Jackie, our redhead heroine, is faced with a dilemma. As zombies climb out of the ground to consume the living, does she travel south to save her best friend or east to make contact with the scientist who might save the country? There WIll Be Brains is a solid first effort from Xbox Live Indie Games developer David Parker. While the premise of a zombie apocalypse isn’t original at all, the execution of the gameplay concepts and the art presentation is well thought out. But a number of minor flaws keep the game from having any replay potential once you see both endings. Although the game doesn’t exceed its 80 Microsoft Point value in any way, there’s enough worthwhile content to make players look forward to the promised sequel.
While the game is structured like a side-scrolling brawler, it’s really another iteration of the Space Invaders concept turned horizontally. Zombies approach slowly (or surprisingly quickly) from the right with the intent of tearing down your ramshackle barricade of furniture and garbage. You can choose to take down your undead enemies at long range with the usual assortment of firearms, or you can engage them at the barricade with some gory melee weapons. Each level challenges you to survive five waves of zombies before you can scavenge enough fuel to make it to the next city. In between waves of zombies, a not-so-mysterious street merchant can sell you new weapons, or can sell you extra fuel so you can skip a wave. You can also upgrade existing weapons, but you can only have two at a time equipped. Fortunately, you can also have a special weapon held in reserve, a smart bomb attack that clears the screen of enemies when you’re overwhelmed.
The positive aspects of the game reflect a high level of creativity. The 3D character models are well-rendered and fit well into the hand-drawn backgrounds, which evoke the Sega Saturn game Three Dirty Dwarves. The zombie death animations are also fun to see, as a sniper bullet causes a different sort of death than a kayak paddle. There are also some measured trade-offs in the selection and purchasing of weapons. For example, the shotgun has a powerful spread bullet but takes a very long time to reload, wheras the sniper rifle kills in one shot but only holds one bullet at a time. The money you earn from killing zombies can be spent on anything, so you always have to decide if your limited funds should be spent rebuilding your barricade or making your glock shoot straighter. As an aside, it’s nice to see that switching weapons also alters your costume subtly, like the Chicago newsboy cap you get with the rapid-firing tommy gun, or the elaborate buckler you wear when you equip the Greek gladius sword.
While the flaws in the game are excusable at the price, they can be distracting at the wrong moments. There’s really no advantage to engaging the zombies at melee distance, since they tear down the barrier so quickly. A min/max type of player will immediately observe that powering up firearms is the best option available, and will never spend money on a sword or a chainsaw. There’s also a distracting use of RPG numbers in the user interface. The displayed money stat reflects only what’s been earned in the current wave of zombies, and not the total amount you’ll have available to spend at the end. There’s also a slot for the amount of fuel you’ve accumulated, which is always in increments of twenty. Why not have a five-segment bar graph indicator instead? The same sort of graphical substitution would suit the strength of the barricade, which is a misleading number that counts down from 100. Although the barricade does visually break down as the zombies tear it away, it’s never clear how quickly it’s being depleted or whether or not you’re in danger of dying unexpectedly. Finally, there’s almost no advantage to buying fuel instead of weapons or barricade repair. Until you reach the final level, it doesn’t make sense to skip a wave of zombies if there’s money to be earned.
It’s usually out of line to criticize the music chosen for an independently-developed video game, given the complicated nature of licensing and producing a song. But the droning vibraphone vamp chord in There Will Be Brains would be better suited to a massage parlor waiting room.
One major bug in the game is already being addressed. At 720p and 480p resolutions, the font used for the stat display and dialogue scenes is too large and runs off the side of the screen. That means a player isn’t able to read instructions or see all of the text balloons in most circumstances. A patch to fix this problem is already under review for distribution as of this writing.
The conclusion of the game suggests that a possible sequel could resume telling the story from either the sad or happy ending. You may not spend a lot of time with Jackie, but it’s probably worth another 80 Microsoft points to see if she and her friends survive the next battle.
There Will Be Brains by David Parker, available on Xbox Live Indie Games as an 80 point download. Completed four times for review, twice for each ending.
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