Given the resurgence of zombies in popular culture in the last few years, it was inevitable that someone would develop a game that put you on the other side of the zombie apocalypse. Enter Tecmo and Team Tachyon with Undead Knights, a PSP game that puts you at the head of your own personal zombie horde. Unfortunately the brilliant concepts don't lead to a great game, as the actual execution of Undead Knights ends up being as limited as the average undead brain eater's conversational skills.
- Great concept
- Fun boss battles
- Enjoyably cheesy presentation
- Shallow gameplay elements
- Lack of variety
- Poor level design
Given the resurgence of zombies in popular culture in the last few years, it was inevitable that someone would develop a game that put you on the other side of the zombie apocalypse. Enter Tecmo and Team Tachyon with Undead Knights, a PSP game that puts you at the head of your own personal zombie horde. Unfortunately, the brilliant concepts don’t lead to a great game as the actual execution of Undead Knights ends up being as limited as the average undead brain eater’s conversational skills.
Dawn of the Dead
Undead Knights is based around an almost can’t-miss concept. You play as three members of the wrongfully murdered Blood family who have come back to wreak vengeance on the King and Queen who ordered their executions. They haven’t come back alone, though. They’re at the head of a rampaging horde of zombies that they create by burning to death the King’s own troops and converting them to mindless thralls. This means that every game level starts off with the solo player surrounded by enemy troops that gradually get turned into their own personal army. It’s an amazingly compelling gameplay dynamic that by itself almost imparts enough charm to make Undead Knights worthwhile.
The big problem with Undead Knights is that the actual implementation of creating, running and ordering your zombie horde aren’t executed well enough to make the game more than mildly interesting. Take for example the frustrating method of zombie conversion. In order to turn a soldier to a zombie, the player’s avatar must grab a soldier and burn him to death. The speed of conversion depends on how damaged the soldier is so soldiers besieged by zombies or ones who have just been slashed by a player’s sword or slammed by a thrown zombie are the best ones to snag. Without a lock-on feature though, the player is reduced to grabbing into melees at random and hoping for the best. Inevitably this seems to end up with you grabbing exactly the wrong person – either an undamaged soldier or a zombie.
The other interesting feature of controlling the zombies is the ability to give your zombies orders to act on the world’s environments. In every level there are closed gates, archer towers, chasms or other environmental hazards that the player can order his or her zombies to overcome via a simple command interface that resembles the one used to control minions in the Overlord games. Unlike those games, the “puzzles” in these cases barely even the merit the name. The solution is always completely obvious given the sadly boxy, linear level design. Even if it wasn’t, the game itself happily pulls you out of the action to tell you to “Use your zombies to make a bridge!” in order to avoid any of that nasty “thinking” stuff.
Army of Darkness
The rest of the game follows a very similar pattern – terrific concepts poorly implemented. There are, for example, an impressive variety of fighters in the game –- standard sword-wielders, archer, shield-holders, bomb-throwers and a number of larger mini-boss level warriors -- that the player will have to tackle. The bad news is it seems like all the variety is on the side of the enemy. With only a few limited exceptions (bomb-throwers are concerted into exploding zombies) any enemy soldier you convert turns into the same standard face-chomping automaton. When you consider the inherent strategic possibilities in utilizing different kinds of zombies in battle, its reeks of a missed opportunity.
Nothing drives that home faster than the game’s boss battles. Initially they’re a lot of fun. Every boss has a different setup and requires different uses of your zombies in order to destroy them. A particular favorite was a large knight with morning stars for hands surrounded by a circle of soldiers that didn’t move. It took some time to figure out that defeating him requires you to carefully husband your use of the soldiers. Convert them too fast and you’ll run out of zombies before the boss dies.
Eventually though, the shallowness of the gameplay shows up here, too. Before you’re halfway through the game, you’ll realize that there are about four different tactics to use on bosses and it’s simply a matter of trial and error until you find the one that works – to say nothing of a few bosses which such poor AI that defeating them merely requires the patience to order your horde to attack them and wait for them to die.
(Lack of) Braiiiinnnnnnsssss
Ultimately it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that with a little forethought and a little more diligence, Undead Knights could have been a classic. What was the rationale behind giving the player two attacks (a quick, fast strike and a more damaging sweep) when neither does enough damage to kill an enemy soldier without major effort? No, you don’t want to eliminate too much raw material for your army, but there will be plenty of times when the screen gets so confusingly crowded with enemies that you’d appreciate the option to just start slaughtering. Why not make one of those strikes a killer blow?
In the end, it’s only the sheer charm of the game’s premise that ends up making Undead Knights at all enjoyable. The whole thing is so super-serious in its presentation it’s hard to escape the conclusion the whole thing’s being played for laughs (the cheesy heavy-metal soundtrack is a classic). After the first few zombie-flinging, soldier-burning and sword-swinging levels though, Undead Knights has coasted as far as it can on its walking-dead personality and all that’s left is a shallow game redolent of underutilized potential.