Review | 10/26/2016 at 12:00 PM

Zombasite Co-Op Review

Summon all the zombies to get down

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, we thought we’d check back in with the action-RPG/zombie survival game, Zombasite, which saw a full release back in August. While the title has received some updates and tweaks since we last took a look at it, the core elements remain unchanged and are still worth exploring for those of you who want a more robust ARPG.

Much of your time in Zombasite will be spent attacking monsters, earning experience to level up, and gathering loot from everything you can. Those familiar action-RPG mechanics, however, take on a new meaning in this title. In addition to loot and experience, going out into the world and slaying monsters also help you achieve a greater goal: ensuring your clan’s survival. Whether it’s completing a quest to defeat an imminent threat, or simply gathering food so your clan doesn’t starve, you’re not out there clicking away solely for your own benefit. There are multiple victory conditions in the game, such as solving all the quests in the area or forming an alliance with all of the rival clans, but there are only two ways you can lose: all of your clan NPCs are killed, or the “healthstone” at the center of your town is destroyed. Thus, Zombasite goes a little beyond being just an ARPG. It certainly utilizes those gameplay mechanics but it also incorporates ideas from survival titles and roguelikes. You aren’t out to battle some great evil and save the world, you’re just trying to survive another day.

While the rote ARPG routine (i.e., leveling up, grinding for better gear, farming zones) is at the forefront of the gameplay, it is by no means the only system with which you’ll contend. You’ll have to establish diplomatic relations with other clans, manage internal clan relations, resolve quests before they expire, deal with crafting and repairing equipment, and fight off attacks made against your clan, all while keeping an eye on the ever-increasing “zombie threat.” There’s a red bar at the bottom of the screen that steadily increases the longer you play to keep track of this threat. It starts off at 0 and maxes at 100, and the amount by which it increases is actually a factor you can control when you first setup a game (more on that in a bit). As it fills up, your town will be subjected to zombie-related events at an escalating frequency. These events include attacks on your clan’s village and members of your clan getting infected with the zombie virus, which has to be cured or risk losing that NPC forever.

All of these systems can be overwhelming the first time you start playing, and, indeed, it’s one of Zombasite’s biggest negatives. This is not a game to approach lightly; it requires going beyond the the quick on-screen tool tips and reading through community guides, the manual, and whatever other resources you can get your hands on so that you can have a reasonable notion of what exactly the title is asking of you. After a few hours of playing and starting over multiple times, you’ll then be at a point where you can start grasping at the best way to play this game. Obviously your mileage will vary with how long it takes you to get a good feeling of everything that’s going on in this game, but it’s something that will take some time and feels like it’s more due to a lack of clear tutorials than design. Fortunately, you’re free to start over as often as you like with the same character, all gear/skills/experience you’ve acquired, and any NPCs in your clan that are still alive.

In some ways, Zombasite reminds me of Dark Souls. Defeat isn’t always a bad thing as there’s a lot you can learn from failing that carries over into your next playthrough. Maybe next time you’ll look at an NPC’s characteristics and personality traits before recruiting them into your clan. Maybe you’ll be more mindful of which quests will expire and what the consequences of that will be. Learning how to get your clan going and how best to spend your initial few hours in the game is half the battle.

The one aspect of Zombasite I still haven’t quite gotten down, though, is the skill tree. Like many ARPGs, the character class you choose determines a few key elements for your in-game avatar, such as weapon and armor proficiencies, and passive bonuses (like increased fire resistance for every point you put into your spirit attribute). Unlike other ARPGs, however, it’s not as clear what constitutes a “good build” and acquiring the skills necessary for that isn’t as easy as choosing one every time you level up.

Every level you gain provides you with five points you can use to increase your main attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence, vitality, and spirit) and a number of skill points. The exact amount varies depending on what level you hit, but initially, you’ll get anywhere from two to four points. Each skill costs a number of points to acquire, starting as low as one and going up to 15, and points carry over from level to level. So, if there’s a particular skill you want, you could wait a few levels and save up enough points to be able to afford it. Once you acquire a skill, you can invest more points into it to increase its level and raise its damage or effectiveness. You can buy back any points you’ve invested into a skill, but it gets expensive to do so really quick. This skill leveling system, and indeed the skills themselves, are taken from Soldak’s previous title, Din’s Curse, so if you played through that you’ll have a good head start here.

