I’ll be honest: my first look at Zombie Vikings wasn’t because I was searching for a new game to play; it was thanks to a picture of a zombie pig by the name of Oink that appeared in my Twitter feed. He happened to catch my eye and I subsequently ended up poking around to find out more about where he was from. Without any real idea what I was getting into, beyond reading the admittedly interesting blurb on the Steam store page, I ended up being sold on two things: I liked the art style, and I like vikings.
As it turns out, I like this game too. Despite some early jitters — which I’ll get to in a minute — I find myself immediately engaged by the storybook art style and the solid voice acting. The game opens with Odin One-Eye performing an enchantment on his staff, flanked by his ravens. Loki sweeps in, a rakishly mischievous character different than the charmingly devilish Loki we’ve seen represented in media of late, and ends up prancing away with Odin’s working eye in his hand.
Odin heads out, grumbling and blind, to resurrect heroes to track Loki down and retrieve his stolen goods. Not because the fate of the world rests on this, Odin informs our zombie vikings, but because Odin really wants his good eye back.
There are four possible heroes to play. I felt like every element of their character design told me what to expect from these heroes: name, gear, voice, armour, weapon — you can look at Gunborg and know she’s an in-your-face hard hitter, or at Hedgy and know he’s a fast, mobile rogue type. I ran a few levels on each of the heroes, and found them enjoyable for solo play with only a few adjustments to accommodate their combat style.
Combat in Zombie Vikings is simple enough to be easy to pick up, but layered enough to make it possible to work out some interesting combos. You can block, you have a basic attack, and you have a special attack unique to your hero. Each of these abilities can be charged to empower them as well. You can pick up objects and throw them; this throw can also be charged, to become a stun. Actually, that’s slightly misleading: you can pick up just about anything and throw it. You can throw enemies at enemies. You can throw enemies at boxes, or vice versa. You can throw Oink, the zombie unicorn pig who joins you as a companion in single-player mode and wears a look of intense concentration as he flies through the air towards his destination. When you jump, you can charge down to crash atop your enemies. The 3D environment and your ability to maneuver it more smoothly than your enemies, allows for kiting them, whether for its strategic or entertainment value; I found it absolutely delightful to pick up one enemy, throw it at others, then grab it again when it rebounded to me so I could do it all over.
One thing I must touch upon that I found incredibly well done is the sound effects and music in Zombie Vikings. The first time I paused the game, half-risen from my chair, I had to stop and listen in to the music because it made me laugh so much. Music while exploring the world and map has a bouncy rock and roll feel; in general combat, the energy and tempo is amped up but not overwhelming. Each hero has a few combat yells, and I particularly enjoyed Seagurd and his octopus buddy here.
Towards the beginning of this review, I mentioned some early jitters. The Steam port from PS4 feels like a port, which is unfortunate. A gamepad is set as the default controller. I don’t own a gamepad. Using only the keyboard to navigate, where the spacebar selects something (versus the more intuitive enter key), feels weirdly anachronistic. In most games, and if I were using a gamepad, my left hand would be movement and my right for combat, but the keyboard default in Zombie Vikings is the other way around: right hand on arrow keys, left on the bottom row of letter keys. It’s an awkward setup that, yes, can be toyed with in the keybindings — still, when I open a game, especially one as modern and casual as Zombie Vikings, I want to be able to hop right into playing.
There are a few awkward moments preceding and during cutscenes, where the perspective shift is clunky. The dialogue over these is excellent, as is every bit of dialogue I heard, even though it can’t quite keep up with the speed of combat — so if you leap out into a fight before the NPCs are finished yapping at each other, you might get some soliloquizing as you move past their corpses. This isn’t great for initial immersion, but it bodes well for replays: no one wants to listen to the same enemy dialogue over and over.
Zombie Vikings promotes itself as a “one to four-player co-op stab-you-in-the-gut-a-thon.” I was only able to toy around in single-player, and while Oink the zombie unicorn pig is a delight, he can’t fill the shoes a second (or third, or fourth) player would. I won’t say there’s an emptiness to the world without another person there to enjoy it with — there’s far too much colour and personality for that — but I did find myself aching to explore the game with a friend. Sure, for review purposes, not being able to speak firmly on the co-op experience sucks, but at the same time, I can make a few conjectures: it’ll get hectic and hilarious, like Battletoads at its best. It’ll get chaotic and confusing, because enemies and friends can impact each other’s location on the screen. The game camera remains in a tight 3rd person point of view while wandering, but zooms out when engaging in combat. When that combines with a dozen other moving elements (NPCs, PCs, special abilities, environmental elements), all sharing a similar aesthetic, keeping track of who’s hitting what might end up being ‘push and pray’, not ‘cooperate-and-conquer’, gameplay.
Zombie Vikings is a game to turn to when you’re looking for something to smile about; a game to enjoy when you’re overwhelmed by narratives and world settings that take themselves with a great deal of gravity. You can play this in front of kids and with kids; even if you aren’t in combat, the fact that you can pick other characters up, throw them, and bounce them off the edge of the screen is bound to bring some laughs. There’s some adult humour, too — in one level, a witch kicks her cat out because the hot guy she’s trying to ‘get with’ is allergic to it — but it’s on the same level as a kids’ movie, where they might giggle or miss a joke altogether.
“It’s kind of romantic, no?”
Every moment of story play in Zombie Vikings feels joyous; Zoink committed fully to its playfully cartoonish aesthetic, weaving modern references and fourth wall-challenging self-deprecation deftly into its narrative. There’s a definite sense that the developers had fun making this game, and they want you to have fun, too.
This game was gifted to me by the publisher for review.