Disclosure: Night of the Dead was provided to us by Jacktostudios for the purpose of review.
The sky is pitch black. The night air is cold. I stand on the edge of a platform several stories high—high enough a fall might kill me. I’m low on health, out of healing items, armed with nothing but a wooden spear and a homemade bow. Before me is a bridge, and at the other end of that bridge is a shuffling corpse. His clothes are torn, his flesh rotting, his face red where his skin has sloughed off. He bellows when he spots me. Lowers his head. Charges.
And a spiked wrecking ball swings down and smashes him into bloody paste, bits and pieces flying off into the night.
Welcome to Night of the Dead, the survival horror game released in Early Access on Steam back on the 28th of August that’s started making waves in the online streaming community. Created by Jacktostudios, this is a zombie-themed, crafting-heavy horror a la Dying Light or Project Zomboid. But instead of parkour or realism, the unique selling point is this: it’s also a tower defence game.
Every 24 hours, a horde of zombies descends on your location, and your best bet is to build a base, guarded by a host of cunning and brutal traps. The waves get harder each night, with more, tougher zombies. They are drawn to your location, and facing them head-on is almost certain death. So the game becomes a careful balancing act of gathering materials, exploring the (impressively large) map, managing hunger and keeping an eye on your most precious resource of all: time.
This tower defence element is easily the highlight of the Night of the dead. Designing a sequence of traps is incredibly satisfying. There’s nothing quite like watching an army of zombies stumble its way through your labyrinth of collapsing ceilings, spinning blades and spiked floors, to say nothing of more complex traps like trebuchets and flamethrowers. You’ll have to provide your own Total Wipeout-style commentary, however.
The developers say on the Steam page for Night of the Dead that they want to give players a sense of “freedom”. One way in which this is realised is in the crafting. Aside from traps, you can build everything in this game from bows and farms to lightsabers and quarry machines. If you want to spend hours building, furnishing and decorating a house, upgrade the walls to be practically nigh-impenetrable and spend the night sat cosy in bed, listening to the carnage of zombies being slaughtered by traps outside, there’s nothing stopping you.
It is important to note, however, as you decimate the local countryside in search of tree branches and pebbles, that resources don’t respawn. This is one way in which the game encourages exploration, often into the heart of the city, where zombies and rare loot both wait in greater numbers.
Incentivising exploration like this is a smart move, avoiding what could otherwise become a repetitive loop of farming resources to improve your base until you finally lose your war of attrition with the undead. Of course, if it’s your thing, then there’s nothing stopping you from doing just that, and I’ve seen some videos on YouTube of wildly complex bases that took almost a month in-game to build.
But for players searching for a greater sense of progression, or to “beat” the game, there is a plot you can unlock by finding journal pages hidden across the map. The writing in these journals is a little basic, but it gets the job done. The real fun is in finding them. Each new journal page comes with a set of co-ordinates and a clue leading to the next one. It’s exciting to gear up and investigate locations such as research stations, hospitals and expansive subway networks, where bosses often lurk.
I won’t spoil them here, but the game offers some unique and frightening zombie designs, with a multitude of abilities. I won’t spoil the storyline either—which, full disclosure, I’m only about halfway through after playing for over 10 hours—but suffice to say it involves our protagonist Lucy searching for a way to call for help and escape the island, all whilst learning about a mysterious science experiment gone wrong.
Freedom also comes in a skill tree, which allows you to research and unlock new abilities and perks. You’ll probably want to put a few points into everything, but this still offers a chance to customise your playstyle, whether you want to focus on becoming an engineering whiz, combat expert or gourmet chef.
Finally, different animals to trap and hunt—from rabbits and deer to boar and wolves—offer a change of pace from the zombie slaughter. In fact, my scariest moment in the game so far came not from fending off the nightly horde, or from encountering a horrifying new kind of zombie during a scouting mission, but from a quiet moment of picking mushrooms that was rudely interrupted by a bear barreling straight towards me.
How did I defeat this terrifying beast? It took all of my cunning and combat prowess. By which I mean I lured it onto the top of a building, where it promptly clipped through the ceiling and got stuck, allowing me to pelt it with arrows from a cowardly distance.
It’s unfortunate, but I encountered several bugs playing Night of the Dead, and not all of them were as helpful as this one. Probably the most frustrating was one which would make my entire HUD display disappear, taking the reticle with it and making the game almost unplayable until I exited to the main title.
This isn’t surprising in an Early Access game, especially one from a studio comprised of just two people. Luckily, these bugs mostly amounted to minor inconveniences, and it should be noted that by all accounts the developers are very much invested in hearing and responding to player feedback.
At the time of writing, however, the game is still a little rough around the edges. Not counting the use of traps, combat is clunky and unsatisfying, which is a shame as completing the story will require a lot of it. The sound design is a mixed bag. The music that plays during each nightly wave is suitably pulse-pounding, racking up the tension.
But, if you’re in an infested building, the sound of snarling, slobbering zombies will surround you in a constant cacophony, making it impossible to tell if the growling you can hear is coming from behind the door you’re about to open, or two floors below. Also, female zombies tend to elicit an identical, grating, truly ear-splitting scream when they die, to the point I’m going to be hearing it in my nightmares.
Last of all, and this is a purely personal gripe, the countryside is lush, but when I look at the technically impressive textures of the buildings I find myself wondering why zombie apocalypses always have to look so dreary. Remember when Left 4 Dead 2 made us fight through a bright pink tunnel of love at a carnival?
All of these little issues—the awkward combat especially—add to up to the point that, in all honesty, the £20 price point stings a little. But, it bears repeating, the game is still in Early Access, and I have faith the developers will continue to listen to player feedback and do their best to develop Night of the Dead into the best version of itself.
For now, we have solid proof of concept with an engaging core mechanic in the form of the tower defence gameplay. All this is especially impressive from such a small studio, and I’m excited to see whatever Jacktostudios do next.
One last point I should make is that while I’ve focused mostly on the single-player experience of this game, there is a multiplayer mode. I didn’t get to experience this as I was reluctant to jump into multiplayer with strangers. Whilst I found the single-player mode enjoyable, I suspect multiplayer with friends—complete with PVP—is where this game will shine, keeping gameplay fresh and varied in new ways and eliminating the occasional loneliness of wandering the map. Now if only I could convince my friends to grab it in the Steam Autumn sale…
The game is available now for £20 on Steam.