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Early Access Impressions: Soldak's Zombasite

New ARPG from Depths of Peril chaps

[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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