(PC Review) Zombasite

Developer: Soldak Entertainment
Publisher: Soldak Entertainment
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game / Kingdom Sim
Players: 1-N/A (No limit)
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
Windows XP, 2.0 GHz Core Duo, 512 MB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 2 or better, 350 MB Hard Drive space

Zombasite joins indie studio Soldak’s growing list of dynamic open-world role-playing games. As ambitious as that setup sounds, especially for a smaller outfit, it’s something of the company’s forte. Over the years, a pattern of consistent progress has set in, with each subsequent release building on the last, carrying over interface, control, and mechanical improvements, while switching up the combat system and setting to offer a fresh experience. Zombasite follows suit, keeping several of the menus and negotiation mechanics from its predecessor, Drox Operative, but replacing the space setting and Armada-style combat with a world overrun by monsters and Diablo-style action. In keeping with the trend, it’s a great title that fills a specific, underserved niche.

First, a quick aside. Regular readers might be doing a double take, having already read our review of Zombasite. Unfortunately, the final version of the initial piece was lost during a server crash. To replace the original, we have revisited the game with its most current patch in order to offer a fresh look. Multiplayer is included in the game but isn’t covered here, as I couldn’t find any servers to join for co-op action. That’s just as well, because the single-player component had me busy enough as it is.

Similar to Drox Operative, players start the game by creating a highly customizable world. The number of options on offer is pretty impressive, especially for newcomers. The difficulty is determined by selecting one of five levels (normal, champion, elite, legendary, or ultimate) and the monsters’ strength, which is in relation to the player’s level. For example, in the beginning, the character’s starting level is 0, so a monster level of 0 is ‘normal’ and 4 is ‘hard.’ Advanced options allow for further tweaks, including pacing, area size, number of clans, starting region, and one-off changes. Pacing relates to the speed of quest advancement and monster respawn speed, with the slower paces being easier to manage but offering the player less experience. There are other clans roaming around amongst the monsters, and up to eight can be chosen. Areas come in a variety of sizes, ranging from tiny to huge. Both clans and size can also be randomized. Region allows players to take advantage of the game’s procedurally generated design for a fresh go, or get a jump on their rivals by returning to an old region. The one-off options offer a variety of further difficulty adjustments: less stress, fewer but more powerful monsters (and the opposite with more but less powerful monsters), and making more of the map visible to lessen the need for exploration. There’s even an option to turn zombies off, which is a plus, since the actual zombie element is something that didn’t really hook me. Yet, there are even more options in the character-creation portion.

Character creation breaks from Drox Operative with a robust class system. There are nine classes to choose from, with most being basic fare (warrior, rogue, priest) and a few wild cards (demon hunter, death knight). However, what’s particularly interesting is the ability to create a hybrid. Sacrifices do have to be made, though. Each class has multiple skill trees, and going the hybrid route requires sticking with only one from each class. The player eying a wizard-demon hunter build will have to choose from fire mage, ice mage, or magician from the wizard’s trees, and reaver, warden, or demonologist from the demon hunter’s. Builds don’t always work out, either, as I learned with my early reaver-defender, with the former’s two-handed weapon mastery clashing with the latter’s focus on shields. That didn’t stop me from revisiting Majorian to wreak some havoc, and while it was still enjoyable to play a robust maniac that charges into battle, the counterproductive nature of the build keeps him off my list of go-to characters. That said, my latest creation, the fire mage-dark templar Garwinson, is looking promising, with his array of powerful projectiles and ability to earn mana with each kill. For players who love to experiment, the hybrid option is like a toy box. I’ve spent hours experimenting with builds, and I don’t think I’ll stop until I’ve exhausted every combination.

Characters are furthered customizable through traits and advanced options. Traits sacrifice precious skill points for quirky abilities. There are 20 in total, and range from being able to cause bigger explosions at the expense of them now hurting friendlies, to reducing health regeneration in order to absorb monster enhancements for one minute after killing them, and firing projectiles through targets to possibly hit more enemies at a cost of less damage. As with areas, characters also have advanced options that modify the difficulty level. Some of these include a hardcore rule that turns on perma-death and removes intra-character-shared stashes, a fragile state that gives characters half their health but a minor experience boost, and beginning the game with a set family but without being able to recruit others. In this case, these are to make the game more challenging, and are best left to veteran players. For everyone else, the beginning of the game is tough enough as it is.

