Zombasite is the latest ARPG from Indie studio Soldak Entertainment. They’ve been making a name for themselves with dynamic worlds and procedurally generated situations to keep the player guessing. Zombasite is not only their first early-access game, but the first game to be released on Steam at launch day. Unfortunately, Zombasite is as unfocused as the zombie horde that’s coming to get you.
The story of Zombasite takes place in a world where a dark elf sought to create zombies to take over the world. While he succeeded, he was killed by his race, but not before the spell basically being set loose on the land. Now you have a world where monsters and clans are fighting, while zombies are rising up to take over.
Zombasite takes game mechanics and elements from previous Soldak games; specifically, Din’s Curse and Depths of Peril. While you are going to be running around an isometric landscape, you are also going to be managing your clan and trying to keep them alive.
You’ll start with (and can find) followers to help you out either at your clan base or on the battlefield. Followers can be any of the game’s many classes, and can come with skills to help with fighting or base management. You have to keep your people happy, or they may cause trouble back at town. The other detail is that you have to make sure you have enough food to support your people.
While that’s going on, you’re dealing with dynamically created quests and situations that threaten to kill you. Leave a situation alone too long, and you may find things will get far worse for you.
Not to mention we have the zombie apocalypse going on. Enemies who are killed by the undead will rise as zombie versions of themselves; including your own followers.
As you fight the undead, there is the chance that you will contract the plague as well; forcing you to find a cure or die.
The game’s ecosystem and factions continue to help elevate Soldak’s games from other ARPGs. You’ll come across clans fighting each other, enemies teaming up to fight zombies, and anything can happen when you least expect it to.
After winning or losing a region, you can set things at a higher level or create a new area with new threats, factions and issues to deal with. At its base level, Zombasite continues Soldak’s track record of great ARPG design, but the foundation becomes more unstable as you try to dig into it.
Zombasite’s big problem is that I feel like I’m playing several different games instead of one completed one. The ARPG side and progression are as great as ever, but it’s the extra systems that just leave me feeling confused and frustrated.
The game wants you to manage your settlement and your followers, but what’s there is bare-bones and not really explained well. Outside of placing guards, gates and passive bonuses, you have no direct interaction with your settlement. I can’t tell my people to build a blacksmith, or upgrade homes or do anything that shows progress or impact my questing. Likewise, I can’t bring elements from adventuring to my settlement to make it better with exception to new followers and the for mentioned elements.
The happiness and insanity measurements seemed to go up and down without any reason. Your followers only have a few skills on them; this is to make sure that they don’t become overpowered. The problem is that it becomes hard to care about your umpteenth faceless person in your settlement.
The system becomes a major distraction from the ARPG mechanics, as you’re constantly dealing with food issues, keeping people happy, sending them on expeditions etc. And those expeditions?
You can only send people out when you have enough “expedition points,” and the game punishes you if you send out too many in a short span.
You can set people to work (which the game is very vague about what that does), but that also raises insanity and lowers happiness. If their happiness gets too low or their insanity gets too high, they will start to cause problems for you and your settlement. Combined, these systems are actively punishing you for managing your clan, which is supposed to be one of the core hooks of the game.
One of my favorite games was Hinterland, which combined city building with ARPG combat. While it was far simpler than Zombasite, the connection between the two game systems was better.
The game’s tutorial (which is made up of pop-up windows) doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining how systems work or what you should be doing to fix problems. The UI is very cumbersome, which is similar to previous Soldak games. What makes it so bad this time is the fact that you’re trying to manage these multiple systems: followers, factions, progression and ARPG mechanics, without having a UI that can handle it.
Trying to outfit your followers with gear is one of the worst and most cumbersome aspects of the game. So bad, that it’s better to use the crafting UI that lets you access the clan armory to just let followers pick the gear they want from your inventory.
The combat system doesn’t show any improvements or growth from previous Soldak games. My favorite game from Soldak would have to be Drox Operative, which radically changed the formula with space fighting and managing a ship.
The game still had factions and dynamic quests, but the design made it unique and stood out from the other titles. More importantly, the combat system was redesigned with new things to manage and depth in terms of weapon and component types.
This is not good, because it makes Zombasite look and feel similar to previous Soldak games, which had better integrated systems in my opinion. All the more worst by the fact that Depths of Peril did this kind of clan management previously without zombies, and was more refined than Zombasite.
The procedural engine for creating the maps is one of the worst examples I’ve seen from recent procedural games, and has the problems I mentioned in my talk on procedural design. You’ll find maps with dead-ends from long paths, areas with no way to get to, and just no rhyme or reason to how the environment is laid out.
That wide berth of design worked with Drox Operative, because you were flying around in space. Here, it’s just a jumbled up mess. At one point, I found a hidden area that was literally a dead end with another tile of land pasted down.
This is a major problem when you’re dealing with the utter chaos of map generation and getting quests, while having the set issue of always running out of food and supplies. In terms of events, expect to either have nothing to do or have 10 disasters to stop at once as hell breaks loose which seems to be a holdover problem from previous titles.
What we have is a game that still has the problems of previous titles from Soldak with unique problems all its own; it’s not a good combination.
I really wanted to like Zombasite more than I did, as I wanted Soldak to get a win on Steam. However the game is less its own unique experience and more like it’s been stitched together from their previous titles, and not in a good way.
The fact that you can get better takes of this design with their previous games leaves Zombasite in a weird position. I still have hope for a game with city building mechanics and ARPG design, but Zombasite is not going to be it.
As with other Soldak games, there is a chance that these issues will be fixed with updates after the game is launched, but I can’t examine what “could be” at this time.
For more on the game, you can watch my playlist of runs and here’s episode one.
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