Review: Z-Run

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Runners and zombie games are probably the two most pervasive genres in gaming today, so it was only a matter of time before the two came together as one. With a title like Z-Run, there is no hiding that this game is a zombie-dodging runner, which isn’t a half-bad idea at all. Sloppy execution is this game’s downfall.

Z-Run comes with two modes: A “campaign” mode consisting of a progression of a little less than 30 stages, which take no more than an hour or two to finish, and an endless survival mode with three maps and online high score leaderboards. The number of modes and levels is irrelevant, because from the first stage that you’ve played to the 10th, 20th and beyond, the gameplay doesn’t evolve in any meaningful way. By portable game standards, the graphics show a decent amount of detail, but that doesn’t stop the game from turning into a drab, monotonous blur. Changing props and backdrops doesn’t make one murky-textured street look a whole lot different from the next.

Blitzing down zombie infested streets to the finish line is viewed from behind the back of the chosen male or female survivor. The left analog stick adjusts movement from side to side, the right analog stick can be flicked left or right to dodge roll in either direction, the right shoulder button sprints, and the face buttons perform various actions like jumping, sliding, jump-kicking and attacking with the currently equipped weapon, be it a guitar, baseball bat, katana, wooden plank or a firearm such as a crossbow or a shotgun. Putting these abilities to use in order to evade deadly zombie bites and vault obstacles drains from your stamina bar bit by bit, and the only way to restore lost stamina is to pop a blue energy drink (if you have one stocked) or maintain a standard run so stamina has a chance to regenerate on its own.

Should you decide to bring the fight to the zombies rather than avoid them, you’ll also spend plenty of time swiping a spare finger across the Vita touchscreen to squeegee off splatters of blood. Icky.

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So yes, there is an interesting mix of skill and strategy that’s required to put on a good run. Unfortunately, weird animations, a choppy framerate, unreliable mechanics and a general lack of polish cripple a game that shows flashes of fun. How does a zombie on the other side of the street leap across and bite/grab me when another zombie pretty much right next to me somehow swings and misses? Why is my pistol headshotting a zombie that poses no threat instead of the nearby zombie that I want to be shooting–and ends up killing me because the auto-targeting system let me down? Why am I still talking about this game?

When jumping, characters hover and sort of glide for a second or two (depending on how long you hold the button) as their legs dangle and run in place like a cartoon character that has gone off a cliff and continues to run in mid-air until it looks down and realizes it’s about to plummet to its death. Sliding has a similar, odd and unrealistically long animation that defies all logic and just looks silly. Apparently before the zombie virus spread, someone was clever enough to coat the asphalt streets in grease or put down a bunch of invisible Slip ‘N Slides.

So many other elements are either unbalanced or downright broken. There’s an experience point system with an accompanying skill upgrade menu, but it’s basically useless. I played through all of the levels on the normal difficulty before I even noticed that I could upgrade my runner’s abilities. Then, when I played through again on the hard difficulty, I used the upgrades, and they completely threw off the balance of the game and made things far too easy. Plus, there are so few levels that even after you complete them all, you have to waste time replaying old stages just to grind out enough experience to needlessly unlock most of the upgrades, a bronze trophy for the feat being the only worthwhile reason to even bother.

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The game’s inventory management is annoying, too. In between stages weapon loadouts can be customized to swap out guns without ammo or melee weapons that are low on durability, but for some reason the loadouts only save if you exit the inventory screen, quit back to the main menu, and then reenter the campaign map. If you exit the inventory and immediately enter a stage, any loadout changes that were made will be reset to the previous loadout. This baffled me for the longest time. I couldn’t figure out why my inventory kept resetting, until one time I left the inventory and immediately went back in to see that none of the changes I just made had been saved. Clearly the auto-save only kicks in when quitting the game completely. Two extra clicks isn’t a big deal, but simple oversights like this contribute to the game’s shoddy feel.

At different times I’ve had certain inputs suddenly deactivate. For example the ability to pause shut down on me one time; I kept pressing the start button but the input wouldn’t register. Another time I was running along and hit an obstacle, and the environment models and textures disappeared completely. I was left guiding the player character on a blank, black screen. Thankfully, the glitch didn’t crash the game, so I was able to continue on and reach the finish line without any danger.

This game has serious issues, but at the end of the day the real problem is the lack of a difficulty curve and a reward loop to hook you in beyond a few runs. When a runner is well designed enough motivational force to replay over and over to improve your high score can be found in even a single level. Z-Run offers more than that, and yet it does pretty much everything it can to make you not want to keep playing. Go play Beatshapers’ other new zombie game, #killallzombies, instead.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Some interesting mechanics
+ A zombie runner is a good idea (I wish I could say it’s the thought that counts.)

Cons:
– Lacks the addictive reward loop a runner desperately needs
– Ugly, choppy graphics
– Poorly balanced difficulty settings and upgrade system
– Lots of little bugs and polish issues

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Beatshapers
Developer: Beatshapers
Release Date: 6/24/2014
Genre: Runner
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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!