Zombillie Review: Snake Is Dead

Remember Snake? Yeah, he’s dead. Thankfully, Forever Entertainment reanimated what was once a single screen pixel chaser, and Zombillie was resurrected. If Snake was the perfect game to quickly thumb through on your Nokia in 1997, Zombillie is worthy of the same title for Nintendo Switch in 2018.

Zombillie nintendo switch header

You don’t play a puzzler for its narrative, nevertheless, Zombillie’s storyline offers unity between mechanics and progression, a rare feat in puzzle games, especially $5 ones. You’ll quickly learn of Zombillie’s quest to reach ‘The Meat Factory’, a hub of glorious brains and other juicy innards amidst a panic stricken post zombie apocalypse world. It’s not the most original story, and you won’t rush to the end of each level to learn what happens next, but it works with the offbeat, quick nature of the gameplay.

You must manouvre a new maze every level, eating brains and hearts and using items littered throughout the streets to stay alive. Each brain adds another nodule to Zombillie, making tight corners and unknown passageways riskier with every juicy snack. At the end of each level, there’s a score to be won. This is based on your completion time, the number of hearts you manage to collect, and a little bonus. Eat the required amount of brains in your own time and a manhole cover will open, leading you down to the next maze. It’s all pretty standard so far, and I’ll admit I was a little nervous about the quality of the game from the initial set up. It’s obvious from the start that this is a much slower affair than the rampant slithering we’ve come to associate with the game-turned-genre. In fact, a gentle plodding in the wrong direction is enough to make or break your play. Decisions don’t have to be made on the fly, and there’s more than enough room to seriously consider your strategy half way through a level.

zombillie gameplay

A nice little feature I only found about half way through the first set of levels was pressing X to pause the timer in the corner and zoom out to a full view of the map. Zombillie is more concerned with tactical strategy than how fast you can turn a tight corner. Mazes often need to be learned, and certain sections need to be completed before others to ensure breathing room later. It’s a patient, thoughtful experience that can, at the same time, have you cursing a single finger twitch in the wrong direction. While difficulty levels do fluctuate, often wildly – I completed some levels in a single run and others preceding them took me a good half an hour of plotting, having some quick wins alleviates any frustration that may come from slogging away at a maze only to miss a turning and crash.

zombillie cut scene

The item mechanics work to resolve this potential difficulty issue in a nuanced manner. I consider it a sign of a good puzzle game when I don’t know if there is more than one way to solve each problem, but there’s enough freedom I think there must be. I know my way, I know my strategy and I’m clueless as to whether that strategy had been enforced on me as a matter of design. Don’t get me wrong, there are particular ways of doing certain sections of the map – items dropped in locations that indicate where they will be needed. However, the process of working these out and deciding how to approach them doesn’t feel formulaic. It’s how, and when, you decide to grab a hammer or put on a shiny pair of nailed boots within the timeline of the puzzle that gives you a sense of freedom and experimentation.

This freedom primarily comes from the items themselves, of which there are 5; a siren for moving through Stop signs, a hammer to break through fragile walls, a clock to turn back time through the last few seconds of play, nailed boots for grip over oil patches, and a cleaver which neatly chops off the end nodule of Zombillie. This freedom however, comes with a price. In Zombillie, as is often the case with experimentation-heavy titles, that price is frustration at lack of understanding. At the beginning I had no clue of what each item did, or when to use it. Rather than feeling compelled to experiment, I felt all too aware that these were valuable resources and my first 15 or so levels were considerably less enjoyable for it. I felt like I was missing something for a long time, and I was. Once I stumbled across the correct usage for an item, I ended up enjoying the organic realisation it bred. I remembered how to use it and, crucially, strategise with it more. Working out how to solve each puzzle feels a lot more rewarding when it’s not something you’ve been spoon-fed.

Zombillie items

There is actually a tutorial section of the Main Menu, but linear play experience won’t take you here in time to avoid this initial frustration (I found out a little too late that you could trade stars for item packs here, and so relaxed into my lack of funds – I’m telling you now because it’s never explained). Generally, it seems developers didn’t seem to want to make it easy to learn how this game works. There’s a little too much guess work involved, and the initial tutorial left me with a lot of incorrect assumptions about gameplay rather than setting a foundation for picking up new knowledge and skills. While the organic realisation is a payoff, it likely won’t be for everyone and the grind of the first few levels is in danger of putting these players off. It’s a shame if it does, because Zombillie gets worlds better when you figure out what you’re doing, and experimentation and organic understanding become core drivers of satisfaction and motivation. That experimentation should not, however, be required to parse game mechanics in the first place.

Zombillie map

While experimentation and learning are a massive part of the Zombillie experience, there’s also an execution element which keeps things from stagnating if a particular maze is stumping you. Engaging mind and motor skills is a tricky line to walk in a puzzler, but Zombillie seems to tie them nicely. You’ll have to time some movements, or make a quick manouvre if there’s been a wrong turn earlier on, but at the same time you’re recalling where you went wrong before, and how to avoid plunging into that particular dead end again. Learning how to solve each puzzle through experimentation is incredibly rewarding, and executing that solution seamlessly intensifies the final whoop.

Where there’s a will there’s a way and Zombillie is the epitome of this law of game design. The level of depth each item provides the mental processes required to complete a puzzle is astonishing without presenting itself as such. Freedom without frustration is a difficult implementation, especially in a maze puzzler, and while Zombillie isn’t always on the right side of that line there’s more than enough to keep you coming back should a rage quit silence the niggling for a while. There’s always a way you can work out a solution, or failing that, deciding which routes are not solutions, and that open possibility of experimentation is what will keep you opening up this little title.

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