I like zombies. I love killing zombies – un-killing them? Re-killing them? Best not to think too hard on that one. Burning zombies is also a plus. Burn Zombie Burn is trying to appeal to me with these ingredients by imitating so many top-down zombie destruction simulators that have come before it. The game uses a specific mechanic to try and keep things fresh – lighting zombies up without destroying them is beneficial, so long as you can keep Bruce, the Elvis-like, jive-talking hero, alive.
Gameplay takes place across a handful of confined maps with different layouts and weapon spawn points. Players run around, weaving around scrambling zombies and grabbing pickups while destroying them to rack up a high score. It’s bare bones as a concept and is really more of an arcade game than anything else. There are a few different modes that alter your approach somewhat but the goal is the same overall: kill zombies, don’t die. However, by holding down your ‘Torch’ button/key you whip out a torch which can be used to light zombies ablaze. Burning zombies move faster and deal more damage, but for each zombie that is ignited, your score multiplier increases by one. Thus, the game’s core mechanic revolves around a balancing act. You have to set zombies on fire to build up a combo, but the higher your combo the more dangerous things get for you – not to mention that burning zombies do eventually burn away.
There are a few other ideas that keep you on your toes – dynamite can be used to take out a lot of zombies at once, and by killing zombies that are on fire you can earn upgrades to your dynamite. Each weapon type also builds up a combo bonus bar if you continue killing zombies with the same weapon in quick succession. Build up three different weapon combos and you can press a switch to activate a change in the environment. Your combos and upgrades get reset when you die, so staying alive longer usually results in exponentially larger scores. Naturally, there are also different types of zombies, like ones that explode on contact, ones that charge straight at you, and ones with fast, irregular movement patterns.
All of these concepts work well in tandem and unite to form a challenging experience, but the fact is that Burn Zombie Burn’s physical mechanics just don’t quite feel right. Everything is loose and imprecise. Running through a lightly dispersed crowd of zombies with your torch out feels like rolling a dice, as hit detection is somewhat unclear, and it’s difficult to tell when a zombie is going to hit you until it’s already happened. Since you have to get up right next to them to light them on fire, most of your damage is likely going to be incurred while trying to ignite the undead rather than in fending them off. The risk/reward system is clever in concept but because movement is slippery and contact is imprecise it falters. There is a lock-on key which will automatically direct you to the closest beast, so embalming zombies often means running headlong through a crowd whilst holding the lock-on button. Weapon contact also feels off – the visual feedback makes it harder than it should be to tell where your bullets are going. For example, with the shotgun, I could never see any form of bullet flying through the air. I’d point at a crowd, pull the trigger, and some of them would fall apart. You can find a flamethrower pickup and I relished in this; however, it was clearly a powerup in that it let me burn zombies across the whole screen. If a flamethrower replaced the torch but it simply had smaller range, that could’ve worked – or maybe the ability to pour gasoline around and light a trail of it could’ve been interested, as well. Now, you can light certain things like fences on fire, and zombies will also ignite each other, so there are some options, but using the torch just didn’t feel right to me.
The game’s presentation as a whole is pretty sparse, which isn’t inherently bad but it further contributes to a feeling of unclarity. Even the menus seem sluggish and unresponsive, the music gets repetitive (and sometimes events triggered music which would overlap the standard background, which was not pleasant to the ear), and the graphics, while appropriately dark, struggle to maintain a smooth framerate. Given that the game’s purpose is to throw tons of zombies at you, a clunky framerate makes the mechanical issues all the more noticeable. Did I mention the game froze entirely during the tutorial? While it’s possible that this could potentially depend on the settings, I tinkered around with different resolutions, turned all special effects off, and there was no change in these issues. No to mention that my machine can run Left 4 Dead, which deals with much more detailed graphics and just as many on-screen zombies, without any problems or stuttering. There is a possibility than the console ports of this game might not have the performance issues I experienced, but the visual feedback and overall gameplay are still loose and lack impact.
Bruce may be “here to kill zombies and chew gum,” but running out of gum doesn’t make things any better for him. There are some fun ideas here that create a layered arcade title that rewards strategy on the fly, but my experience was not terribly fulfilling, marred by some tech issues. I’d recommend downloading a demo if one is available on your platform of choice and giving it a try, but this is a crowded genre of game and more polish was needed in order to make this one stand out.
Burn Zombie Burn! is available now in the Steam store.