Dungeons & Zombies is exactly the kind of title you’d expect at this time of year: a cutesy, vaguely spooky twist on an existing casual genre, to capitalize on the Halloween festivities.
However, scratch under the surface and you’ll find an altogether tougher proposition than first impressions might suggest. Like a midnight triple bill of scary movies, Dungeons & Zombies is not for the faint of heart.
The gameplay is based on Sokoban, a puzzle genre in which you have to slide things around on a grid. In this case, the thing you’re sliding is a little girl, and the grid is a series of dungeons.
Every dungeon contains its own features and hazards, such as pillars, pools of water, and - most pertinently - zombies. The aim is to navigate the features, avoid the hazards (i.e., the zombies), and reach the stone staircase that takes you to the next stage.
If left undisturbed, zombies are perfectly harmless. Unfortunately, you can’t venture into the same row or column as a zombie without alerting it to your presence, at which point you have just one move to get out of the way. As long as you move out of that row or column, the zombie will skate past you and stop at the next obstacle it meets.
Unfortunately, you can’t escape a room if a zombie happens to be facing the exit, so the game basically involves using the natural inclination of the zombies to dart, with a slight delay, in your direction to shepherd them out of your path and away from the exit.
In the first few stages you’ve only got the zombies to worry about, but the game soon adds further elements - brains that attract zombies, pulling them away from you for one move; piles of bones that you have to remove by directing zombies at them, and fires that are impassable to you, but not to zombies.
There are 120 dungeons to complete, though only 60 of these are available with the basic download. You have to pay for the other two sets of 30.
Dungeons & Zombies is difficult, but it gives you lots of tools for getting around tricky stages. For one thing, there are solutions, step-by-step guides to completing stages in the fewest possible moves.
You get five of these, and they refill over time. And if that’s not enough, you can buy packs of five for 99p, or watch an ad in exchange for one.
For another thing, you don’t need to unlock the majority of stages. The first 18 are open, with the remaining 12 becoming available when you get 25 stars. This means you’ve always got somewhere to go if you’re hopelessly stuck.
Of course, the best solution is the one you work out for yourself, and in time you’ll get the knack of Dungeons & Zombies, however impenetrable it seems at first. The trick is to work out where you need the zombies to end up, and then work backwards from that point.
While Dungeons & Zombies is definitely a challenging and fairly original puzzle game, it could do with a few more elements to keep it interesting. Brains, bones, and fires are all introduced fairly quickly, and there are few surprises after that.
If you’re after a casual gaming experience - a hypnotically relaxing puzzler like Candy Crush - you may find Dungeons & Zombies a bit of a shock. While developer Manic Player has provided ways to relieve the frustration, it should arguably have been a bit easier in the first place.
Dungeons & Zombies shouldn’t be mistaken for a throwaway casual puzzler. Gamers looking for some light, Halloween-themed relief are in for a shock. However, if you’re brave enough to take on a proper puzzle gaming challenge, you should definitely give it a try.