Drop dead glorious
Like the zombie genre as a whole, it seems Undead Darlings refuses to die.
Originally announced in 2015 by Mr. Tired Media, the team, headed by ex-NISA employees, has struggled to get this zombie visual novel/dungeon crawler off the ground for the better half of a decade. Despite an ambitious yet unsuccessful kickstarter in 2015 and again in 2016, the zombie project has proved there’s still life in it yet, as 2020 promises a release date for the Japanese-style game made in the West. Now, with the backing of Sekai Games (a subsidiary of Sekai Project), Undead Darlings will bring the funpocalypse to PS4 players next year.
I’m gonna be real here for one second — I don’t love the zombie genre. Movies, games, or plans for the zombie-pocalypse — doesn’t matter. I was never really a fan, as I felt the whole thing was kinda overrated.
With that being said, I found Undead Darlings… well, darling, actually, and I have to commend the dev team for making the first zombie game that I enjoyed and the first anime “harem” game I thought really worked.
Let me explain:
First, the zombie aspect. In most zombie media, zombies are either slow, mindless brain-munchers or they’re impossibly fast creatures that will rip you to shreds faster than a cat in a warm bath. Lack of realism aside, I didn’t see a lot of originality in the story-telling, especially when most protagonists are the guns-blazing types who shoot first and think later. For me, it got real old, real fast.
Next, the anime “harem” trope, which finds a pretty blah character, often male, surrounded by total dimes all vying for his attention. It’s often the case that the women are aliens or some otherworldly beings that, by circumstance, have ended up under the same roof as some average joe and haven’t clued in about the guy not being a catch, but try as they might to explain it all away, I just couldn’t buy into it.
It would have been all-too easy for Undead Darlings to fall into two separate trope traps, but it managed to avoid both, putting a unique spin on two tired genres. In the zombie-sphere, the main character, Reggie, remains unaffected by the disease and is one of the few characters still alive. Instead of fighting off the undead for his survival, however, he is surrounded by a group of half-zombie girls who have retained their humanity in a shell of their former selves — literally. Their bodies may be decaying, but their wit — and tongues — are as sharp as ever. Banding together, they look for a cure to end their suffering and turn them back into humans, completely flipping the zombie fight for survival on its head and making zombies the object of saving, not slaying.
As for the harem aspect — as it would turn out, Reggie’s dad is the scientist behind the cause and cure, meaning it’s up to Reggie to save these dead damsels in distress. Suddenly, a group of buxom babes surrounding a single ordinary dude makes sense, considering their survival depends on Reggie (and, of course, his newfound gun-toting ally with a hybrid truck).
Diving deeper into the game itself, it’s immediately apparent that Undead Darlings is made with a lot of love. It’s clear that, despite the game being the studio’s first title, there’s a lot of experience in Japanese anime visual novels behind it. On the visual novel front, I thought the characters were very well defined and chock full of personality. I found the voice acting to be spot on and absolutely charming, each character having a unique voice despite there being a majority cute-girl line-up. The writing was solid, and delightful in the times where it broke the fourth wall. Overall, the visual novel front absolutely delivered, and I quickly found myself wrapped up in a pretty riveting story.
Where the visual novel side immediately shined, the dungeon crawler aspect needed time to show its strengths. The art style is a hybrid 3D environment with 2D elements dotted throughout, such as enemy (cupcake) and item icons. Once in battle, the gameplay becomes a turn-based battle system, much like Final Fantasy X. For some, the graphics during the dungeon crawling portion may be a turn-off, but for others, like myself, who fell in love with games such as Hotel Dusk: Room 215 on the 3DS, there will be a familiar warmth to the aesthetic. A lesser game juggling this many elements might fumble and fail, but Undead Darlings shows a remarkable ability to create a cohesive experience, and we’re all the richer for it.
After playing the game and reading the history behind it, it’s hard not to cheer for Undead Darlings and its dedicated team. It’s taken so much effort just to get to where it is today, and it’s this kind of perseverance that should be lauded in game dev. With such a hard-working dev team behind this charming, original title and an established publisher leading the charge, Undead Darlings definitely deserves your attention if you’re a fan of zombies, visual novels, anime, or all of the above. Be sure to keep an eye out for this one in the coming year, and, if you’re feeling generous, support the developer on Patreon.