No Seriously, Undead Darlings really is a Dungeon Crawl RPG Dating Sim About Zombie Girls
I am absolutely in love with the zombie genre. If you add the undead to anything, much like a mindless shambler, I’ll probably flock towards it, consume it, and then hungrily seek more. So when the opportunity to cover a dungeon crawler RPG dating sim featuring zombie girls arrived, I absolutely put everything else in my life on hold to play through and complete everything in this game. This includes attaining almost every single ending and even creating the most comprehensive combo guide list on the internet for the game. That’s how much I committed to playing Undead Darlings, though it’s not without its flaws.
Developed by Mr. Tired Media and published by Sekai Project, Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~ finally answers the question that nobody wanted the answer to – what it would be like to romance a dead girl. Released on September 28th for PS4 and Switch, we’ve already previewed some of the different qualities of the game and even went into details about its unique multiplier mechanic. This review is going to elaborate on some of those details and more.
Not Sick, Lovesick
Undead Darlings starts off like almost every traditional dating sim game. You play as Reggie, an average Joe being cared for by the girl next door. Yet, upon waking, things immediately go awry. It’s now the zombie apocalypse and your caretaker, Pearl, is a half-zombie. And because of video game logic, half-zombies have magical RPG combat powers. In Undead Darlings, we follow Reggie and Pearl’s journey to deliver humanity’s cure to Reggie’s scientist father. All while recruiting a lot of romantically attractive (and mostly undead) help along the way. As they journey Reggie and his companions explore several dungeon locations, engaging in random battle encounters against monsters created by the virus.
Now, as a fellow zombie lover, what blew me away was all the passion put into this game’s development. Yes, there are numerous zombie tropes layered throughout, but there’s also a surprisingly stylistic attention to detail. Things like a refined anime-influenced artwork rendered amidst a 3D maze backdrop. Or a soundtrack featuring compositions similar to 28 Days Later and even The Walking Dead. And while the visuals of this game are cute, they can at times stand in contrast to its sound, which can be oddly scary. This creates a weirdly tense harmony that’s quite fitting for a deathly love story.
For an indie game, the amount of detail in the level design is intriguing. If you like dungeon crawlers, you’ll likely enjoy this game as the mazes can get very complicated. They’re also designed according to your location, so expect desk mazes at the school, shutters to unlock at the mall, and even your good old puzzle solving at the police station a la Resident Evil 2. It’s well-designed enough, and you can get lost for hours in the creative mix of 2D models and 3D environments. There’s also minute details like dust particles in the air or readable messages etched across the walls as you explore each maze.
But more importantly, within these sprawling maze areas are various hidden sub-events where you can talk with some of the girls and start a dialogue which can add affection points. The results of which actually influence your game’s ending. A score of over 50 with every character’s affection will unlock the harem ending, but to get all of the good character-specific endings, you’ll need over 70 affection points and to have unlocked and triggered each girl’s story-specific cutscenes with Reggie. Likewise, these sub-events serve as the branching novel and dating sim elements of the game. Honestly, these were the best parts about Undead Darlings, as the unique RPG elements were hindered by severe quality of life and UI issues.
That said because the mazes were complicated in design, they also took time to render when moving between different floors, or when heading to and from home base. And while the many custom 8-bit loading screens featuring the girls in old school RPG styled combat was adorable, the amount of time you spend looking at these screens became infuriating. It’s also very telling that New Game+ allows you to explore the mazes with no random encounters.
Wham! Slam! Kra-KOW!
Now, the turn-based RPG elements in this game are rather solid. It has a very old school vibe, yet it’s funny, as the girls are the fighters while Reggie is the resident loot donkey who carries their gear. Surprisingly, battles become incredibly challenging even on the game’s easiest modes. Monsters have a lot more hit points than expected, requiring the player to master the game’s Exponential Exploitation (EE) mechanic. A simple enough mechanic, in that you just need to continually chain weakness hits (fire against ice, etc.) together in order to increase the battle’s current EE score. The higher the score, the bigger the multiplier on its single-use critical of any selected ability.
Atop of the EE mechanic, each girl is designed to fit in a certain role. Emily is a powerful dark magic caster, Kairi is competent in almost every skill, Pearl serves as a warrior/paladin, Jordan is a rogue, and Summer and Cici are hard-hitting physical warriors. With each character comes specific attack types, breakable weapons (every weapon, whether it be sword, club, or knife, breaks down over time), and skills specific for each girl. There are also skill orders which you can stack, utilizing the game’s Macro commands. Which, when performed back-to-back, can combine together to form powerful combos that deal more damage and even mixes the different damage types (think fire piercing or lightning slashing).
Satisfying Your Zom-Bae
As a visual novel dating sim alone, this game is rather fantastic. The writing is superb and the game’s many sub-events create a rather character-centric and branching story. What’s incredible is that the game steers into its own silliness. How coincidental it is for Reggie to be caught within a harem of attractive zombie girls that he coincidentally recruits one-by-one? But once you get beyond the cheesy parts of the writing, you actually get a surprisingly decent story. A tale about love, zombies, and really, a lot of trauma that was wholeheartedly unexpected.
