Video games, as a whole, have been mining Norse Mythology for ideas and story beats since someone said “let’s implement a story as to why these pixels just stabbed these other pixels.” And why not, right? Nordic myths are chock full of good versus evil, insurmountable odds, stalwart heroes, monsters and/or dragons, and a body count on par with any entry in Call of Duty. Mix all of that up with the whole “the world’s doomed” motif, and you’ve got yourself a solid video game premise. If, however, you seized hold of Norse mythology and substituted every ounce of sincerity for slapstick and cultural references, you would probably come up with something like Zombie Vikings.
A four player co-op brawler, Zombie Vikings proves that our modern existence is so turgid with zombies we’ve run out of contemporary venues for them and must wedge the undead into the annals of history. You and your buddies play as any one of four specific zombies (or more, depending on if you purchased the Ragnarok Edition or bought the DLC), who are tasked by Odin to retrieve his eye stolen by the Trickster God, Loki. A reasonable plot to be sure, except that everyone involved is an idiot.
A physical version, Zombie Vikings: Ragnarok Edition launches November 6th. I played the digital version, which debuted back in September. I did not purchase the DLC characters, nor did I have access to the “new features” or additional characters included in the Ragnarok Edition. What I played consisted of the entirety of the game as originally released in the digital format.
The story is thus: Odin’s eye gets hijacked by Loki in pretty much the most unfunny opening cutscene of all time, and a blind Odin uses magic to bring four dead heroes back as zombies. He tasks said zombies with voyaging across the Nordic world to chase the Trickster God and retrieve his eye. Cutscenes enlighten us further to heroes personalities and their backstories, from Seagurd’s bizarre bond with a pink octopus, to Caw-Kaa’s embarrassingly tiny nose. The characters are different enough, and slightly endearing, to make playing as them at least sort of interesting. Their dialogue might not be the pinnacle of comedy writing, but at least they all have heart.
Zombie Vikings is best described as an ultra simple brawler. At worst, you could call it “bare bones,” given the combat (which is pretty much the entire game) isn’t very deep. Run around, wield your special abilities, and mash the standard attacks. Enemies vary only slightly from one to the next, often with just a pallet swap. Sometimes they’ll evolve in complexity (the two sword guy can fly now!) but you’ll find yourself facing plenty of the same kinds of enemies again and again. Once you’ve figured out the best way to deal with a particular enemy, you’ll have ample opportunities to master the way you dispatch them as you face them for the ten thousandth time.
The one unique trait ZV possesses is the ability to snag an enemy/head/chicken/whatever on the tip of your sword and throw it with the Circle button. This is not only the exclusive means to solve “puzzles,” but is also the only mechanic you can use during the largely one-note boss fights in order to mix things up. You might be battling an evil witch in a cauldron, so why not throw a few bombs her way? Fighting the actual ocean? Chuck another explosive into a water spout to knock him down so you can go wild on his face. It’s not exceptionally deep, but the game really isn’t trying too hard at being complex. In co-op, when a player dies their head falls off. You can use the same technique to snatch your buddy’s head and shoot a three pointer back onto their body to revive them, if that’s your wish.
Character customization is limited to a rune giving a passive bonus, and whatever weapon you select. The basic weapons don’t really have any special abilities, though the ones you claim in the games “side quests” (which are almost always solved by retrieving an item about twenty feet away from the quest giver), do confer special bonuses and attacks. They are largely timing based, however, so you have little control over when they actually go off.
The game drips charm, from the stylish, hand drawn visuals, to the excellent sound design and voice acting. While not every line of dialogue is a winner, it’s clear that a lot of heart went into the final product. I might be the only person alive who will appreciate multiple Norwegian levels set to ska music, but that speaks volumes of what this game is trying to accomplish.
I’m not one to fault someone on their preferred brand of comedy, but Zombie Vikings almost has a “quantity over quality” approach. A few gags got a grin or even a chuckle, but if you throw enough jokes into the air, one has got to stick. The majority of dialogue blew way past “cringe-inducing” to “ensuring a world-economy based entirely on cringes.” The reliance on cultural touchstones, scatalogical references, and video game tropes weren’t only unfunny, they were often a deterrent to going any further. With mediocre gameplay leading the charge, the often terrible jokes made me want to table the game and never look back.
Zombie Vikings is a frustrating game for me to talk about. It’s not so bad that it’s fun to bash, and there’s really nothing great about it that I’m excited to share. I almost hate the fact that the developers seemingly poured a lot of love into this game, only for it to come together as a painfully mediocre brawler. The story is (intentionally) dumb, the boss fights are exceptionally basic. The enemies aren’t particularly engaging. Yet, I love the hand-drawn look and the voice acting, even if the jokes are more duds than winners. Grabbing some friends and jumping in co-op is fine, but by no means does it make this a must-have.
Maybe the new characters and features in the Ragnarok Edition will straighten out some of the problems I had with the base game. As far as brawlers go, you could do better, but you could also do a lot worse. Zombie Vikings is a competent product that really doesn’t go much farther than that. The game did not cause hideous boils to spread over my body, but by no means was I excited to play more of it. If you have to play it, play with a friend or three. At least then you can all groan together as another joke falls totally dead right in front of you.
You can enjoy a video of us playing it, if you're into that.