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Zombie Tycoon 2: Brainhov's Revenge Review - a strategy hybrid with multiplayer thrills and single-player chills

on 30 April 2013

You won't find a wealth of RTS or MOBA games on PlayStation Network, which leaves Zombie Tycoon 2: Brainhov's Revenge ready to scratch an itch left dormant since December's Guardians of Middle-earth. Except Zombie Tycoon 2 is nothing like Guardians, nor is it overtly reminiscent of more exaggerated fare like Command & Conquer. By distilling trademark elements of both genres into console-ready mechanics, Frima Studio brings something new to the strategy space that, while dubiously simple, is somewhat refreshing. The mainstream appeal of Zombie Tycoon 2 goes beyond its gameplay hybridization, though. Colorful cartoon lunacy illustrates the conflict of two mad geniuses in a lighthearted way that riffs on recent, gloomy zombie fiction. In fact, direct conflict between the titular Tycoon and Brainhov—via competitive multiplayer—is their game's strongest asset. Of course, the same can be said for just about every strategy game, and this one doesn't succeed (or fail) by way of aping the competition. For better or worse, what makes Zombie Tycoon 2 unique runs the gamut from pleasant highs to frustrating lows. The result is a fun multiplayer romp for strategy-starved friends that quickly wears out its single-player welcome.

Of course, you can't blame the characters for that one. Orville Tycoon and his mentor-turned-nemesis Archibald Brainhov exude villainous charm that more than makes up for the game's lack of an interesting plot. One mad genius gets miffed at the other. Each commands a horde of zombies. In and around the unlucky town of Finkleville, they wage war. But there's this strange disconnect where the two rarely actually meet. Instead, the bulk of eight campaign chapters is spent as one evil scientist playing catch-up to the other, either dealing with the aftermath of his dominance or setting up positions of your own. You are fighting the appropriate opposing force, alongside a few scattered boss monsters, but it all feels rather peripheral. The best moments are reserved for cutscenes, and a bombastic showdown between the armies of two great minds never really comes together. At least, not in six of eight chapters (more on that in a bit).

At the very least, dancing around what should be the narrative effigy gives Frima room to inject gameplay variety. Half-hour missions with multiple objectives on large battlefields are the core experiences here, but the odd stealth or resource-gathering mission gives you direct control of Tycoon and Brainhov for more intimate action. The variety, while perfectly functional, feels somewhat arbitrary—why am I so eager to ditch core gameplay for side attractions? In the single-player campaign, the former starts to feel “samey” rather quickly. Most of the game's tricks are played out in the first couple hours, leaving little to introduce besides “go here, destroy that” objectives ad nauseum and increasingly longer, harder missions.

And boy, do they get harder. I mentioned that the conflict between Tycoon and Brainhov doesn't come to a head in the first six chapters. I couldn't tell you about the last two—a preposterously steep mid-game difficulty curve leaves me, as of this writing, unable to progress past Chapter 6. And it's not for lack of trying—four hours of failed strategies, checkpoint reloads, and controller tossing left me fuming at the futility of my efforts. With absolutely no way of healing your Mobile Spawner—for which death spells game over—the tiniest imperfection in your advancement route can throw off the entire mission. Move too quickly, and you risk drawing the ire of zombies you won't see until you're within inches. Hang back to let your squads scope out the situation, and you'll more than likely be ambushed by wandering hordes. That's if the enemy's cross-level laser beam, which targets your Mobile Spawner every couple minutes, doesn't knock off a good chunk of your health first. The number of things that can almost instantly spell doom is maddening, and each reared its ugly head in spite of my very best micromanaging.

To make matters worse, you don't gain health back when you reload checkpoints. If you hit a checkpoint with only a sliver of health, you'll have a better chance of victory by reloading the entire mission. If your Mobile Spawner falls to half health in a mission's first 10 minutes, you might as well do that anyway. This isn't difficulty for fun's sake—it's bad design that soured me on the campaign completely. I've been playing video games for 15 years. I've faced, and overcome, countless difficult challenges. In four hours of trying, I couldn't beat Chapter 6 of Zombie Tycoon 2. Take that how you will.

Thankfully, Zombie Tycoon 2's mechanics and rules are easy to learn and difficult to master—a great foundation for long-term multiplayer thrills. Every match puts you in control of two zombie squads, a hero monster, and your Mobile Spawner. Your zombie squads are composed of basic attack units that move in a group at your command. These units can't be upgraded in traditional, linear form. Instead, special buildings allow you to swap the combat roles and traits of your squads at will. Capture a boxing ring, for example, and you can send a squad inside to learn close-quarters techniques that stun opponents. Later, if the mid-field watch tower becomes key to victory, use the hardware store to change one of your squads to zombie engineers that can capture the tower in seconds. Adapting to battlefield changes and leveraging different zombie types forms a compelling gameplay hook that keeps matches feeling fresh despite being limited to just a single map.

