Review: Atom Zombie Smasher

Few games are funny. Humor is a difficult card to play in a video game. Yes, good writing can help, but in the end it can only pull so much; eventually, the gameplay needs to back up the zaniness of the product; this is something most game developers have a hard time understanding.

Blendo Games’ previous titles, Flotilla and Air Forte, mostly achieved this. They had the writing and the punch lines to make you smile, but not quite the delivery. Not to say they were bad: Flotilla was one of my favorites of last year, a perfect coffee break game that hit all the right notes. It was a good game, but the writing had to carry a lot of the comedy. There was disconnect between it and the gameplay–the world was ludicrous, but the situation you were in smacked more of desperation than insanity.

And now we enter Atom Zombie Smasher, a game that is hilarious and features the gameplay to completely back it up. It is a stunner, a great game that presses every button, even the big red one that says Do Not Use.

Let’s go back to the beginning, though. There are two…well, three, basic game design concepts that a one man studio, like Blendo, can employ. One is to make a game with stunning ambition that takes years and ends up half-done. Another is to try to emulate retail experiences and fail miserably. The third, which fits all three of their games, is to try to do one thing like a boss, make a game that tries only a couple hooks but makes sure they are confident, scathingly brilliant ones.

That’s what Atom Zombie Smasher is. It doesn’t try to do a lot. At its core is a very simple premise: zombies are invading a city! You’ve got a zeppelin, a helicopter, and some mercenaries! Help out! There’s a big board game like adventure on top of it, where you pick which parts of the randomly designed city to save, but it only offers the (convincing) illusion of choice: what is important is the rescuing itself.

And the rescuing is tense! Let me tell you. At the beginning of levels, zombies! Yes! Zombies come pouring in through various side streets, into one of the man downtown areas in the city. Civilians run from them! From here, you deploy your mercenaries to fight the zombie menace and use a helicopter to rescue as many of the poor sods as you can. Kill all the zombies before nightfall, and the city’s yours. If nightfall comes, you’re almost always screwed, as zombies will pour in from all sides.*

The game features a number of other little positives, just to add to the experience. Each campaign at default values will pretty much last for two hours or so, but the game is eminently replayable, with a lot of options and mutators to be applied. It’s really nice to see these options, too; it’s made me fire through the campaign five times already, and I’m itching to play it again. That’s the sign of a good game built on a solid premise: when I can play it so many times in a couple days, and still want to go back for more. Atom Zombie Smasher is a game that carries its premise home with its gameplay, which is often rare in the indie market.

It’s such a great premise, and it’s combined with the same surrealist humor that Blendo are known for. The story is told in comic panels that pop up as a prologue and epilogue to your story, as well as being unlocked in random order throughout. That’s a plus and minus: on one hand, there’s no narrative here. On the other, the vignettes are so incredibly ludicrous that, were they in order, I doubt they’d even make any more sense.

What makes the humor here is the synergy between the humor and the gameplay. The game is all about making tense choices, then letting little dot people die because they didn’t get to the helicopter fast enough, cursing their families because they decide to run into the horde of zombies instead of towards the helicopter. The reality of the thing, when you think about it, is monstrous: in later levels, you plan to save the scientists who give you a better chance of saving the city, and put up barricades that impede zombies, but make it impossible for certain people to survive. When you dig deep, you realize you’re basically playing a monstrous, cold hearted government official, the kind who nuked Raccoon City and the kind who shoots people who get out of quarantine. It is a horrible world, and it is counterbalanced beautifully by the absurdist humor, which shows how far some of the people you are working with go to really escape from the monstrosity of their jobs.

It’s what makes the game so viciously compelling: not that the game is so eminently playable, which is definitely is, but also that there’s this deep absurdist overtone hiding a secretly depressing core. It’s a theme that Blendo have touched on in Flotilla, and do so again here, but in a way that won’t make people take points off the game because they don’t like the depiction.** Here, it’s something of a deep undertone, something a lot of gamers won’t even think about but which, when considered, really gives the game another interesting layer.

You owe it to yourself to give Atom Zombie Smasher a go. It’s got the same compelling charm as Flotilla did, and a similar super cool aesthetic (the soundtrack, unmentioned thus far, really makes everything feel like everything’s super cool and in the Sixties, which is a nice touch). It’s absurd, it’s remarkably clever, and, most importantly, it’s the kind of game you could end up playing for far too long. And while we all clamor for narrative, in the end all we want is a game rope. And Atom Zombie Smasher is a hell of a rope.

*An aside I couldn’t fit into the review: my favorite moment of the game was when I was rescuing a portion of the city. I had a number of good mercenaries (artillery, infantry, snipers, and barricades) and I went after a difficult zone. We saved a few people, and killed all the zombies but a dozen, maybe. Night fell. From here was a mad, chaotic scramble, where two additional nights fell, each bringing the horde, and each time my men killed nearly all of them. Finally, we killed all the bastards, after 10 tense minutes of combat. Fantastic. Really, that moment alone makes this game great.

**I really hope this is intentionally brilliant, and not just accidentally brilliant. I have a feeling it is, because I can’t see someone making two games that both have the same general idea of a really depressing horrible life that is made bearable by absurdist humor (and excellent gameplay).