“All Hail, Mighty Bork: Zombie Vikings Review
Since unveiling their latest in-development project for the Nintendo Switch, Flipping Death, Sweden’s Zoink Games has been a company on my personal watch list. Though still a technically very young developer, having only been making games full-time since 2013, their founder, Klaus Lyngeled, formerly of Shiny Entertainment (Earthworm Jim, MDK), clearly brings a solid guiding hand and sense of direction to the company’s small staff that has already given the company a fairly clear sense of identity in its art style, sense of humor, and ability to draw influence from numerous sources in the process of making games that are charming, funny, straightforward, and most importantly, all around enjoyable. While their two titles on the horizon, Fe, and the aforementioned Flipping Death seem promising, it’s Zoink’s established merit in such a short period of time that has me truly excited about the latter in particular (being for the Switch and all) and what has had me playing one of their games that have brought them to this point: their sophomore effort, 2015’s Zombie Vikings.
In a rare case of a developer being allowed to name a game for exactly what it contains, Zombie Vikings is a beat-'em-up whose main characters are exactly that: resurrected Viking warriors tasked by Odin to retrieve his only working eye from Loki who has stolen it right out of his head. The game’s really too comical and slapstick to come up with concrete reasons as to why this happens, but luckily tomes upon tomes of Norse mythology ultimately comes down to “Loki does things because he likes being a dick” and the story writes itself. The opening scene where Loki takes the eye and Odin has to go out and raise the dead to get it back really sets the goofy tone for the rest of the game, as upon picking our heroes out of their graves, they assume that the fate of the universe balances upon their success or failure, to which Odin simply replies out of simple matter-of-fact, “no, I just really hate not having my eye.”
Not to undersell the gameplay even for a second, but without a doubt, this sense of humor and originality Zoink shows off throughout the game is Zombie Vikings’ number one asset, as just about every facet of the game’s design is improved by this sense of identity. The titular Vikings each boast a unique look and personality that comes through in their moveset and, of course, in the stellar cutscenes, dialogue, and chapters of the story that are catered to them. For example, the feral and furry warrior called Hedgy zips across the screen like the Tazmanian Devil as he attacks, while his special move has him spitting up exploding skeletons. In addition to the other three main characters, the intimidating giantess Gunborg, the half-squid Seagurd, and the minuscule but sassy Caw-Kaa, players can also choose zombified versions of Raymond from their first title, Stick It To The Man, and my personal main, Raz-Putin, on loan from the like-minded Double Fine Studios’ Psychonauts.
Even more than the main characters, the enemy and, oddly enough, the weapon design accounts for a considerable amount of the design quality that abounds in Zombie Vikings. Every weapon you can possibly wield throughout the game is an excellent comedic prop in addition to its interesting stats and abilities. Out of an armory’s worth of swords, just a few of my personal favorites included a cat on a stick, half of a hammerhead shark, an extremely pointy foam finger, a broken candy cane, and an excessively slender gnome named Olaf. Add these to a rogues’ gallery every bit as grotesque and clever as our heroes and you have a package incredibly befitting of Zombie Vikings’ rub from the likes of Double Fine and Shiny Entertainment.
And so with all the superficial elements present in Zombie Vikings with old-school Shiny Entertainment fingerprints all over them, it’s only fitting that the gameplay in this 2.5D hack-n-slash brawler also hearkens back to the days of Earthworm Jim and Wild 9. While co-op, either local or online, is a huge feature of Zombie Vikings, there’s no reason to disregard it from a single player perspective, as the drop-in/drop-out style only serves to make the game easy to play in either capacity, save for a few specialized sequences that would clearly be more helpful with an extra set of decaying hands on deck. Gameplay moves surprisingly quickly, both by beat-em-up and zombie standards, and while very little of the level design was invested in interactivity, save for a few barrels that contain either coins or brains (health), they’re still very nice to look at and traverse through between batches of enemies, and the quick side missions here and there are a nice touch, though they might seem pointless for completionists who will spend longer looking for one that they missed than actually completing it.
The controls, in the spirit of pick-up/drop-out accessibility, are extremely straightforward (there’s only one standard attack button), but still more in-depth than would be possible on a controller from the glory days of the beat-'em-up genre. The standard attack button will take the brunt of the button mashing, but throws and individualized special attacks for each character are also present, and all three varieties of attack can be charged by holding the button down. The special attacks are the only things about the characters that make for any real gameplay difference, but the aforementioned personalities of each character already account for plenty of reasons to play favorites, and the importance of utilizing the special attacks is more important than your average brawler. As you might expect from the genre, though, it’s not the gameplay itself that keeps you playing, as many players will likely point out their various points in the game at which things started to feel repetitive, but the presentation and the need to finish your relatively unimportant mission will keep you pressing onward to see where you have to chase Loki to next.
The nature of the 2.5D beat-'em-up makes any game that falls within that genre subject to a particular limit on length, and in this era of gaming, you’re not about to get any big, full-price titles boasting the same kind of accessible and straightforward gameplay as you’ll find in Zombie Vikings outside of the Lego series of games. But for only $20 retail on a physical copy of a damn fun game and a nice one to keep on your shelf, Zombie Vikings makes for a weekend’s worth of slapstick fun, and one that especially hits a nice little sweet spot for a retro-oriented gamer like myself, always dreaming of that next title to revive the couch co-op trend with the same approach that the classics like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage always did -- a requisite amount of absurdity, minimal changes between single and multiplayer, and a gameplay experience you can beat away through a few beers on a late night after work.