If you grew up playing video games in the late 80s and early 90s there are certain genres you simply cannot get enough of. The sidescrolling beat 'em up is one such genre. Double Dragon, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Turtles in Time are genre greats that will send us spinning with nostalgia. But a genre can't live on nostalgia alone, and as proven by The Behemoth's Castle Crashers there is still room for innovations and new ideas in the space.
Zoink Games may not strike you as the most likely studio to try their hands at a brawler, but that's what they're doing after finding critical and commercial success with adventure game Stick it to the Man on various platforms including Steam, PS4 and PS Vita. Zombie Vikings is a pretty insane pitch, and playing it is an equally surreal experience.
The basic story is one of Norse mythology. Loki is once again up to no good and he has stolen Odin's good eye. What does Odin do? He raises four legendary viking warriors from the dead to bring back his eye. Hence the title and as you may have guessed here you'll play as an undead killing living things and not the other way around. A nice change of pace and one that brings with it plenty of interesting mechanics. As you're already dead, losing your health in game isn't necessarily a bad thing and it also opens up for weird co-op moves where you basically create a great walking zombie skewer by sticking your weapon in a fellow zombie and hoisting them in the air.
Klaus Lyngeled, creative director at Zoink Games, told us the following in an interview following the hands-on:
"The story is set out around like basically ten different worlds that you travel through trying to get back the eye [it's missing and belongs to Odin] and also find out what happens to the different characters. So ten different worlds, each with about three, three-and-a-half levels each; about thirty levels right now. Right now we're targeting the play time to a little bit above ten hours."
"But we have also added - there's the basic gameplay you can get through, the whole story itself - but there's also side-quests that you can jump into and take part in those if you want to... These are like extra quests that you can pick up to basically gain more weapons, or gain more coins and get extra goodies in the game."
There are four zombie vikings to choose from. An early favourite is Seagurd who packs a punch with his pet squid InkyPinky who can both squirt icky ink and engage in giant tentacle violence if charged up. There's also the hulking tank-like Gunborg, the Pippi Longstocking-esque Caw-kaa and Hedgy who we sadly didn't have time to sample.
They provide plenty of variation, but perhaps it's how they combine that will set Zombie Vikings apart from the pack in genre. If you happen to loose your head (it happens, you're undead after all) another player can skewer your head and you (as the bodyless player) can spew putrid acid at the enemies. There is also plenty of room for hilarious accidents as the remaining players are tasked with reuniting head and body again.
There are plenty of levels and side quests to partake in here, and the artstyle will certainly motivate you to hack and slash your way to Loki. But while it certainly was a great deal of fun sampling Zombie Vikings we left the hands-on session with one major concern. The great artstyle and colour palette of the game paired with the levels of mayhem that takes place on screen with four players and multiple enemies makes it difficult to make out what's what at times.
It may be something that your eyes simply have to get used to or it may be solved with a gentle tweak of the character design, perhaps some highlights - but nevertheless it added to the sense of chaos that left us a little overwhelmed at times. There is still time to tweak things before the planned release in July (on Steam and PS4 - with more platforms to follow at a later date).