Early Access Impressions: Soldak’s Zombasite



Zombasite
[official site], a living-ish world action RPG from the people behind Depths of Peril, has been in early access for a little while now, so I thought I’d take a look. Even though I just can’t shake the suspicion that it was supposed to be called ‘Zombacide.”

This is my first time with a Soldak game (they of Din’s Curse, Drox Operative, and Depths of Peril), an oversight I’ve long been keen to correct. Partly because I should know about this stuff, partly because these days I suffer from a creeping existential doubt whenever I get a few hours into an ARPG. Time was I’d willingly put days and weeks into mouse-hammering and monster-bashing, but of late I’m all too aware of the endless, meaningless cycle of number-chasing. I don’t begrudge ’em that, because the vast majority of games have no meaning beyond entertainment and competition anyway, but personally the endless pursuit of slightly more powerful weapons just doesn’t do it for me.

Soldak games, of course, attempt to refresh the parts other ARPGs can’t reach – dynamic worlds tussled over by warring or co-operating factions, living towns to protect or raze, NPCs to recruit or fail to save before a rival does. The latest, Zombasite, adds an ongoing zombie invasion and infection into the mix – more unpredictable plates to spin.

I’ll tackle the elephant in the room first and acknowledge that, yes, it ain’t no looker. I’m not generally shallow about game appearances, but in this case I did feel a bit held back from believing this was in any way a living, breathing place. This isn’t simply a matter of graphics, but also of UI: my settlement’s status is a couple of lines of cold white text, and if a clan member is unhappy it’s only apparent in-game if they randomly decide to take out their frustrations on a comrade.

What I mean is, for a game that’s so much about an organic world, it feels extremely mechanical. I like that every new campaign brings a fresh world with fresh enemies and fresh rival (or, if you so wish, allied) clans, but I haven’t yet felt that a settlement is mine in any particular way. Yes, there’s a pang of loss when one of your NPC clan members falls, and a real sense of panic when an alert that your town has been invaded pops up, but it’s more about the loss of resource or the immediate need to disrupt whatever it is you’re in the middle of than any real gut-punch.

A delve through a ‘new’ environment often results in familiar underground lairs or infuriatingly blocked scrublands, and inventory management, upgrades and crafting is a cyclic timesink even by ARPG standards. Zombasite very much plays down the importance of super-powered armour and weaponry compared to other ARPGs, but there’s still inventory churn, and given that shopkeepers are few and far between, instead you’re either disassembling unwanted stuff for parts or long-windedly trying to see if any of your clan want it. This is thematically stronger than OMG loot > cash > buy more loot, and there is a pleasure in seeing one of your NPC chums adopt your cast-offs, but it does play out as a grind in a game which has an anti-grind ethos at its heart.

I read some Steam reviews, and found people delightedly spinning anecdotes about how their clan had behaved, totally caught up in the fantasy of it all. I love that, and I love that Zombasite is doing that for them, but I hate that, for me, ally behaviour seemed to fall only into either “happy” or “violent” and, for whatever reason, I hadn’t invested in these people enough to spin the causes of that out into tales and personalities.

As for the zombie side of things, it’s largely handled as an infection meter of sorts, with your clan members liable to become zombs unless you delay its pace or find a cure in time. It’s woven into a lore system of sorts, which sees new insight about the plague uncovered and progress towards treatment thus found, and I think in its own right it could really go somewhere. Right now though, it’s a rather under-nourished side concern, playing a distant second fiddle to the basic business of killing monsters, finding new weapons with which to kill said monsters, and trying to stop said monsters from killing all your people.

It certainly keeps you busy, does Zombasite, but I wonder if it’s not chucking too much stuff at you – I’m just too busy with the nuts and bolts of ARPGing and a bit of town management to even think about the zombie stuff. Perhaps if I reach a position of basic sustainability – lots of NPCs found and recruited to town, lots of door and defence upgrades obtained, so that an invasion can handle itself rather than require my presence every time – I can be thinking more about stopping things from going all 28 Days Later, but I’ll admit that hasn’t happened yet. What with the whole ‘repeatedly getting everyone in my town killed’ thing.

Zombasite is tough and unforgiving, not at all afraid to deposit all kinds of hell right at your door, and without doubt this is the main draw. As opposed to the somewhat mindless wave of mutilation that characterises a Diablo or Torchlight, this is much more about picking battles, deciding when to withdraw or even when to call in help. Couple this with the fact that even quests are randomly-generated – albeit within familiar structures of ‘rescue this person’, ‘defeat this boss’ and ‘kill x beasties’ – and can be failed permanently or even swiped by rival factions, and you’ve got something which is the appealing polar opposite of trad. ARPG’s fixed runs.

I’m dealing with a brand new challenge, and the strong likelihood of being smacked down by a surprise boss or mass invasion at any point, every time I play. On top of that, there are no mandates about how I build my character – there’s huge freedom of skills and weapons, so I can try out whatever I fancy. I dig all this flexibility and unpredictability – but I believe that is what people already admire Soldak games for.

To me, as someone who hasn’t played those, the zombie stuff does just feel like extra layers of fiddle on top of a relatively solid core. It hasn’t much motivated me and it doesn’t feel much like a thing that is actually happening to my world, and to be honest I’d much rather just be getting on with doomed adventuring. Perhaps I should just play Depths of Peril instead?

