I love zombies. I understand that as a snarky, sarcastic game critic I’m supposed to be over the undead fad and complain about how I can walk into Walmart and buy zombie sheets, but I just don’t care. I love their little rotting faces, I love their slow, shambling strides, and I love their eat-anything-that-gets-in-their-path attitude. I also love shooting holes in them as I flee down city streets.
Dead Pixels is the latest to the undead XBLIG party, but it’s way more than just a cash-in to take advantage of the undead walkers’ lingering popularity. This is a fully fleshed-out 8-bit zombie grindhouse romp that oozes love and authenticity from every crevice like coagulating blood oozes from the face wounds of fallen zombies. It’s like a mix of Double Dragon and Left 4 Dead, and it’s almost as awesome as that dream-team combination sounds.
The game opens like a low budget horror movie, complete with film grain over the 8-bit cinematics. You and a buddy play as survivors of a zombie holocaust, and you have to flee the streets moving from left to right in order to make it to the helicopter and escape the land of the dead. Of course the streets are absolutely teeming with zombies, but for the most part they are the lumbering, slothish, Romero zombies and not the frenetic, fast-paced Boyle zombies. Your pixelated protagonists come equipped with guns for blasting through zombies, but this definitely isn’t the kind of game where you’re going to necessarily be killing everything that comes on screen. The sheer amount of zombies on each street is staggering, so sometimes running through the hordes is often a safer, easier route than leaving behind a mountain of moaning corpses. .
Still, when the mob gets too thick, sometimes the only answer is to go all guns blazing, and the gunplay in Dead Pixels is more than up to the task. You have the standard assortment of machine guns, handguns, shotguns, and rifles, and each of them is lovingly named after characters from Resident Evil. There are plenty of different grenades for taking out big swarms as well and other temporary power-ups like speed boosts. Just because this game falls into the 8-bit camp doesn’t mean its wanting for gore. Weapons tear through zombies with a satisfying force, often ripping heads off or falling them in other grotesque ways.
Dead Pixels would be a decent, if perhaps forgettable, game if it was just another zombie shooter with 8-bit graphics, but its inventory system and RPG customization options really help push it to the front of the indie-shooter horde. The streets are lined with buildings that can be looted for items, ammo, and weapons, and excess loot can be dumped at stores for cash to purchase much-needed ammo and stat boosts. The light RPG elements help make surviving the mean streets a little easier and a whole lot more fun. Zombies also carry around fat wads of cash to be collected, which just makes killing them all the more satisfying.
You’re going to need those upgrades because the streets quickly become cluttered with more new types of critters looking to snack on your brains. Dead Pixels does a great job of continually introducing new zombie types. Sure there are plenty of normal, everyday shamblers, but there are also the bile-pukers, the bullet sponges, and the hyper zombies that run around like they’ve just snorted an 8-ball of coke. The variety helps from a pure aesthetic perspective as its nice to encounter different looking creatures, but it also affects the gameplay since you’ll have to ration ammo and decide which cluster of zombies is worth killing and which is worth avoiding.
The only real gripe that I have with the game, and it’s definitely a minor one, is that the physical combat is entirely underwhelming. There is a melee attack, but even after a number of upgrades it never amounts to more than a silly-looking prod with the gun that looks like you’re trying to nudge the zombie to death. You have a better chance of the zombie falling over from boredom than from the weak physical attacks. It really feels like a lost opportunity for a more dynamic combat system with grapples and combos that swap between guns and fists. But that just gives me something to look forward to in a sequel.
I know that everyone loves to grumble and act all high and mighty whenever another zombie game is released, but don’t dismiss this is as just another zombie shooter. This is easily one of the best games to hit XBLIG this year, and it’s priced right at a measly buck.
Dead Pixels was purchased for $1. A free demo is available on the Xbox Live Marketplace.