Review: Plants vs. Zombies DS

PlantsVsZombiesDS.jpg

As Mike pointed out in his recent review of the iPhone game Legendary Wars, we are rather fond of tower defense games here at VGBlogger. In particular, we are HUGE fans of Plants vs. Zombies, as you can see in our glowing reviews of the original PC/Mac release and the iPhone version. But that shouldn’t come as a major surprise. I mean, EVERYONE loves Plants vs. Zombies, don’t they? Now DS owners can too, as PopCap’s playful take on the bustling tower defense genre has arrived on Nintendo’s portable.

For new recruits in the war between garden life and undead brain eaters, the concept behind Plants vs. Zombies is very straightforward: zombies are attempting to invade your home and chow down on your cranial matter like a greasy bucket of fried chicken, and your only defense against this threat is a thriving lawn of local flora. Sounds absurd, right? Well it is — and that’s why it’s so brilliant!

Your lawn is divided into five to six rows (depending on the level), and each row consists of a series of squares for you to plant your vegetative towers on. When a level begins, zombies come charging down these rows in waves, and it’s your job to guard the lawn to prevent the zombies from munching their way through and breaching your home. To do this, you must first harvest sunshine energy produced at regular intervals by planted sunflowers (shine particles from the sun itself fall periodically as well, which helps get you started). Then, as you conserve enough sunshine, you can begin growing other types of plants capable of thwarting the zombie threat.

Despite this simplicity, there is an impressive depth of strategy to the gameplay and a constant sense of reward that keeps the game consistently spontaneous. As you play through the adventure mode’s 50 levels, you are constantly gaining new plants seeds to combat the evolving zombie horde. At first, the zombies are just zombies, and they are easy to bury six feet deep (again!). But as time goes by, zombies get smarter (go figure!) and begin wearing metal buckets on their head or holding screen doors to bolster their defense, using poles, ladders and pogo sticks to vault over plants entirely, and riding in on vehicles (like the ‘Zomboni’) and balloons. Conversely, Peashooters are your standard line of defense, but over time you unlock Cherry Bombs that blow up all nearby zombies, Snow Peas that freeze zombies to a crawl, Torchwood towers that turn all peas passing through their flames into more powerful fireballs, and so on and so forth.

The environments and time of day also dictate your approach to each level. You begin the game defending your grassy front lawn, but eventually you have to protect your back yard swimming pool and even the dirt-less roof of your home which requires first placing pots for your plants to grow in. Darkness and fog conditions also become a factor, dampening your ability to produce sun energy and blocking visibility of the field of play. So again, there is so much more to this game than you may initially think.

Plants vs. Zombies is, however, a bit of a slow starter — in more ways than one, too. Early on, the game puts up little resistance, and as such it’s easy to cruise through at least the first quarter of the adventure mode without breaking a sweat or thinking about different plant combination strategies. Admittedly, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that I’ve already played the game before on other platforms, so I’ve gone through the easy start multiple times before this. If you’re brand new to the game, the accessible learning curve will likely be seen as a benefit, and the newness of the game will overshadow the slow early pacing. However, the fact that the beginning of every level starts out the same exact way nearly every single time does wear thin after a while, and eventually you come to wish for a fast-forward button so you can skim through the early process of getting your sunflowers up and producing energy before the zombies start strolling in.

Specific to this version of the game, PopCap did a great job adapting Plants vs. Zombies to the DS platform. There are significant technical shortcomings for sure, including heavy slowdown during particularly hectic zombie waves and an overly busy HUD on the touch screen that partly obscures your view of the top row of your lawn. The slowdown is the biggest disappointment, but it’s really just an eyesore, as it rarely limits your ability to control the action — this isn’t some twitch shooter where even the slightest framerate blip can throw you off. But in general, the stylus-controlled interface is perfectly suited for dragging and dropping plants into place and tap-collecting sunshine and coins, and overall the DS presents what I think is the most complete version of the game in terms of playability and content.

All modes from the earlier PC/Mac release carry over intact…and then some! Altogether, that means you’re getting the full adventure story mode plus Survival and Puzzle modes, the Zen Garden where you can relax and grow plants to produce extra coinage so you can save up for more unlockables, a two-player local verses mode (unfortunately I wasn’t able to test the multiplayer), a new ‘Zombatar’ editor that allows you to create a customized zombie avatar, built-in achievements, and 22 fun mini-game variants on the core gameplay, including four that are brand new and exclusive to this version — most notably a side-scrolling shooter mission and a homerun derby challenge in which you swipe the stylus like a baseball bat and hit pitched balls to kill approaching zombies or, should you smack one out of the yard for a homer, to earn sun sparkles.

Even on the small screen, PopCap’s jovial flair shines through in full force as well, from the cute and clever plant / zombie designs, to the zombies’ “Braaains!” war cry that signals the onslaught is coming, to the hilarious “Zombies on Your Lawn” music video waiting as a reward for clearing the game. And I can’t forget about ol’ Crazy Dave, your rambling human ally who wears a sauce pot on his head (to protect his brains, of course!) and serves as the resident unlockables dealer. He’s CRAAAAAAAZY!

And you’re crazy too if you don’t go play this game already. The DS was built for games like this, so whether you are new to the Plants vs. Zombies craze or a returning fan, this is THE version I recommend above all others.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Supremely addictive tower defense gameplay
+ Nicely adapted to touch screen stylus control
+ Tons of content to keep you playing for a LOOONG time
+ Overflowing with silly humor
+ Good balance of challenge and accessibility

Cons:
– Noticeable slowdown during hectic battles
– Bottom screen tends to get too busy and cluttered
– Each level starts off the same way and overall game is a slow-starter

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: PopCap Games
Developer: PopCap Games
Release Date: 1/18/2011
Genre: Tower Defense / Strategy
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2 (local wireless multi-card play and single-card download play)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=1583]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!