Taking advantage of the game’s expansive customization options is vital for learning the ropes. There’s no way around it: the game is tough, and reducing the game’s difficulty is key to coming to terms with its mechanics. Despite the familiar action-role-playing and Soldak trappings, there are several elements that will knock players for a loop. And as I revisited the game, I was surprised to find that there is still no concise tutorial. There are plenty of help tips and an all-encompassing help menu that covers a wide variety of topics, but reading the hows and whys is often much different than experiencing situations firsthand. Instead, I was once again hitting up forums and videos to learn the finer points of the game’s systems and the best means to navigate them without falling to yet another sudden invasion. A sample scenario would go a long way in clearing up much of the confusion, especially when it comes to building and maintaining a clan.

As the zombie parasite rages around the land, causing enemies to resurrect and potentially turning the main character into a walking host, players are not only on the hunt for loot but also survivors. If they run across one, they can assess the non-playable character’s mental state, happiness, gear, and capabilities, and if they seem to be a good fit, recruit them into the clan. The survivors require constant supervision, with food and safety a necessity in order for them to stay happy and sane. They won’t always get along, either, and if a solution isn’t found by forcing them to gift an item or kicking one of them out, they will start fighting and cause a ruckus in the camp. They can be made to earn their keep, however, by being recruited into the player’s party for adventuring and by being sent on expeditions. Expeditions are limited by a party-wide point pool, but they allow for the clan members to undertake a variety of tasks in the outside world, including gathering food, picking herbs for health potions, capturing guards to post at the town’s walls, scavenging items, and exploring new areas. If they are getting too worked up about actually having to do work, then a donation of cash or extra food rations might lift their spirits. However, numerous intrinsic factors go into their current state, which also affects those around them, with some of their personalities ranging from crude and dishonest to loving religious people but also being greedy. This all combines to make clan maintenance a constant struggle. In fact, I’d say that most players will be surprised by the amount of time required to keep their group mentally and physically prepared for battle.

Fortunately, the game provides a few amenities in the player’s camp. Each base comes with a healing stone, a teleporter (nodes are unlocked in the wild), a quest board, pedestals to manage base defenses (doors, guards, and stat-boosting relics), and a crafting station. The station is for both the player and the party, as it allows items to be salvaged, repaired, and gifted to the clan. The gifts won’t always be appreciated, though. Instead of a communal chest within the camp that would allow members to take items whenever they see fit, players must go to the station or individual member and attempt to bestow items one at a time. Constantly keeping on top of their gear can take some time, which is why it would’ve been nice for someone to grab that prized sword when they were ready, rather having it unceremoniously rejected when offered to the station’s armory. Confusingly, someone will sometimes take the bequeathed item, but the game will indicate otherwise. Sending an item that’s accepted will result in a message of no one wanting an item–not necessarily the item, which can be difficult to discern amongst the various open menus–when in fact someone sent back their now-unwanted kit. The game can be equally confusing in other ways. For example, the help menu’s section on happiness simply instructs to keep NPCs “as happy as you can,” with a note on unhappy members causing trouble, such as starting fights and sabotaging the clan. It goes on to state that characters can be made happier by keeping them safe in town, well fed, focused on rest and relaxation (as opposed to working, guarding, or building), healthy, and secure in a house within the camp. All of that sounds reasonable, but there is no follow-up that goes into any detail. Take housing, for example: how does one build a house? Is it done automatically? Do I need to gather resources, and if so, which ones? If there is a house, how is a member assigned to it? In the end, I had to look on a forum to learn how to place characters in homes. The numerous symbols used to denote shorthand for problems, quests, etc. can also be poorly explained. Again, some sort of tutorial scenario would really come in handy. At times, it seems as though nothing will make the characters happy, and it would be useful to have a holistic primer that walks the player through a situation where they get to experience recruiting, maintaining, recognizing potential problems, and resolving situations.

