Blendo Games outputs some weird products (see Gravity Bone) but thankfully knows how to balance fantasticality with fun. Such is the case with Atom Zombie Smasher, a deceptively complex, creatively presented game where you wipe out zombies with bombs and bullets to save a terrified populace. It's got a great style that uses minimalism to generate tension, a surprising amount of depth and, despite an unfortunate design choice with the core progression system, is certainly worth checking out, even if it's often more frustrating than it should be.
There's blood when zombies die in Atom Zombie Smasher, but it's more for artistic flair. This isn't a game about shoving screwdrivers into skulls and reveling in geysers of gore. The characters are highly abstracted. Zombies are represented as purple squares and fleeing survivors are yellow squares. Both of these squares run around city streets and between buildings on small maps presented from a top-down perspective. Your job is to position weapons at key locations around the map to hold back the encroaching zombie hordes while survivors flock to an escape helicopter to get lifted out of the zone. It's an easy concept to grasp, but it won't take long to realize that without intelligent planning (and sometimes with), the zombies will quickly make a mess of things.
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That's because you only have a limited time to save civilians before the sun goes down. Once it's dark, zombies swarm all the streets and make it very difficult to get anything done. Naturally, the zombies don't just kill the civilians, they turn us into them. If a single zombie makes contact with a group of civilians, that entire group of yellow squares will be purple in seconds. It instills in you a genuine sense of panic; your carefully placed traps meant to save helpless civilians can all be rendered pointless if only a solitary shambler is still inching down the street.
Blendo uses an unlock system to regulate the types of weapons made available. You'll get access to dynamite, sniper teams, armed infantry, landmines artillery and plenty more. These are set up during the planning phase of the game, where time is stopped and you can survey a city map. From there you can see from which sides of the map zombies will stream, and plot your helicopter evacuation point and weapons accordingly. After hitting the button to start the clock, zombies will crowd into the streets and, as the game progresses, you'll want to reposition sniper teams, move infantry, relocate the helicopter pickup point and keep a close eye on the artillery reload time to stay one step ahead of the purple undead masses. This dynamic means you need to remain very active while a game is playing out, because it's not only the initial setup but also your on-the-fly adjustments that can be crucial for victory. During the first few campaigns, the gameplay is exciting, intense and addictive.
With the default settings you can replay maps until you get it right or bail out if the situation is hopeless. This kicks you back to the overworld map, which displays a territorial overview of the zombie outbreaks. This is where you'll see your total score and can select which city sections to evacuate. Each territory is assigned a difficulty level, which is important to monitor. When a level four territory is created, it will actually spread the infection to adjacent ones unless you've already captured the adjacent territories by killing all the zombies before sundown or saved the requisite number of civilians. While it may be easy to clear level one territories, they also won't award you with as many victory points as higher level zones. Again, like the combat in the city streets, the information is presented in a clean, simple style, and there's much more depth than may be initially apparent.
After selecting a territory and waging war against the undead on city streets, time progresses forward. The zombie outbreak spreads on the territory map, and depending on your performance you're given an opportunity to upgrade the various squads you've acquired, unlock additional bonuses in a research lab, and occasionally utilize a few super weapons. This is also where a few of the game's problems crop up because Blendo gives you no control over which weapons are available from mission to mission. Instead, they're randomly assigned. So you may want to knock out a level three territory before it turns into a four and spreads the infection, but considering the game randomly gave you barricades, dynamite and artillery, it's near impossible to get the job done. All your weapons just aren't created equal, which leads to the occasional critical imbalance, wedging you into dire circumstances. Near the beginning of campaigns this randomization can unfairly cripple you, often turning a potential victory scenario into an impossibility.
That aside, there's a lot to like about Atom Zombie Smasher. There's a story, the quirkiness of which is meant more to entertain than make sense. There's support for up to three players locally if you want to turn it into a party game, and there are a few reasons to load up new campaigns, including toggles for a number of built-in mods to tweak the degree of challenge and keep your interest up once the game's new car smell disperses.