough charm and humor that its flaws become barely noticeable. Make no mistake—Rock Zombie is a deeply flawed game in many ways, and yet I wound up ignoring what most people would consider to be better games in order to play it over and over again. Like Blood Knights and Venetica before it, this is a game that will no doubt be divided into two distinct groups of “people who hate it beyond words” and “people who recognize that it’s deeply flawed, but can’t help but love it.”
There’s simply no avoiding the truth that this game is flawed. As you can see in the picture to the left, the floor sometimes disappears in the slow-motion sequence that ensues whenever you finish off the last enemy in an area, and that’s the least of the game’s worries; the game has virtually no graphic options to speak of on the PC (instead opting for incredibly vague “max,” “high,” “med,” and “min” presets), and all settings but “min” include a grossly overused raindrop-on-the-camera effect that distorts everything it touches, from the UI elements and achievements to incoming enemies. An apologist might claim that this makes the game more stressful, but in reality it’s just an ugly effect that’s overused.
Then you have the occasional wonkiness of the controls. Using the keyboard and mouse, you move with the WASD keys and perform melee guitar strikes with right and left clicks, but using magic relies on you hitting the numbers 1 through 3, which I found to be incredibly awkward. Sadly, the game doesn’t allow you to rebind the keys, so this is something you have to deal with.
Those using controllers are slightly better off, and I wound up favoring a controller since the game felt better with it, but you’re forced to map your controller’s buttons before starting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Rock Zombie supports both DirectInput and XInput, so I was able to get both my Xbox 360 controller and a Playstation 1 controller hooked into the computer through a special adapter to work with the game. The downside to this flexibility is that running in two directions at once (say, right and up) doesn’t always register correctly on the Xbox 360 controller, so you may find yourself occasionally walking in that direction instead of running like you had intended. Bizarrely enough, my PS1 controller didn’t experience this problem. This is ultimately a minor problem and it should be mentioned that I completed the game on the hardest difficulty level without any control-related deaths on a 360 controller, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
A tale of witches and guitars
Calling the chain of events in Rock Zombie a “story” is probably overselling it a bit, because this is a side-scrolling brawler in every sense, right down to the kitschy story and the interchangeability of the playable characters. Not only do Zoe, Crystal, and Sasha all have identical voices (and even then, there’s zero voice acting beyond occasional exclamations like “ha-HA!“), but apart from one being stronger and another being faster, these differences being so slight that you’re unlikely to notice them at all, they all have the same moves and combos. The optics end up being the only appreciable difference; Zoe’s magic is red, Crystal’s is blue, and Sasha’s is yellow.
To sum up the story, a bunch of witches who are in a rock band are playing a show when a green fog comes out of nowhere and a bunch of zombie sounds erupt from the crowd (except for one who says “EGG,” clearly failing at being a zombie). The witches are then forced to fight their way out of the building and to the source of the green zombie fog, slaying untold numbers of undead and marines on their way to the source of the infestation. There are moments of hilariously cheesy dialogue between the three characters in comic book-esque storyboard cutscenes, as well as some spelling errors such as “loosing” instead of “losing” that only add to the game’s already-abundant kitschy charm. In the end, it’s a game devoid of anything resembling a meaningful story, but so full of quirky weirdness reminiscent of the brawlers that came before it that you’re unlikely to mind.
That said, I would have appreciated a bit more personality to the characters. Crystal is shown to be a bit more task-oriented than the others, whereas Zoe seems more laid-back, but these aren’t traits that are ever expanded on. Most character dialogue in the storybook cutscenes is identical in tone, coming across as though all three characters were written by the same person. That’s likely, of course, but it’s not ideal for character dialogue to be so uniform that it shows.
Of beatings and magic
At its core, Rock Zombie is a love letter to the brawler games of arcades past such as Double Dragon and others, but it’s also modernized and stripped down. For example, the “casual” and “normal” difficulties grant you unlimited continues (the hardest difficulty, “arcade 1990,” sends you back to the menu when you run out of lives). Additionally, your magic packs quite the punch and enemies rarely require more than two or three strikes to finish off with your melee strikes, making the game a bit easier than arcade brawlers. Offsetting this somewhat is the absence of weapons that can be picked up like in many older titles in the genre, and while this makes sense given the fact that zombies aren’t exactly known for using weapons apart from their own bodies, it’s something that could have potentially added a bit more variety to stages.