My issue with a skill system like this is that it’s all abstract. You can look at a skill, read what it does, and see its damage numbers, but none of that means much until you actually start using it. One of the things I liked about Diablo III’s skill system was the freedom it gave you. All you had to do was reach the appropriate level to unlock a particular skill, and then you could swap the skills in and out so you could test them to your heart’s content. Games that utilize points and sort of lock you into your choices need some kind of practice mode that lets you freely mess around with the abilities so you can have an idea of what you like and what works well together.

While the various tasks outside of just killing/looting and the obtuse skill system may leave many with a poor first impression of Zombasite, it’s worth sticking it out. When you first create your character, you also get to choose how difficult you make things through a variety of options, such as making all the enemies tougher or turning on “Hardcore” mode (if you die, your character loses all progress and you start over). You can also customize the world size, how quickly the zombie threat grows, and how many rival clans there are. There’s not much in the way of a formal tutorial to explain everything you need to do, but you can at least have some control over how challenging it is. For me, that challenge is the most compelling reason for attempting to engage with the title as so few games within this genre even attempt to do this much at one time.

In most ARPGs, any challenge they have to offer usually comes from ramping up the actual game difficulty in order to make enemies tougher; or perhaps there’s a special area that tests how long you can go without dying. In Zombasite, the challenge is ever present. You can’t just go running around slaying everything you see. In part this is because high-level enemies aren’t held off until some determined “end game;” the next area you wander into from your current low-level area may put you face-to-face with foes that will smite you in just one hit.

The other reason you can’t spend all your time mucking about in the wilderness is that you have to tend to the needs of your clan. The world is dynamic and situations are constantly changing. Two NPCs who don’t like one another may start fighting so you either have to try and separate them, appease them with gifts, or just let them duke it out until only the victor remains. Your nemeses (you start every game with two) will actively be plotting against you by sending monsters at your base, kidnapping potential NPCs you could recruit, and even taunting you. Maintaining good relationships with your neighbors can be difficult if they’re unpredictable and will suddenly decide that it’s better to be at war. No matter what, you’ll need to keep one eye on what is happening outside of the immediate combat in which you find yourself. This may feel like busywork for some, but I found it to be more of a welcome break from the ARPG routine to which I find in so many other games. Of course, all of that micromanagement gets easier with friends.

Rather than being the sole person to shoulder the burden of keeping track of how your clan is doing, what quests you need to do, and why some other clan is mad at you, why not spread some of that responsibility across a group of people? Co-op in Zombasite works pretty much the same as it does when going it alone, i.e., you still have to keep your clan alive, but now you have more people around to help manage things. The exact number of players that can team up together isn’t defined. You can have any number of people in a co-op game, but allowing too many players at once might cause issues for everyone involved. So while you’re free to bump it up all the way to 128, you’re probably good with keeping it to under 10 to ensure there aren’t connectivity/frame rate issues, and to keep that feeling of being a small clan struggling to survive.

Each player that joins you can freely choose their character class, take on and complete quests, gather a party of NPCs to assist them, and generally help ensure your clan’s survival. Players aren’t tethered to one another and are free to wander about wherever. If one player is off in a different area and completes a quest, then all players get the rewards for its completion. Loot drops are communal but players can trade freely between one another so if your buddy grabs a bow that she can’t use but you can, then she can just trade it over to you. Trading does require you both to be in the same location, but there are warp stones scattered throughout the world that will instantly take you back to your clan’s village. The decision of whether you should all stick together or go your separate ways for a time is entirely up to the group, though there are cases where it makes more sense to group up. Taking down a particularly tough foe or raiding a rival clan for supplies, for instance, tends to go more smoothly when everyone is involved.

Zombasite is a niche title, but that doesn’t mean it’s got a big sign hanging out the front that says “only hardcore gamers need apply.” The folks in its community have put up guides to help familiarize new players with a lot of the various systems, the developer has a manual that lays out the basics, and the game itself is pretty forgiving when it comes to actually playing it and learning everything. It’s easier, too, to figure things out when you’ve got a few people looking at it. Managing a group of post-apocalyptic survivors is more fun when you’ve got a couple of friends around to help you do it, and I found myself getting a little more invested in everything when I was working with couple of people instead of all on my own. While it may be most inviting to those gamers that are looking for an ARPG with a little something different to offer from the usual loot grind, there are enough interesting ideas here that it’s worth a little bit of exploration by everyone.