Zombies and video games seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Everywhere I look these days, I see zombies. Another really popular style of game, especially on mobile platforms, is the infinite runner. The success of games like Temple Run has spawned a seemingly infinite number of similar clones that all play pretty much the same. Z-Run, a new PS Vita game from Ukrainian developers Beatshapers, takes these two iconic gaming elements and combines them to try and create a best-of-both-worlds situation.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of zombie games. Of all the monsters and villains in the gaming world, zombies have always ranked among my least favorite. Likewise, infinite runners are among the styles of games that I deplore the most. I’ve never understood how Temple Run was able to sweep the gaming world and become the go-to game for so many people. Swipe left, swipe right, swipe up, swipe me to sleep. So imagine my surprise when I played Z-Run, a game that combines the two things I can’t stand in games, and discovered that I really enjoyed it. Throughout my time with the game, I discovered that this game was more than the sum of its parts and introduced some new mechanics that made the infinite runner aspect both thoughtful and challenging.
The premise in Z-Run is that you play as one of two heroes, either Alex or Claire, who are stuck in the middle of a city during the zombie apocalypse. Your goal is simple: escape. It’s easier said than done as each level is populated with dozens of mindless zombies and the path to the end is not an easy one. The baseball bats, shotguns, and crossbows that you find do help a little, but if you’re going to make it out alive, you’re going to have to think.
The first thing I discovered about Z-Run is that it’s challenging. I mean, it’s hard. I was getting destroyed left and right before deciding that maybe I should just switch over to Easy so that I could learn the game better. Then, to my horror, I remembered that I was already playing on Easy. My problem was that I was approaching the game all wrong. I couldn’t just brute force my way through a level, I needed to think my way through. Just like a game of chess, in order to win you have to be planning your next three or four moves before you make your current one. Once this revelation occurred to me, I found success a little easier and the game became infinitely more interesting.
The game is broken up into two basic modes. You have Survival, which is a traditional infinite runner mode, and the goal is to survive as long as possible. It’s good training for the Campaign, which will put you in the city and make you run smaller stretches to try and reach the end. Each level is randomly generated, so when you die, you will start over with a completely new challenge facing you.
So what makes this game different? When you start each level, you have the ability to see what is just ahead of you. Zombies on the left? Maybe you should head to the right. Do you avoid the zombies or attack them? While most infinite runners are more a test of your reaction skills, Z-Run requires you to think and plan ahead. You need to evaluate all the tools and abilities available to you in order to make the best possible decision. And you have a lot of tools.
Unlike games where your only options are to go right, left, or jump, here you have several attacking options as well. You have the ability to avoid enemies with a dodge roll or sprint past them. You can attack them with a jump kick. Or you can slide tackle them and possibly take out a number of threats all at the same time. But you need to be careful because with each action, you take away some of your stamina, and when you stamina is gone, so are you. It will regenerate slowly over time, and there are blue soda bottles to give you an extra boost, but you need to carefully manage when and how you will use your attacks against simply avoiding any threats.
Along the way, you will find a number of items to collect, such as weapons, but also red and blue soda bottles which will give you a health or stamina boost. These items are kept in reserve for the moments when you need them the most. A nice option is that these items will stay with you even if you die, so when you restart the level you have them in your inventory already. This makes for some good strategic decision making. Do you use your health boost after an early hit, or save it for your next run where you might have a better chance of making it to the end? It’s your call.
As much as I enjoyed the game play, there are a number of things holding this game back. For one, zombies aren’t the only challenge you’ll face because the controls can be just as frustrating. Often times there are very noticeable delays between a button press and that action actually being carried out. If you’re going to use your sword to take a zombie’s head off, you better swing a lot earlier than you normally would, because it’s going to take some time. On the plus side, all the controls are consistently slow so you can eventually adapt to them and change your timing. I just wish that everything was a lot tighter and more responsive.
Also, the visuals in the game are rather bland. Everything looks like a generic port of a mobile game, which isn’t horrible to look at, but not particularly appealing either. The motion on screen always seems like it is much slower than it should be, and I’m not sure if it’s a frame rate issue or by design, but it’s not smooth at all. There is one nice visual option which does impact the game, and that’s blood. Each time you take out a zombie, some blood gets splattered on the screen. It eventually will build up until you can’t see anything anymore and have to wipe the screen to make it go away. It is optional and you can turn the feature off, but it adds another layer of complexity to the game that is quite interesting.
Another great thing about this game is the music. There’s nothing like running through a street full of zombies while listening to some really good rock music to cheer you on. Then the game changes things up and provides some fantastic electronic music to keep you going, but it’s always with a good tempo (and it’s all really good). The game’s main theme was written by a band from Buffalo, NY called The Spin Wires, and I’ve really been enjoying them. I almost wished the zombies’ grunts and Claire’s screams of pain (remember, I said the game was hard) would be quieter so that I could focus on the music. Fortunately, one of your options is to turn up the music volume and turn down the sound effects.
And God help you should you ever try and start up a game without being connect to the internet. The game will give you a “Connection Error Warning” about every two seconds. Yes, I know I’m not connected to the internet. I know the leaderboards are not going to update. Just let me play the game!!
Despite the minor frustrations, the controls, the visuals, the error warnings, I found myself genuinely enjoying Z-Run. The short bursts of game play are perfect, and the quick restart after each death make you want to go “just one more time.” It managed to take a worn-out genre and inject something fresh and challenging into it. The irony is that a game about brain-dead zombies will actually make you think strategically more than most games ever will.