One thing about __ can’t be questioned: The developers had a good sense of humor. It’s cartoonish and self-aware (not in the Terminator sense, but in the humility sense), and it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It’s cute, funny, silly, and even a bit traditional. It’s almost as if Pixar decided to make a game for iOS. Even the title alludes to PopCap’s endearing take on a familiar cultural meme: Yes, there are brain-eating zombies, but there are also weaponized cabbage sprouts and crooning sunflowers. To truly enjoy this game (which isn’t difficult), you have to approach it with the same level of sincerity as the developers; just smile, fight some zombies, and remember what game designer George Fan said in an interview with Gamezebo, “I'm not into games that are too gritty or take themselves too seriously, nor am I into themes that are too pandering or sickeningly sweet… Yes, you have these cutesy plants, but the existence of zombies prevents it from being too sugary.”
The main component of the game is the adventure mode, which takes you through nine levels of tower defense play interspersed with mini-games, inventory development, item shopping, and a loose, entirely negligible storyline. Once you’ve beaten the game, which is not very difficult, there are tons of other things to do, although none of them is as engaging as the core gameplay element.
__ is a tower defense game in the traditional sense. The premise is you have to defend your quaint suburban domicile from an invasion of brain-eating zombies, all of whom vary in power, speed, strength, dress, and style. Meanwhile, your slowly amassing collection of plants are used as weapons to be planted throughout the yard, whereupon they automatically attack the encroaching horde of adorable zombie folk. The catch is that the plants are essentially “purchased” with sunbeam points, which are accumulated by either planting sunflowers or waiting for sporadic sunbeams to fall from the sky in daytime levels. This instills a high degree of strategy in selecting and positioning your plants. If the zombies manage to get past your plants and break through your final line of defense—a row of lawnmowers—then they waltz into your house and snack on your brains and you lose. It sounds gruesome, but it’s really just cute and silly and alarmingly addictive.
The first time through Adventure mode, you unlock a new plant after almost every level. In all, there are 49 different plants and 26 zombies, and you can use six plants at a time (you can also purchase up to ten inventory slots). This requires a good deal of strategy in determining which plants to use for which levels and types of zombie attacks. We found versatility to be a helpful technique, so buying up as many inventory slots as possible is probably a smart tactic.
__ is the perfect game for touchscreen consoles. Gameplay is focused on your ability to position (or dig up) plants within a grid layout, so plants and tools are selected by simply tapping on them. iPhone owners with fat fingers may be frustrated by this; my fingers are pretty skinny and yet I noted a few occasions where I accidentally selected the “shovel” tool instead of a falling sunbeam. This resulted in me accidentally “digging up” one of my plants. Aside from this minor nuisance, the controls are all simple and intuitive, especially if you’re already adept at Apple’s touchscreen interface.
Despite all the extra features, puzzles, and gameplay modes packed into __, there’s definitely a drop-off of engagement after you’ve beaten the game. And because the game is not too difficult to beat in the first place, you may grow tired of it after only a few weeks. Other versions of the game (Xbox Live and PlayStation) have a multiplayer mode and create-a-zombie feature, both of which could have helped improve the iOS version’s lasting appeal. That being said, the Adventure mode is still very addictive, and replay becomes more about unlocking items and gameplay modes than merely completing levels.
It doesn’t take long to beat the Adventure mode, but there’s enough additional content to make 100 percent completion somewhat difficult to achieve. This lies mainly in the accumulation of credits, which can be used to purchase new puzzles, mini games, and plants. Of course, this process can be skipped by lazily purchasing new coins yourself, but there are plenty of ways to amass coins within the game. There’s even a standalone, Farmville-like zen garden, where you can cultivate plants that essentially grow coins for you. Yeah, there’s definitely a Mario element involved with all these coins and anthropomorphized plants.
To paraphrase The Walking Dead, the thing about zombies is that they’re virtually harmless one by one, but as a massive, oncoming horde they’re something else entirely. This logic applies as much to zombie movies as it does to zombie videogames. And in __, it provides the basis of the game’s pacing. Each level begins with just a few approaching zombies, which gives you ample time to stockpile sunflowers or peashooters or what-have-you. Eventually they begin to arrive in waves, and that’s when things get difficult. It’s evenly paced, but the amount of breathing time between these so-called “huge waves of zombies” is one of the reasons why the game’s not too difficult to beat.