Early days, early access, though – I liked it enough to want to check back in later, even if I don’t like it enough to want to keep playing now. Maybe the zombie stuff will ultimately feel more meanginful, maybe it can wind up looking and feeling slicker, maybe NPC emotions can become more tangible, or maybe it just needs an audience which is better at spinning shaggy dog stories out of numbers than I am.

Zombasite is available on Steam Early Access and direct from the devs now. There’s also a demo, if you like.

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12 Comments

  1. NoImFartacus says:

    Can you do anything at Zombasite?

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    gritz says:

    I always like the ideas behind Soldak games more than I actually enjoy playing them.

  3. haileris says:

    Sorry, its not good. The graphics haven’t improved in N years, the collision detection is still awful, the character classes are simply ported over from Depths of Peril, the zombie bit is a bit like a really bad extension to an existing house that was built in the 30’s and hasn’t been updated since, the living world thing hasn’t changed in yonks, the loot system is challenging, I could go on. Its a shame Soldak had a really good basis to build on but IMHO they’ve let it rot. Apart from that its alright!

  4. Kaeoschassis says:

    Honestly for me, the Soldak game I’d most recommend is definitely, easily Drox Operative (and get the expansion too, it’s a goodun). As people tend to point out, all their games have a similar overarching idea, although I’d contend that the games themselves are less similar than people tend to maintain they are.

    Anyway, Drox Operative is for me the perfect balance of a well-done arpg (with some slightly obscure mechanics that take a little getting used to but give you brilliant freedom for customization), and a well-realised multi-species gold rush as a backdrop, that you can (mostly) ignore if you want, but can have a lot of fun influencing for your own gain. It also knows how to throw curveballs when you least expect them, which keeps it fun for longer sessions.

    As for Zombacite itself, I haven’t tried it yet, but I absolutely will. Yes, I just acknowledged that you really only need to play any one Soldak game to get the experience they’re going for, but y’know what? I love that experience. A lot.

  5. Professor Paul1290 says:

    NPCs can (with some effort) actually be built up to be useful tools now rather than just being straight babysitting jobs they were before.

    They also affect each other a lot more than they used to rather than being interchangeable (at least in the case of mooks). You can actually give yourself a hard time by having bad clan composition.

    Factions have more differences between them now and are not as interchangeable as they used to be. It used to be you didn’t give a damn who was who. Some of have unique alliance benefits now.

    Also, the pool of random events has expanded considerably since DoP, which is a big plus given that’s where much if the content is.

    I mean sure an engine and UI overhaul would be nice, but “DoP with a bunch of expansions and a lot of it’s shit fixed” is not a bad thing to be.

    I don’t believe every series of dev needs to leap around all the time, iteration can be good.
    My library just wouldn’t feel as complete without “latest Soldak/StarWraith/Spiderweb title” entries as stable semi-permanent residents

    • Professor Paul1290 says:

      Sorry, that was supposed be a response to haileris.

      RPS is not mobile friendly…

      • haileris says:

        Respectfully have to degree. Posting the same game twice isn’t jumping around. Maybe I’m missing something but the clans are still as dumb as ever on the whole – though the hunting idea wasn’t too bad. The amount of times they fight in one big gangbang no matter what personalities you choose. Quests – same as they ever were. Ok the item distribution to NPC’s is better.
        The only bone I’ll throw it is with the early access tag it has time to improve. I doubt it will.

  6. Baines says:

    I want to like Soldak’s fantasy games, but I find that I bounce off of them. Their fantasy titles just seem to be missing some element, or more accurately to fall short in various areas, producing a whole that is no more than the sum of some not-quite-there parts.

    Graphics, control, setting, all sorts of things just don’t quite work…

    The interesting thing for me is that I don’t have that issue with Drox Operative. Drox Operative is one of my favorite games, and the one Soldak title that I can and do actively recommend. (Though with the warning that it can take a couple of plays to not only learn how to play it, but to unlearn how not to play it.)

  7. Spacewalk says:

    Ain’t no looker nothing, I can’t even read anything from those screenshots except that one with the icons.

  8. malkav11 says:

    Din’s Curse is the one I’d recommend for fantasy. I think its particular take on the ideas is stronger than Depths. It doesn’t have clans, but although the idea is neat I don’t think they make that much difference in Depths, and the stuff that -is- new to Din’s Curse (including coop multiplayer, not that I’ve been able to try it) does. Still need to take Drox Operative for a spin, though.

  9. ToomuchFluffy says:

    I have only played Depths of Peril so far and I have to say that it has been a somewhat even mix of frustration and enjoyment. The random events also often didn’t manage to do anything for me, which isn’t suprising. After all, they are random. A lot of the time the dynamics don’t seem to produce particularly interesting events or challenges. It’s pretty unpredictable though. I recently had to scrap a Lvl 13-Rogue because I simply couldn’t afford food for health regen anymore, because of food poisoning having gotten out of control. Another time the plague (stat decreases) – which had never affected me before – infected me and one or two Covenant member, so that I felt forced to venture into a higher level area to get the cure. I think the Soldak-games should be played with a mindset appropriate for Survival-games (like Don’t Starve for example) or some Rogue-Likes, not ARPGs. Din’s Curse seems to be more focused on that idea, but in DoP it’s not always clear for the player. It’s easy to forget that the randomness is there to create interesting developments, but that those very same developments can completely destroy your progress. Just something to keep in mind when playing Soldak-games.