There’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned side-scrolling brawler. A reliable bastion of quick thrills and entertainment that has endured since the 1980s, these games have found both commercial and critical success with titles such as Golden Axe, Final Fight and Streets of Rage holding their place in gaming’s pantheon of classics. Developed by Stick it to the Man studio Zoink Games, Zombie Vikings follows in similar footsteps, channelling the pick up and play philosophy that sits at the core of those aforementioned genre pioneers while infusing it with the sort of deranged humour that is synonymous with the Swedish developer.
Impressions from the offset though, are far more conventional. After picking from a quartet of really quite different undead heroes, players set off from left to right, smashing up crates and mashing monsters into the ground. Somewhat disappointingly, Zombie Vikings actually takes a while to get into gear; forcing players to slog through minutes of inane crate smashing before a single enemy is encountered.
When things do kick off however, the game is in no rush to swamp the player with enemies as earlier genre efforts are notorious for doing. Instead, Zombie Vikings embraces a gentler difficulty curve, gradually introducing different varieties of enemies to players all the while cluing them in as to how everything works.
Chiefly though, what you’ll be doing for the most part is laying waste to the vast legions of enemies that’ll frequently get all up in your grill throughout the game’s ten or so hour campaign duration. And what a butt-ugly bunch they are. From armour plated maggots to towering undead bosses and bomb tossing plague goblins, Zombie Vikings’ ensemble bunch of bad dudes are as repulsive to look at as they are entertaining to beat up. Though that shouldn’t suggest that our heroes are any easier on the eyes because, well, they really aren’t but what they lack in terms of good looks they more than make up in terms of variety.
The bird-like Caw-kaa for example, has special moves that allow her to swoop down onto enemies to inflict a large amount of damage, while walking undead steroid powerhouse, Gunborg, can inflate her muscles to such an extent that she can literally explode, inflicting huge amounts of damage on everyone in the vicinity but also damaging herself in the process. Further spicing up the proceedings is the fact that some levels require particular Vikings to be used, allowing players to get a taste of how each one handles and thus adding some extra variety to the whole affair.
Naturally, being undead, our protagonists can replenish their health by chowing down on squishy purple brains, while coins obtained from wreckable containers and certain enemies allow players to purchase better weapons to smack things with, while rune stones provide a number of different and beneficial magical effects (increased health, for example). There is no shortage of opportunity to scoop up ample quantities of both too, as Zombie Vikings allows players to wander off the beaten path and explore hidden avenues to bust open treasure chests and take on side-quests.
Ah yes, the side-quests. In addition to paying out nice amounts of gold to put towards your next skull cracking purchase, these additional jobs on the side also help Zombie Viking’s strongest asset to shine – namely its humorous writing. Penned by comedian Zach Weinersmith, Zombie Viking’s narrative and cast of characters is firmly rooted in the eccentric, tasking players to retrieve the eye of Odin because, well, he just wants it back because it’s an inconvenience and not because it has any sort of world-saving properties.
Described by the developer as a ‘story-brawler’, Zombie Vikings takes a similar off-beat comedic tact to their previous game, Stick it to the Man and infuses every minute of its campaign duration with satirical and wild digs at popular culture while packing in some real laugh out loud moments to boot. In fact, Zombie Viking’s commitment to eccentricity is such that even the pause menu comes with its own sing along song melody which just so happens to be horrendously catchy. Pause menu songs – we need more of that sort of thing.
A more obvious quality that Zombie Vikings shares with Zoink Games’ earlier PS4 effort is the aesthetic. Boasting the same cardboard cut-out and ghoulish characters and backgrounds that gave Stick it to the Man such a unique look, Zombie Vikings certainly looks the part, bursting with grotesque charm, grim flourishes and impressive characterisation.
Unfortunately, while the visual style remains impressive and unique when compared to Zombie Vikings contemporary and earlier genre stablemates, it is somewhat tarnished by a handful of technical issues. Most significant among these is the screen tearing – there’s simply huge amounts of it and having the top section of the screen flickering separately from the action occurring beneath it can be quite distracting indeed.
Another technical foible is the framerate which is basically all over the place and frequently dips low during busy scenes. Simply put, with hardware as powerful as the PS4 in 2015, both these problems should be a thing of the past; especially where it’s clear that the developer has placed a premium on art style over demanding visuals in which the latter might conceivably warrant such problems.
Elsewhere another issue, though a far less egregious one, is the amount of longevity that the game provides beyond the auspices of its single-player campaign. Essentially, outside of Platinum trophy hunting, there is little to sustain the interest of a single player once the main campaign has been seen through to its natural conclusion. Sure enough, an arena mode exists, but really it feels much more like an afterthought rather than an organic and worthwhile addition to the base game.
Arguably then, Zombie Vikings, much like the greats of the genre that it subscribes to, is an experience that’s best enjoyed in the company of distinctly alive, flesh and blood mates rather than solely in the company of the rotting AI undead. Certainly, when playing with friends everything from the satisfaction of hacking apart enemy legions and discovering secrets to the rib-tickling comedy is amplified and as such, it allows Zoink Games sophomore effort to graduate from a merely entertaining prospect to an excellent one.
One feature that is especially deserving of note when playing co-operatively though, is how the game handles death. So, whereas a depleted health bar in single-player results in a trip back to the most recent checkpoint, in the company of friendly pals what actually happens is your head detaches and upon retrieval by your friends, allows you to come back to life. It’s a great little feature all told which aside from keeping the action going, also fits neatly in with the game’s macabre setting.
Despite being let down by a lack of technical polish then, Zombie Vikings nonetheless impresses, with its undead setting and cast injecting new life into a tired genre with a funny and frequently entertaining take on the side-scrolling brawler that’s best enjoyed with friends.
Note – A patch to fix some of the issues written about in this review will be available shortly.