Take this with a grain of salt: It’s difficult to talk about artificial intelligence when you’re referring to zombies, because they’re not supposed to be intelligent to begin with. I mean, they’re zombies—slow, marauding vessels of undead human hunger. They move in one direction and respond, on occasion, to certain actions. They’re stupid, and you’re smart. That’s the zombie-human dynamic, so why have it any other way?
What storytelling elements do exist are purely for the sake of humor, and it works. As far as characters go there’s really just your neighbor Dave, who’s apparently keen on reminding you that he’s crazy. He’s also the guy you buy stuff from.
Segments between levels usually involve some amount of auditory gibberish—that is, Dave rambling about what the next level is going to be like and then explaining how crazy he is or how annoying these zombies are. Sometimes you’ll get a zany little note from the zombies warning you of some imminent attack or shift in tactic. That’s about it for writing.
Once again, not much by way of cinematics, but it’s probably the largest part of the storytelling component. The most obvious example is the music video that plays when you beat the game—an entertaining little curtain call that gives credit to all the games “characters.” There are also some short vignettes between levels and, particularly, before the final boss, which is a giant robot zombie (or zombie robot?) controlled by some kind of zombie mad scientists (or mad scientist zombie?). Here’s a testament to the insignificance of the game’s storytelling: This is the first (and only) time we’re made aware of some game-defining villain. As far as gameplay goes the audience just accepts that there are zombies and weaponized plants in this world; everything else is just a detail.
Character design and gameplay animations are appropriate and well developed. Everything is very cartoonish, which works well with the game’s overall sense of humor. A good example of this is the concerned look that emerges on the face of the “Wall-nut” plant when a zombie begins to chomp on it. I guess you have to have a childish sense of humor to find this funny, but we did.
Cartoon action games tend to offer a certain kind of absurd satisfaction. Think: Super Smash Bros. What’s more satisfying than blasting Jigglypuff into oblivion with a well-timed attack combo? __ is similarly cartoonish and action-packed, but at times it misses this ineffable hunger for absurdity. We would have liked some of the attacks and explosions and weapons to be a bit more… devastating. Whether that means more jarring animations or more powerful weapons we don’t know, but it felt like it was missing a certain degree of sensory impact. Aside from this point, it’s important to reaffirm that the art direction is both tasteful and endearing, vivid and humorous.
The graphics engine runs smoothly, allowing the game’s light-hearted animation to complement its cutesy comic tone. Once again, though, __’ silliness saves it from criticism that might otherwise have focused on graphics processing, writing, storytelling, or some other fanboy technicality. So as minimalistic as the atmosphere is, it doesn’t need to be anything more.
The music doesn’t contribute much to the mood and ambiance of gameplay, but it’s still a pretty nifty, funkadelic score. It takes influence from chiptune (which has a nostalgic effect for the catchy melodies of the original Mario games), but it’s a bit more rhythmic. There were even a few breakbeat segments that perked my ears up in the middle of gameplay.
Sound effects are less impactful than the score, but they’re still tasteful. Some of the gameplay sounds—such as explosions, zombie chomping, button commands, and plant attacks—sound almost stock, until you hear the zombies hilariously bellowing, “BRAAAAIINNSS!!!” And then you’re reminded that this game is just ridiculous—in a good way.
“Addictive” deserves to be its own genre, especially with the growing popularity of handheld and throwback games. __ adds fuel to this argument; it’s incredibly addictive, and it has plenty of extra features, mini-games, and completion obstacles to retain the attention of both kids and adults. For good or for ill, this is where its lasting appeal lies—it’s not the storytelling, graphics, sound design, or even the impressive art direction. It’s all about the simple, strategy-infused gameplay.
While we appreciated some of the add-ons and unlockable bonuses—such as the zen garden and mini-games—the lack of other key features was a bit frustrating for us. Multiplayer and create-a-zombie (Zombatar), for example, are not available on the iPhone version. This places most of the game’s lasting power on the shoulders of the main gameplay component: Adventure mode. Fortunately, it’s still really fun. And clever. And cute, too. If you’re a hardcore gamer and not sold on the whole cute thing, we dare you to watch this closing credits video and not smile. Go ahead, we dare you.
Meet the tester
Tyler Wells Lynch
Tyler Wells Lynch is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Vice, Wirecutter, Gizmodo, The Rumpus, Yes!, and the Huffington Post, among others. He lives in Maine.
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