THE UNDEAD DEAD
Zombies are dead. And gaming killed them. From the famous (and infamous) AAA franchises that have built their name on zombies, to the countless zombie games populating places like itch.io and Steam Greenlight, the post-apocalyptic zombie genre has arguably found itself in a state of decline. In general, people seem to be sick and tired of zombie games.
That's not to say that zombies in gaming are well and truly dead. Like film and television, zombies can be relied on to provide an excellent backdrop for games that make effective use of player agency, while delivering an engaging narrative: an excellent example of this is Sarah Northwood's Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville. Rebuild 3 promised to be a zombie game that makes effective use of both player agency, and narrative to deliver a truly memorable experience. And for the most part, it succeeds.
LOVE AT FIRST BITE?
At first the game leaves a very poor first impression. With its stylized cartoon-like graphics, and a UI filled with big, bright colorful buttons, one may be tempted to think that this game was little more than a cynical Android/iOS port made to squeeze a few more dollars out of the long tail. But given enough time, the game's initial mobile-derived impressions quickly fall away, letting its depth and its story truly shine.
*insert screenshot + caption: Unhappiness*
WE BUILT THIS CITY
Mechanically, Rebuild 3 draws from the same general well of resource and people management as a typical SimCity or Sims-style game, or even a managerial-centric RTS or TBS game. Over the course of the main campaign, the player is also given various objectives to complete. This can include allying with or destroying rival factions of survivors, or taking over a certain amount of territory on the city map (accomplished by sending over your survivors to clear it of zombies, and reclaiming it for your own fortifications). In a manner almost reminiscent of Civilization, you may need to do some bargaining with other faction leaders in terms of resources, territory or technology to get your way with a given faction on the map. Once the objectives have been met, you have the option to actually leave your town and proceed to the next one, with the option to take a survivor or two with you.
Of course, with a game like this, territory acquisition and defense is key. Keeping your borders guarded with aptly trained and equipped survivors is then important to success; zombie attacks can happen with alarming regularity, on top of the territorial pushes made by other factions of survivors. Best to keep your frontier well guarded. But this leads to some interesting questions of strategy. What if you don't have enough people to guard your town's borders? What areas do you prioritize? Would it be worth risking your best fighters to preemptively combat a dangerous horde of massed zombies, before they shamble up to your front door?
After sending out people from your initial band of survivors to reclaim land from the zombies, you must build farms and housing for them, and later build other structures to support your growing population. Food needs to be produced, resources for building and maintenance need to be harvested and gathered, and morale needs to be bolstered. Equipment, gained usually through scavenging, can be given to characters in your band of survivors to give them stat and ability boosts, which in turn make them better leaders, builders, crafters, scavengers, or fighters. Naturally, some items may be better suited to certain characters and certain abilities over others.
Survivors, when they crop up, often come with specific strengths that dictate their roles in your society; blue-colored badges denote leadership ability, important for recruiting more people to your group. Yellow denotes scavenging/farming ability, green denotes builders, and red denotes fighters, while purple marks scientists, who can craft items and research new improvements to your town. All have a specific vital role to play, and you can even send your survivors to a school where they can train to boost their job skills, or even learn new ones.
A lot of the meat of the game comes through actually managing and taking care of your survivors -- and perhaps most importantly, the relationships they build and share (for good or for ill). That in turn, means managing and taking care of their happiness. Happiness is actually a key resource in this game, whose importance is underscored by a meter that occupies a place of prominence in the UI.
*insert screenshot + caption: A Hard Place*
Mimicking reality, various events -- which may or may not be under your control -- can occur in the lives of your fellow survivors. These can vary wildly in their significance and impact on their emotional and mental well-being. These events that can be as trivial as the discovery of a new pet or new toy, or joyous like a wedding or the birth of new children (children who can even grow up to eventually become full-fledged units who you can use in your city). Other events may not be so mundane, nor may they be so joyous, and this will have consequences on how you will best use your available manpower. Perhaps, for example, Anna should take some time off from guard duty to get over her miscarriage (better find or train someone who's just as good as combat as she is, then). Adding to this is the mechanic of survivor relationships. Throughout the course of the game, characters can make close friends, fall in love and get married, or make enemies with other survivors, further adding to the factors that can affect morale.
*insert screenshot + caption: Anna*
All of the survivors that make up and join up with your party come with their own backstory, which you can actually use to assign them valuable traits. The writing is very well done here, with a sense of humor and levity that go a long way to making your fellow survivors feel like real, genuine people. As a result, players are genuinely invited to form strong connections with each survivor in the community. We feel elated at their triumphs, no matter how big or small they may be, and their tragedies are just as emotionally impactful.
WHAT, ME WORRY?
When factoring in the constant threat posed by zombies and other rival factions in a city, optimizing the happiness and efficacy of your fellow survivors can become a delicate balancing act between pushing them to do what has to be done, and the danger of pushing them too far. Yes, you can choose to pay little heed to the falling happiness bar -- especially when there are blocks that need to be cleared out, buildings that have to be scavenged, or exposed flanks that need to be protected. Yes, you can ignore the fact that you've just sent a group of people who absolutely can't stand each other to go clear out a strategically-placed shopping mall crawling with zombies. But eventually those chickens will come home to roost, and when they do, you'd better be sure that you're willing and ready to deal with the consequences. At the very least you'll have to make do with positions and key areas left critically understaffed. At worst, some of your best people may leave or die. Ignorance of morale issues or personality clashes can leave a key, strategic location unguarded, or make you lose someone who you may have relied on for wood, food, or crafting ammunition. Those losses can be keenly felt.
This can result in a substantial amount of tension in the game, especially early on where the player starts off with little resources and manpower. Some moments can be downright nail-biting, with large swaths of hard-fought (yet sadly undefended) city blocks lost to zombies (or opposing factions of fellow survivors) while critically injured, or mentally burned out survivors from your own troupe lay recovering in hospital.
In the end, what makes Rebuild 3 worth playing is that is isn't so much a story about battling zombies, as it is a story about what happens afterward. In a world where society's slate has almost been well and truly wiped clean, how can people move forward together, when even figuring out where you are now is a struggle?