Return of the Zombie King Breathes New Life into Auto-Runners
Touch-screen gaming has proven to be a natural fit for auto-running games of all kinds, and you don’t have to venture far to find a wide variety of them on mobile platforms. It takes something special for any one auto-runner to get a leg up on the competition and really stand tall. And as soon as you load up Return of the Zombie King for the first time, you’ll see its hook immediately.
Although you’re playing as an undead zombie king, you’re in pretty rough shape at the start. In fact, you’re not much more than a shambling head, unable to even so much as jump. The visuals lack color, and you can’t hear anything. As soon as you hit the first knee-high obstacle, your progress is completely halted. You don’t even know how far you have to go. What’s a zombie monarch to do?
The key to getting yourself back together is to gather the soul coins scattered about. You can’t reach all of them, but collect enough of them and you’ll be able to buy your first upgrade: legs! With your newly-gained ability to jump, you’re ready to take on the world. There aren’t many games out there that will get you excited to earn legs, and that’s the essence of what makes Return of the Zombie King so unique. Many of the conveniences and niceties we take for granted in games like these are nowhere to be found at the start of the game, forcing you to earn them back one by one.
Aside from gaining new powers, soul coins can also be used to purchase and upgrade other parameters for the king. The most important of these is, as you could probably guess, health. In this game, health not only serves as a marker of how much damage you can take but also how long the king can hold himself together. The simple act of running causes the king’s health to slowly drain, and every action you take only speeds up that process. Even a perfect run sometimes isn’t enough to help you clear a stage if you haven’t been investing in upgrading your health stat.
Each of the game’s 100 stages is hand-crafted, which is another way Return of the Zombie King differentiates itself from most other auto-runners. There are often multiple paths through each stage, though you’ll initially be quite limited in terms of which ones you can take. Making it through a stage generally requires you to have sufficient stats, find a good path, and use your skills and reflexes to avoid taking too much damage along the way. Since each stage is designed with purpose, you’ll need to be cautious. Some trails of coins are laid out such that you can lead yourself directly into a trap.
With that said, the lack of random elements means that every stage has been designed to be beatable. It’s just a matter of finding the way to do that. Early on, when your options are limited and layouts are relatively simple, that’s an easy enough matter. You may need to boost your health here and there, but once you’ve done that you’ll likely be able get through after a try or two. As the game goes on, enemies increase in number, stage designs get trickier, and the king is able to pull off more moves. It quickly becomes less about upgrading and more about the player’s skills as the platforming heat is turned up.
Both in story and in gameplay, Return of the Zombie King is all about progress: rebuilding your body, regaining all of your abilities, and getting powerful enough to survive. Improving your skills as a player so that you can react quickly enough to get through the increasingly challenging stage layouts. Learning each of the stages to find the best way to get through them and avoid all of the nasty traps.
Like the titular king, we start off weak and a little confused, but little by little we gain strength and knowledge that will allow us to conquer it all. A one-of-a-kind approach to a genre that has become very conventional, and one well-worth experiencing.