Dark Days from developer Brutal Studios is pretty much just what it proclaims to be: a 3D top down zombie survival shooter.
The game starts off in the way that many such tales do. Having been stranded away from normal civilized life for a short time, you, the hero, find that the laws of nature have been violated, and that somehow, the dead now walk among us. Armed with your wits and a simple firearm, you venture out to attempt to find help. I must say something for the dialogue and story here – while written in a charming manner, the spoken dialogue has a pretty hard hint of ESL, which, while not inherently bad, might not be your cup of tea. I found it pleasing, in a form of so-off-its-good manner. Your mileage may vary.
Gameplay is simple enough. WASD moves you in the cardinal directions, whilst your mouse and cursor control aiming and firing of weapons. Spacebar is a universal button, used to rebuild barriers, vault said barriers, and activate any other item in the environment that might be worth fiddling with. Players progress from area to area via a zoning and map/travel system similar to the Legend Of Zelda, although in a much rougher format. Travel between areas can occasionally be difficult, as only certain areas at each edge of a location will prompt you for travel. Also similar to LOZ, Dark Days sees you breaking nearly everything in sight; not for the purpose of collecting rupees, but rather, to scrounge ammo for your guns, find melee weapons, and collecting crafting components.
Your overarching goal is to reach civilization. As you navigate from area to area, you’ll contend with zombie hordes, rescue hapless survivors, and secure and fortify safehouses. These safehouses occur ever 3-5 locations, and function as hubs. Each contains similar quests to return a number of survivors, rebuild a number of walls, and kill a number of zombies. While the first time you complete a safehouse it is fairly entertaining, the formulaic manner in which it is applied across the rest of the game certainly has the system suffering from diminishing returns.
Fortifying safehouses is an easy enough task, and is accomplished by finding broken walls and holding the action button. The only thing spicing this activity up is the fact that zombies will often attack you during this process, making it an exercise in combat and athletics. Vaulting walls will keep you out of reach of the Zed, and allow you a few cheap shots before the shamblers attempt to find other avenues to your sweet pink flesh.
Rescuing survivors is a bit more difficult. Survivors seem to be peppered randomly across locations, and may in fact be randomly generated. Once found, they mindlessly follow your character on a direct path, attacking enemies in their way. While this all sounds well and good, the execution isn’t that great, with our sheepish survivors often running headlong into dangerous mobs of the undead that tend to form in the players wake, leading to a speedy death. Compounding this issue is the fact that the survivors don’t have health bars, leaving you in a bad spot when it comes to assessing risk. Returning survivors successfully to the safehouses ends up becoming quite the chore due to these issues.
Putting the walking dead back in the ground spans the gamut from exciting to ho-hum. Many combat encounters are made more difficult by alteration of the camera; darkly lit areas, or those obscured by tree tops become quite dangerous, as the nearly silent shamblers can just sort of materialize out of the unseen areas. Only their footsteps and the pained cries of your character will give them away. While Dark Days sports a number of different thrown, melee, and firearm weaponry, I found that the majority of combat encounters (particularly safehouse defenses) boiled down to frantically kiting biters whilst laying into them with whatever your best weapon is. Sure, you might vault a wall or use a car or fence to your advantage, but it just doesn’t spice it up all that much.
There is a light amount of crafting in the game, which does allow you to create throw weapons and med kits. You’ll use these fairly often as you roam the crafted world. Some locations look very good in 3D, with structures, lighting, and other elements coming together and looking great. Others, like the strange cliff walls near the docks, or tree heavy areas, showcase some frayed design.
I felt a sense of nostalgia while playing this game, and it took me a while to place. Within Dark Days, I felt shades of Flesh Feast from SEGA, circa ’97. I wish it had gone a bit further in that direction. That was still not quite where the familiarity came from. Dark Days evokes memories of playing games on Newgrounds – the sound styling, the dialogue, the art style from the cut scenes. It’s all reminiscent of those low-budget but still lovable browser games; and there is a reason for that. Dark Days appears to actually be a more refined and refinished version of a project Brutal Studios had already completed for the web and mobile devices, but released as a full, $5 entry game on Steam. This changed my perspective a bit on the end product.
While I didn’t love Dark Days, it did show me the developer flexing their skills, and working beyond their current portfolio of web portal and mobile offerings. Taken as a process, Dark Days showcases Brutal Studios’ ability to evolve. While a lot of the systems currently in the game are simple, and may currently be little more than boxes checked on a list, what it really says to me is this: Brutal Studios know what it takes to craft a good top down shooter, and they are working in that direction. For its $5 price tag, there is some fun to be had in Dark Days. I will be looking forward to their next offering, however, to see if they can unlock the potential of this game genre.
Note: This game was sent to us for review. This has not affected our judgement or editorial process in any way. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this process.