Whenever the player isn’t making sure everyone’s doing their part back home, they are out in the wilds, pursuing their clan’s interests. The world is broken up into several areas, with each having an aesthetic theme—jungle, desert, forest—and hosting teleporter nodes, treasure chests, traps, and enemies. A lot of enemies. The world is filled with ninja-star-throwing feline warriors, skeletons, slugs, and all manner of monsters. Often, they can be found fighting amongst themselves, but few will remain engaged once the player is on their radar. Spells, swords, hatchets, axes, and spears will see hundreds of them fall before the end of a session. Entrances to subterranean dungeons can also be found amongst the wild’s wishing wells, campfires, and ruins. These can be small enclaves offering loot or expansive structures that host high-end treasure chests, tough enemies in confined spaces, and fellow adventurers in need of help. The combat system is incredibly engaging, with fast response times and a wide variety of attacks and spells. Enemies aren’t all that exciting from a design standpoint, but they get the job done, and the occasional powerful specter dropping in is enough to give even the hardiest warrior a fright. There are even special unique characters that will threaten the player and taunt if they get the upper hand in combat.

Regardless of the map size, players will eventually run into members from one of the computer-controlled clans. These other factions are also fighting to stay alive, and some of them are quite nasty. An optimal scenario involves players running into others while they are fighting monsters, which offers them a chance to get a small reputation boost with the other clan by lending a hand. More often than not, others are discovered whenever the player crosses the boundary of their camp. After contact, they will send a notice indicating a hesitantly friendly position or outright hostility. Clans have basic interactions once they cross paths, including pacts of varying degrees (non-aggression, mutual protection, and alliance), trade, and assisting with quests. As with Drox Operative, quests do not have to be taken to be completed, meaning that players who run into a faction after a few hours will most likely have several of their quests already completed and ready to turn in for experience and a relationship boost. Of course, helping one clan might anger another, as they see the two grow closer. Trade is often basic, but it too can help strengthen a relationship. If things are looking rocky, the player can spend some of their coin to engage a quick, planned, or well-crafted sabotage to knock a budding rival down a few pegs. Positive and negative rumors can also be spread to create tension with other clans. If subterfuge isn’t enough, then players can take their enemy head-on in a raid. Acting decisively is critical, too, as the other factions are very quick to drop by and wipe out hours of hard work. Thankfully, as mentioned, the myriad difficulty options can mitigate a lot of frustration by tailoring the game to be less punishing.

As it turns out, the world everyone is fighting over isn’t much of a prize. Due to their generated nature, areas lack personality. Having a slightly reworked starting world makes each new venture all the more exciting, but the tradeoff is there will never be any part of it that stands out as particularly noteworthy. This was easier to mask in Drox Operative, given that space doesn’t allow for the same sort of variety as a land filled with forests and jungles; however, here, everything melds together after a few hours, as the land’s layout serves more as a means to an end rather than an integral part of the experience. That’s an understandable approach, given how much longevity generation adds to the design, but there is one thing that drove me nuts: walls. Derelict structures and makeshift walls appear throughout the areas, which makes sense in a post-apocalyptic world, but what doesn’t is how often their layouts were often nonsensical. The result of this is that I often found myself backtracking because I wandered down another oddly placed dead end. Given the positives, I am happy to live with modest environments for the sake of nearly endless adventure, random walls in the wilderness and all.

Zombasite is a very particular game, and its design won’t gel with everyone. Those who enjoy a rich story or a strong narrative lead that compels players to go from A to B will find themselves rudderless without a narrative anchor. The zombie parasite element pops up from time to time whenever the infection spreads, but it’s limited to finding bits of lore to stave off the threat. Clan members add some personality, but not too much. The only real impetus for the player to push on is to survive long enough to win by crushing the other clans, allying with the remaining factions, stockpiling enough food, or completing all required quests. However, I think that, given enough time with the game, most players will be taken with its many charms.

Zombasite is a unique action role-playing game that offers a dynamic sandbox, varied combat, an expansive class system, and even clan management. There is little in the way of story, so the drive to survive will be up to the player, but a hybrid class system and highly customizable, procedurally generated levels offer a great incentive to keep at the fight. Clan management can quickly become time consuming, though, and this isn’t helped by the lack of a good tutorial that teaches the systems so that players can act decisively when problems arise. Quibbles aside, those looking for a different kind of sandbox challenge should check out the ever-changing lands of Zombasite.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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