Frima Studio’s Zombie Tycoon is the first game that has been developed exclusively as a mini, and also the first using the Vicious Engine. If this is the shape of things to come, then the long-term future of minis is looking very rosy indeed. A lot rosier, in fact, than the future of the hapless citizens in Zombie Tycoon who have the misfortune to get in the way of your brain-hungry zombie troops in this brilliantly zany, off-the-wall game.
The opening cartoon sets the scene perfectly: it’s so well scripted and presented that when watching it for the first time I was crossing my fingers and hoping against hope that the actual gameplay won’t be a real letdown in comparison, as is sometimes the case with a great intro movie.
No fears on that score, happily. Both gameplay and plot are every bit as polished as the opening moments would lead you to believe. The story follows a mad scientist and his assistant in their bid to achieve world domination by turning absolutely everyone in the world into zombies and then directing them to do their bidding, which is where you come in.
For gameplay that can be quite complicated at times, the first level, set in the town of Smallbee, acts as a very effective tutorial, walking you through the basics and showing you how to harvest your first brain and storm your first zombie-spawning clinic, complete with suitably gross brain-munching sound effects. You’ll find that you’ll never look back once you’ve had your first taste of wanton destruction and cold-blooded slaughter!
You don’t get to control your zombie teams directly, instead, you point the targeting cursor at a building or person you want to attack, then press either the corresponding square, circle, or triangle button to drop a nice fresh “brain-in-a-jar” and lure a color-coded individual squad to the desired spot, or press the cross button to summon all three squads at once. You will automatically harvest brains every time you kill a human.
Generally speaking, this system works well, however, one slightly annoying aspect is that you really do have to watch your squads like a hawk to make sure they’re fulfilling the goals you’ve set for them. Zombies are, as a rule, not the most cerebral of creatures, being solely driven by the urge to hunt down the next pink quivering brain to suck on, and they’re likely to get distracted if you send them to guard an exit road to prevent humans escaping, for example.
For this reason, when your squads are spread out across an area, you’ll find yourself frequently using the R shoulder button to rapidly cycle through their locations so that you can act quickly if they’ve got distracted and ignored the target you’ve set them. It all adds to the sense of urgency and having to think on your feet.
The L shoulder button opens your inventory where you can equip your squads with the various items and make-shift weapons you find when you trash buildings, many of which are pretty silly, including the likes of Animal Slippers for added stealth. Each zombie squad has simple stats such as Defence and Attack which can be altered either positively or negatively by equipping items and clothing.
Pressing Select brings up a map of the level with important locations such as clinics marked. It can be useful at times, but it would have helped to have a marker showing the location of your squads to help orientation.
Although rampaging around destroying buildings and slaughtering innocents is naturally heaps of fun, your undead squad members don’t have things all their own way: there are traps that tear off their legs and sudden-death pits for starters, but the universe is kind, even for zombies, so you can always expect to find an item that will help you to bypass a pit or trap or even a fresh leg from a newly dead acquaintance!
Of course, many of the hapless humans that your squads are chasing will take exception to the prospect of having their brains eaten and fight back, often with considerable rigor. You’ll also encounter a feisty resistance movement lead by one Dirty Dan, as well as armed police and military, all of whom can do considerable damage to your squads, which is why it’s important to make taking over clinics a priority so that you can use the patients as an unlimited supply of zombies to replace your fallen troops.
The lack of a mid-game save function is probably Zombie Tycoon’s biggest failing. Although there are several checkpoints per level that you can start afresh from if you’re defeated, they’re wiped out when you quit the game, so you always have to go right back to the start of a level if you turn off your PSP, which is a pain to say the least. Maybe it’s something that Frima can provide a patch for in future.
Although Zombie Tycoon might appear to be a little on the short side, with only 10 levels in total, by level three the gameplay starts to get quite challenging, so you’re hardly likely to race through it, especially with no mid-level save function. There’s also a long list of fun Achievements to complete so that should also extend the life of the game even further.
Overall, Zombie Tycoon is exactly the sort of game the minis program needs, especially as it’s a Minis exclusive. Aside from putting a whole new spin on the zombies’ phenomena, it looks fantastic, has great style and wit, and most importantly of all, it has absorbing and inventive gameplay. The lack of a mid-level save facility is a bit of a problem, but not enough to prevent your complete and utter enjoyment of being the ruler of your own brain-dead universe.