Part of the reason it works so well is that the dialogue is well-acted, utilizing skilled voice talent from famous vloggers to professional video game voice actresses. And yes, it’s a dating sim, so sexualized dialogue about breasts, along with the typical, “That’s what she said” jokes are prevalent. There’s even a zombie girl’s splash fight in the sewers, yet where the writing really excels is when it gets serious and oddly channels its inner episodes of The Walking Dead. Moments of great character development that deal with and discuss traumas in the post-apocalypse. Issues like dead or abusive parents, childhood abandonment, the inability to fit in, and as crazy as this sounds, even murder. There was more authentic discussion about premature sex and relational abuse openly talked about in this game than I see in most video games. I was genuinely surprised how in-depth the quality of the writing was here and how it skillfully addressed the issues, supportively, empathetically, and with a pang of humor.
There are eight separate endings in Undead Darlings. Each story ends with Reggie and a different partner(s). For a character journey, it’s a pretty great payoff to see where you and your partner end up after you’ve gone on this crazy zombie RPG ride. Without spoilers, I’ll admit that I actually had a very difficult time choosing which ending I’d wanted, so I’d actually gone back and unlocked all of them (though for gaming’s sake, I’ll say Jordan’s ending was my favorite). On top of this, each ending has its own spunk and great character moments, subverting the very tropes that the game knows that it’s playing with all in creative ways.
Okay, Time For The Bad Parts
As a story, dating sim, and RPG, this game is excellent. However, there’s just one incredibly glaring issue that really hampers this game: its user interface. I’m not sure why, but the inventory and menu management in this RPG is some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a video game. To make things worse, because it’s a character-based story, changing parties is sort of essential for sub-events to attain the game’s best possible endings. Yet it is a complete nightmare to do in almost every dungeon, as party-switching can only be done at home base. To make matters even more irritating, the menu item management window doesn’t open at home base and items can only be equipped in a dungeon. So to best equip your entire party and scrap excess junk, you have to sort items going back and forth between dungeon to base, with a separate loading screen every time you enter the dungeon.
This poor UI mechanic stacked on top a load screen each time really hampers the experience and takes the fun out of Undead Darlings. Worse is that midway through the game, they add upper floor level pit traps in the mazes! If you fall into one, you’re back down onto a lower floor, progress ruined, and of course, yet another loading screen. By the time you’ve fallen through your 12th pit trap or so, you’ll be just as aggravated in the realization that you’ve now wasted hours in this game on excessive slow loading screens and bad UI. Even loading a save file instead of reworking your way back to that floor brings you back to the same loading screen.
But long load times and poor inventory UI aside, for a game whose battle function is to exploit damage there is almost no immediate indicator as to what kind of weapon you’re equipping. Even a simple sword or bow icon would suffice, but instead, the game asks you to read a tiny paragraph of descriptive dialogue, and I kid you not, try and guess at the type of damage it deals given the description. Sometimes it’s straightforward. But other times it’s not and requires you to leave and test it out in the dungeon after another loading screen.
Again, the combat was great in this game for an RPG. The organization, however, was not. There are so many skills to unlock in this game and it’s easy to forget what each does without having to read through them. However, unlike Final Fantasy where a simple Fire, Fira or Firaga would have sufficed in showing the strength and type of damage, there is none of that in this game and instead, we get tiny boxes of text describing each different ability. For instance, an ability unlocked by Pearl at level 10, could be something Kairi unlocks as level 20, but the skills are organized during combat not by type, strength, or effectiveness, but rather by whenever it was that particular girl unlocked it. With every character having somewhat similar skills by the game’s end, this makes sorting through it a complete nightmare. I did, however, absolutely love the combo mechanic. I loved it so much that I even wrote a strategy guide as it seemed like these combos acted more like finishing moves. Yet, the combo effectiveness was strange because, oddly enough, the EE wheel feature was just okay. The problem is that to keep stacking you’d need to exploit enemy weaknesses, but the only way to know that is either by memory or by selecting a skill and seeing if an enemy was weak against it before executing it. Oftentimes, I’d find that one of my girls had nothing to generate weakness and so there was no way to keep the EE building unless I wasted her turn. Instead, I’d often just use a girl’s best AOE or high damage combo on the Macro command, which strangely worked better 80% of the time over trying to stack the multiplier. In fact, even when I had a good EE multiplier going I’d often just use it for a heal combo as it was honestly a better healing value than using consumables. Especially at the game’s latter stages where battles become somewhat grueling.
They Came Here For Brains But Instead Stole Our Hearts
With fantastic writing, well-designed levels, great attention to detail and a surprisingly challenging combat system, Undead Darlings is a wonderful playthrough if you love zombies, dating sims, or dungeon crawler RPGs. Yet despite all these accomplishments, the game is severely hindered by its sloppy and often frustrating UI.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed); Switch; Developer: Mr. Tired Media; Publisher: Sekai Project; Players: 1; Released: September 28th, 2020; ESRB: M for Language and Sexual Themes; MSRP: $29.99