Meanwhile, your monster, like the MOBA's hero character, is a highly valuable asset with cooldown abilities that can single-handedly win fights or turn the tide of a match. The selection is limited—and one monster in particular seems remarkably better than the others—but deciding whether to take time away from capturing buildings to snag XP from AI enemies is always a tricky mid-match dilemma. Deciding how to treat your Mobile Spawner is equally treacherous. The spawner is your lifeline, and every point of health lost brings you closer to defeat. But the vehicle—commandeered by Tycoon or Brainhov, depending on your faction choice—is also an extremely valuable combat asset, capable of decent DPS and regenerating zombie squad units when within range.

Managing four combat entities and organizing strategies is a merciful breeze, thanks to a console-ready control scheme that places most movement and attacking on the four face buttons. The only exception is Dead Rush, a mid-game trump card that turns captured houses into game-changers. Unlike the larger businesses that offer new squad types, small houses yield to force quickly and add one or two zombie units to a docile, map-wide force that stands ready for moments of crisis. Tapping R1 will summon every “house zombie” under your control to attack a single point on the map. The hordes mass from every corner of the battlefield, the screen shakes for both players, and chaos ensues. Equally useful as a distraction tactic and additional support for your most important offensive volleys, Dead Rush is delightful fun that adds yet another layer of urgent depth onto a game that embraces the uninitiated with simple controls while challenging the hardcore with strategic intensity.

Those hardcore players may find that a comparatively small amount of content and woefully slim options hurt Zombie Tycoon 2's long-term appeal. Only one map for play isn't a deal-breaker (and certainly isn't unusual in this genre), but no options exist for altering building types, adjusting match parameters, or developing fun variants that could keep the action fresh over weeks and months. It remains to be seen if and how dedicated players will spend their time, but it certainly won't be in the largely uninteresting single-player mode. Other shortcomings, like being unable to remap controller buttons, are less egregious, but I lament that useful information about units and buildings is buried in menus instead of highlighted during play. There's plenty of unused space on the screen for info bubbles, with quick summaries of “need to know” info, to pop up over certain buildings and units.

On the audiovisual side, Zombie Tycoon 2 is a mixed bag. The game's cartoon aesthetic is a pleasing tradeoff of texture detail for vivid colors and exaggerated character models. These wacky designs benefit from a kind of charming animation that reminds me of Sly Cooper's PS2 heyday. Equal parts rigid and carefree, purposeful and lazy, these creatures quickly won me over. I wish I could say the same for Zombie Tycoon's music, which starts as uninteresting brass and devolves into tedium as generic loops are played over and over to the same low zombie groan I heard thousands of times before all was said and done. The package fares much worse on PS Vita, where a great deal of visual quality is sacrificed to maintain a distractingly poor framerate.

In all other respects, the PS Vita port of Zombie Tycoon 2 is a serviceable release. Cross-save functionality is a breeze to use, with easy menu options to upload and download your save from the cloud. Cross-platform multiplayer is a huge draw to this package, and works similarly well. There were no significant response delays in my cross-platform multiplayer testing, and PS Vita's full-fledged controls and analog sticks make platform of choice a simple matter of preference. Do you like the idea of hopping online for the odd multiplayer match while you're out and about, or does a couch investment with hours to spare sound more appealing? Zombie Tycoon's multiplayer suite supports both; I just wish there was more of it to love.

Zombie Tycoon 2's totally forgettable, obnoxiously difficult campaign soured me on the experience, but competitive multiplayer offers undeniable fun in a sincere attempt to bridge the best parts of two genres for a console audience without much of either. In the face of limited options and technical ho-hum, Frima Studio's strategy hybrid is a great entry point for beginners that does very little to draw the enthusiast legions away from their blockbusters of choice. There's a niche to be filled for this kind of game on PlayStation Network; I have little doubt that an excellent game will one day fill it, but Zombie Tycoon 2 is not that game.

Zombie Tycoon 2: Brainhov's Revenge Review by Kyle Prahl

-The Final Word-

A refreshingly simple hybrid of RTS depth and MOBA thrills, Zombie Tycoon 2 shines in multiplayer despite limited options. Just don't bother with its tedious, punishing single-player campaign.
  • RTS meets MOBA with console simplicity
  • Charmingly zany art direction
  • Friends can learn and be competitive quickly
  • Obnoxious late-game difficulty
  • Repetitive music, framerate trouble on PS Vita
  • Very few multiplayer options
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic, Gamerankings and Opencritic