This is a game that hits all the right buttons. Three stereotypical characters indulging in cartoon zombie slaying set in an intensely stylised 1950’s America, all framed in a satirical B-movie setting that sets up tiny bits of plot before the maps begin. Oh, and it has a brilliant rockabilly soundtrack courtesy of Vampyre State Building.
Setting and presentation hardly make a game, though. Does Dead Block have the brains to back up the crisp graphics and stellar soundtrack, or is it all style and no substance? Well, that’s half and half. The game does rely on its aesthetics to appeal as you repeat the same tasks in each level, difficulty ramping up as you progress. The moment
you start to get a little bored of the zombie slaying in the Team Fortress 2 reminiscent world, another campy element will crop up – like turning on the TV to distract zombies, or sticking a coin in the jukebox to make them dance to death. The premise is simple. A few characters are stuck in a house, a shop, or a school. Waves of zombies will periodically attempt to break down windows and doors and burst into the building. To survive, you have to build traps and barricades, make use of items and environmental hazards, and rummage through items to discover guitar equipment to rock the zombies to death and finish the level.
The fact that the purpose of the level is not simply to kill every last zombie but to hold out until you’ve got the means to progress adds a great sense of desperation as soon as the tutorial stops holding your hand. Sure, it never feels genuinely threatening, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed if you let your traps degrade or lose one of the characters. It can’t be played as an all-action beat ’em up – if you don’t put any thought into where you put your traps or characters in the later levels, it’ll be game over quickly. The tactical nature of the game is surprisingly rich considering that each of the characters has a modest four traps each to choose from as the game progresses. Construction worker Jack is the strongest melee character and can build barricades the fastest, boy scout Mike Bacon can search for items faster, and meter maid Foxy builds ultra-destructive ranged traps. You can switch between them at will once you’ve rescued them in each scenario, and call them to different rooms to help hold back the zombie horde whilst you pillage the level looking for supplies. Each character has a set of unique unlockable traps and the AI is well-built enough to make sure you can play the game however you want. If you want to play as Mike and focus on finding powerups and equipment to support the other characters whilst they hold off the zombies, the AI will make sure they do that well, building traps and barricades appropriate to the situation. If you want to let Mike do all the searching automatically and focus on holding back the undead horde, it’ll handle that too. Nothing is more frustrating than a stupid defence game where allies mindlessly blunder into danger or take hours to do a simple task, but Dead Block’s characters are sharp and efficient when left to their own devices.
That doesn’t mean you can sit back and let them do all the work, though. The game is designed in such a way that if one character isn’t doing their share of defending, the entire thing falls apart, and the levels are masterfully crafted in the sense that’s impossible to completely bottleneck the zombie invasion. There will always be vulnerable spots to defend and if you don’t aid the AI when it needs it, it will die, taking some essential support with it. This will make for some interesting (and probably rage inducing) online play. The issue with Dead Block is that it doesn’t aim high enough. The game has tons of room for innovation and wacky ideas but seems to constrict itself within the formula of “Defend house, build traps, find items, win game”. Traps can only be built in doorways or on certain parts of the environment, and it would add a whole new dimension to the game if you could build traps on walls and floors. Whilst the traps are all refreshingly different it’s still tactically limited when the only place you can place traps and barricades are doorways, and it can
often unfairly trap you in a room rapidly filling with zombies, and if you’re playing as Mike or Foxy you may as well just lay down and die. Thankfully the ability to switch between characters freely fixes this issue, but swapping to Jack to come and rescue one of the physically weaker characters can leave a vital room undefended for just long enough to let the zombies into the house, break some carefully constructed traps and put the characters under threat. Melee combat is the last resort as despite varying physical abilities, none of the characters can withstand more than a few grazes from even the most basic type of enemy.
Levels are scored by how many objects have been smashed, how many zombies have been killed, how many items have been searched, and how many characters died. High scores and medals for each section might be enough incentive to replay but as power ups and unlocks are found within levels rather than as rewards for scores, it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise to replay levels once you’ve found all of their items. There’s no reason to have a high score except having a high score, which isn’t much of a reason at all in Dead Block. It’s a fantastically designed game and one of the better tower defence offerings available, even if it would benefit from some extra options and gameplay rewards. You’re forced to employ your small arsenal of traps and weapons intelligently to survive, and the tide of battle quickly turns if you don’t. It’s little, intense, and charming – and there’s no reason at all not to buy it.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.