It’s a challenge these days to craft a zombie game that isn’t a tired ‘me-too’ clone of an existing property, so it’s a bit of a relief to find a platformer that combines humor and strategy in Three Dead Zed (400 MSP). Gentlemen Squid Studio’s previously-PC title makes the transition to XBLIG in fine hand-drawn form with the story of a zombie that has been experimented on to create the ultimate weapon, instead resulting in a fractured existence, the chance to exploit three forms of zombie being. With a shadowy ally to guide you through the levels, you take your revenge on the project overlords and agree to rescue cats wearing tinfoil hats. Yes, that is really your objective to complete each stage.
3DZ‘s signature mechanic is similar to Frozenbyte’s Trine, the seamless ability to switch between three different characters in order to solve a series of navigational puzzles within each level. The default ‘average’ form is the most balanced zombie, able to attack and operate switches. The second, more agile version (think spider / crab zombie) loses the right to attack, but gains increased jumping height, the vital skill of hugging walls to climb, and was voted most likely to get you out of a prickly situation. The final form is a brutish female zombie, the literal muscle of the group, with the (obvious, really) power to pulverize certain walls and floors that would otherwise block your path. This pairs with critically-slow movement speed and a nonexistent jump ability.
Largely, these perks and shortcomings trade off well, as every puzzle comes with just one solution, leaving it up to you to figure out which undead companion to call upon. That part’s not terribly hard. There are alternate ‘hazardous paths’ to take, but mostly the levels are linear; hit a switch, remove a laser, explore the opened path, etc. This would be fine, though there are some flaws in its handling. The agile zombie’s speed can throw you off initially, causing you to over-jump smaller platforms or leap directly into fire and / or lasers. It’s made worse by the fact that you’ll be calling upon this zombie form the most.
Generally-okay checkpoints and unlimited lives soften the repetitive blows, though there’s a significant adjustment period as you learn to compensate. While the early levels do a good job at easing you in and presenting the flow, the later rounds are less sympathetic. A few hit detection issues (being smashed by walls that aren’t there) and oddly-placed enemies can also dampen the fun, shooting you mercilessly as you struggle to switch forms or avoid a one-hit-death fire or laser trap.
The developers are certainly conscious of its ‘punishing’ nature, even prophetic by including a ‘rage quit’ option that will take you straight back to the dashboard. While this is most likely a self-deprecating gesture rather than a serious feature they wanted you to make use of, the irony is not lost on me. It doesn’t get better. As the game wears on, the difficulty stemming from pinpoint jumps / accurate timing, coupled with uncooperative controls, sinks the game. I quit near the supposed end, zero desire left to see how the adventure played out.
There’s no doubt that Three Dead Zed features some fantastic animation and visuals to accompany a delightfully-absurd storyline, though the puzzles require some busy work, and tax your patience during some of the more annoying, hazardous sections you’ll be forced to replay. The controls never manage to feel quite right either, rigid in one form while oversensitive in another. It’s a deeper platformer than most, and fun is here in spots, but it definitely doesn’t last throughout. As such, you’ll have to forgive quite a bit and temper your expectations in order to enjoy it, which may be asking too much for $5.