Review: Zombotron

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Review copy provided by publisher

Say what you will about Flash, but no one can deny the awesome platform it has provided indie developers for decades (yes, decades). Some of the most memorable games to spring from the medium was a chaotic sort of platform shooter. You know the kind, featuring mouse aiming and keyboard movement of characters with independently-animated limbs and torsos that ragdoll wildly in the oddly floaty physics simulation. Zombotron was apparently one of the big names in that crowd, and now it’s back in all its flashy, messy glory as a full release on Steam. This version definitely shows some growth from its Flash roots in graphics and progression, but still bears some weaknesses from that style of design.

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I implore you to trust me when I say your character is a square-jawed space mercenary named Blaze Rush. Seriously, I don’t have the capacity to make up names like that. Mister Rush finds himself on a strange planet after responding to a distress beacon, and almost immediately beset by slavering beasts when he goes looking for said beacon. The planet is the site of an ancient crash site and more, and our boy Blaze will need to unravel its mysteries if he’s going to find his way back off-world. There are a lot of strange creatures and constructs in his way, but plenty of guns, ammo, and explosives to carry him along as well.

There are a number of games like this on Steam, from Intrusion 2 to Capsized and more, and for the first hour or so I wasn’t seeing much difference between Zombotron and them. Scooting around the levels with floaty controls, popping enemies before they ran up on me, looking for secret stashes of loot and ammo… it all felt very familiar. And indeed, there’s not a whole lot of variety to the gameplay in Zombotron. You’re always going to be navigating levels, looking for keycards and elevator switches, and gunning down tons of the same sorts of enemies. Outside of rare bosses there’s not going to be any new enemies introduced until somewhere in your second hour, and they’re more different in appearance than attacks anyway.

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But I kept coming back to it. I would play for an hour, feel like I’d seen everything, and come back and play more anyway. It turns out Zombotron actually does do a few things differently, and it’s not immediately apparent how much of a difference they make. One of the biggest is your gear, because you’ve got slots for two weapons, grenades, healing items, and head, chest, and foot armor. These come in four grades, similar to Diablo loot but not randomized, and the effects on high-end gear can be dramatic. I’ve got a pistol that can disintegrate heads with one shot, a space AK that tears through armor, and a fire axe that can one-shot just about anything. I’ve had cowboy hats, Doom armor, hazmat suits, and tribal masks that all provided significant boosts. And all of this is hidden around levels or sold in machines you can recycle your unwanted gear to purchase from.

Finding a really solid weapon makes a huge difference, because the feedback on weapons is surprisingly good for a platformer. Powerful weapons kick, give off deep, booming sound effects, and splatter enemy ragdolls. Tons of environment features can be blasted apart, and dropping platforms and barrels on foes can be just as deadly as plugging them. It took me awhile to notice but the controls are quite tight for a game like this, and the pace is slower and more deliberate than something like Capsized which allows you to do more with positioning and precision shots. There’s a leveling system with stats, status effects to manage, and a halfway decent story outside of your character’s name and some fourth-wall-breaking snark.

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In the end, Zombotron proved to be a very pleasant surprise. I was all set to give this one a middling review, but I stuck with it and found more to love every time I played. You’ll need to stick with it to wring out what variety it has, and it’s a long game for its type, clocking in at 4 to 5 hours. But the moment-to-moment gameplay shines, it always feels like there’s something more to find in the next level, and the art is wonderfully bright and colorful. I’m not the biggest fan of these physics chaos games but Zombotron is smart about how it uses it, giving you plenty of opportunities to make chaos on your terms. Really if you’re looking for some solid shooting and looting, I’d put this one near the top of your list.

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