On the controller, B and A (or the right and bottom buttons on whatever gamepad you’re using) control your melee guitar strikes. One is a horizontal attack and the other is vertical, and both have their specific uses; wide horizontal strikes are perfect for crowd control, but vertical strikes can hit from farther away and are necessary in order to hit crawling zombies who are untouched by your horizontal attack. Striking enemies fills up your magic meter, and this enables you to use your three different magic attacks. First, you have “magic ball,” which is true to its name and shoots a magical ball of light that damages enemies. Then there’s “magic thunder,” which costs more magic, but shoots out a column of light that evaporates all enemies in that direction. Lastly, there’s “magic rain,” a last-ditch kind of magic attack that calls down three columns of light from the sky to evaporate any enemies who might be surrounding you. To be perfectly honest, I almost never used the magic rain attack because of how much magic it costs, preferring to stick with the other two almost exclusively.
Different enemy types
There’s not exactly an abundance of different enemy types, but it’s definitely better than the endless stream of different-colored ninjas in Turtles in Time. Rock Zombie has your standard shuffling zombies, as well as running zombies, crawling zombies, zombies that are on fire (and who explode shortly after death), fat zombies that vomit deadly poison onto you, dog zombies, spiders, and marines. Many enemies have to be dealt with differently, and while running/on fire zombies are perhaps a bit too prevalent, stages are usually pretty good about switching things up and providing you with combinations that force you to change the way you approach groups. For example, a group of shuffling zombies with a vomiting zombie can’t just be run up to and attacked. Instead, it’s almost always best to use magic thunder to evaporate that group. Zombies on fire, on the other hand, can be run up to and knocked back so that they damage other enemies with their dying explosion. Combat becomes enjoyably rhythmic after a few stages, and there are a pair of driving stages and several boss fights to switch things up and keep the zombie-bashing from wearing out its welcome.
Annoying environmental hazards
One of the things that got under my skin when I first started playing were the environmental hazards, which never struck me as being self-explanatory. For one, spider webs on the street in early stages snap up and take out large chunks of your health, something that never ceases to feel cheap until you learn to look for them. Even then, enemies can walk over these webs without triggering them. Landmines are a fairer environmental hazard because they beep before detonating and can be triggered by enemies, but then you have dangerous brown puddles that spawn tentacles when you walk over them and areas dripping poison that only spill large amounts when you walk under them. Again, enemies seem to be immune to these, and this inconsistency definitely takes some getting used to.
Bugs and miscellaneous issues
One thing that never ceased to feel cheap, however, were the scripted explosions. An object in front of you occasionally explodes in order to create a stream of fire that you have to avoid, but the explosion itself is even more dangerous. This means that if you finish off all nearby enemies and instinctively run forward before the arrow icon pops up telling you to, you can occasionally lose a life to a completely unexpected explosion. Having that happen to me was easily the maddest I got at the game.
Then there are the bugs. In addition to the ground sometimes giving way to the ocean of blood pictured earlier, I actually had my character get stuck behind the camera in such a way that I was unable to move forward, forcing me to restart the level because an invisible wall—of which there are several throughout the game—blocked me from reentering the visible area. I played through the game several times and this only happened once (and even then, only because I knew the stage by heart and ran ahead before being told to), so it’s incredibly unlikely that this will happen to most people, but it’s still a possibility worth mentioning.
Lastly, the stage before the final boss fight shakes. I don’t mean a little rumbling, either—I mean full-blown, disorienting shaking every 5-10 seconds. You’ll no doubt be a pro at the game by that point and find yourself able to finish the level without too much trouble despite this, but it’s still incredibly distracting and unnecessary.
The graphics are stylish, but low-quality
If you take a look at the screenshots, you’ll notice a few things. For one, the lighting is actually pretty atmospheric and interesting. The character models and textures, on the other hand, are of a noticeably low quality that brings to mind the graphics in the first Max Payne (which was released in 2001), something that the game tries to hide by applying a subtle outline around characters to make things seem more like a comic book and less like it’s trying to be realistic. It doesn’t always succeed, but I enjoyed the game enough to look past the graphics apart from my annoyance at the rain-on-the-camera effect.
Great music, bad loops
The music in Rock Zombie is one of those things that I found unexpectedly great, and it’s no doubt something that’ll catch your attention if you watch any of the videos I’ve embedded. The entire game has a great instrumental rock soundtrack that suits it perfectly, and there are a surprising number of tracks littered throughout the game. The only negative I could point out is that the tracks don’t always seem to loop properly, so you’ll sometimes hear the track suddenly stop and start over again. That’s not a huge issue, and it’s definitely a problem that the quality of the soundtrack more than makes up for, but it’s one of those things I’ve come to notice the presence of in games.