Plants vs. Zombies was admittedly an initially tough sell for me. I came to the Vita seeking the kinds of deep, immersive games that cell phones and iDevices haven’t (with very few exceptions) delivered yet. I wanted the kind of story, art, gameplay, and all the bang a cutting edge console has to offer. I really didn’t expect to be playing a flash game (especially one that’s three years old already) on my hot new Playstation Vita.
Yet it quickly became apparent to me, having never played the game on other platforms, that Plants vs. Zombies is no run-of-the-mill casual flash game. The graphics, though still moving in that trademark Flash wiggle, are sharp and crisp on the Vita’s screen. There was surprisingly little handholding by means of in game tutorials on the early stages, which I also found refreshing. It was a breeze to get into.
The game plays like a tower defense title, albeit on a smaller stage. Much of the game takes place on a nine-by-five grid (later levels introduce nine-by-six grids). Waves of zombies advance toward your house, and you’re tasked with stopping them through employing different kinds of battle-ready plants. Sunlight, the currency with which you buy your burgeoning defences, comes in the form of orbs which you tap to collect (you can also shake or tilt the Vita to collect them too, this is useful if you have a plant selected and want to avoid misusing it). Once you’ve collected enough sunlight to summon up a plant, you select the kind you want (there are several types, more on this shortly) and then tap a location on the grid to plant it.
Controls are touch-based, using the Vita’s front touch screen. I found them precise and responsive, and they were one of my favorite things about this title. The screen is sensitive enough that it doesn’t mistake the particular cell I want to plant in.
The sound in Plants vs. Zombies is also one of its strong points. Xylophones tinkle every time you collect some sunlight, the zombies groan “Brains!” in several different voices, and disarmingly cute “pop” happens each time one of your plants decapitates a zombie. The background music is subtle, equal parts eerie and silly.
In “Adventure Mode,” the game’s main campaign game play mode, you’ll defend your home from horde after horde across more than fifty levels. Each level typically introduces a new zombie type or environmental hazard (such as vision-obscuring fog or zombie-spawning gravestones) as well as a new plant to add to your arsenal.
Strategy in Plants vs. Zombies boils down to making three choices: 1) which (of the eventual total of 49) plants will you choose to play the stage with, 2) when you’ll play a plant, and 3) where you’ll play a plant. Though there are seemingly few choices to make in this game, the combinations really open up a vast field of possibility and strategy. The plants you choose from have strengths and weaknesses regarding rate of fire, sunlight cost, and recharge rate (how quickly you can plant another of the same plant granted you can afford the sunlight). Several plants are also single use, are only effective against certain zombies, or have a defensive benefit.
One of my bigger gripes with this game is that despite the huge array of seeds available to the player, several seem designed to only interact with one or two zombies or environmental effects (take the Blover, which acts on either fog or balloon zombies, or the Umbrella leaf, which guards nearby plants from two kinds of special zombies. In any other circumstances, these plants are useless). Levels start to feel stale when all they do is add a specialized zombie and the specific plant that counters it into your repertoire. One other feature the game lacks, which most tower defense titles have incorporated, is a fast-forward button. Once all your defenses are in place and you know you have a level beaten, you still have to wait for all the zombies to shamble into your defenses. I really would have appreciated an option to move things along so I could get on with my campaign.
As mentioned above, the levels can start to feel monotonous. Fortunately, Plants vs. Zombies shakes up its lane-based tower defense with a few mini games. I found these interesting and a welcome diversion. They introduce a handful of modes like bowling for zombies or conveyor belt mode, which limits your usable plants on a level to only those rolling out on an auto-scrolling conveyor belt. Other gameplay modes are also unlockable, and Puzzle Mode and Zen Garden Mode make themselves available once players reach milestones in the Adventure campaign. Adventure mode may last about 10 hours or fewer, but there’s plenty of game here, should you want it.
Plants vs. Zombies is an interesting balance of casual and ‘core gameplay that’s already charmed thousands of players on other gaming platforms. I can’t argue with its established popularity. Its transition onto the Vita shows that Sony isn’t afraid of repurposing an older hit which, while not necessarily technically impressive, does offer solid gameplay with broad appeal. Personally, I’d prefer something a little fresher on my Vita though.
You can play a flash version of Plants vs. Zombies for free on your browser at PopCap’s site.
Review by Thaddeus Bates.