Just when you think you’re sick to death of zombie games, something comes along that blasts apart the genre conventions and gets you giddy for some undead shuffling action. Last year it was Telltale Games’ atmospheric and tense Walking Dead series, and in 2013 we have Zafehouse: Diaries, an original and addictive take on horror survival where you personally don’t fire a single shot. Instead, your main weapons against the rotting hordes are a map and a diary.
Zafehouse: Diaries puts you in charge of five survivors of a zombie apocalypse, who find themselves holed up in a deserted house in the middle of an infected town. Your task is to ensure some - or preferably all - manage to escape with their lives (and brains) intact. You do this by directing them like some kind of military general, issuing commands via a sketch map of the town, which shows you which buildings you’ve cleared out and secured so far. Think of it as a turn-based strategy game, where you issue directions to your troops and then sit back and watch as the action unfolds.
The standard game mode has you scouring the town for a radio and information about an impending rescue attempt: you need to gather your motley crew in a set place at a certain time for them to be successfully evacuated. First things first, though. The town is rammed full of slimy brain-chompers, so you’ll probably want to secure your house by breaking up the furniture and boarding up the windows and doors. Then you’ll want to search for useful items, such as weapons, food, tools and medical supplies.
When your dudes are kitted up, you can send out scouts to survey the local area and have a peep at nearby buildings to see how many zombies are staggering around. If the place isn’t crawling, you can tool up your peeps with all manner of heavy weaponry and order them to breach and take it over. Their infiltration is described in full, including the gory details of each takedown and any injuries or fatalities sustained. Then with the bloody business done, you’ll need to clear out the corpses, bandage up your wounded and make sure the place is safe from attack.
Issuing orders is a refreshingly simple affair. Click on a building on the map and you’ll be given an overview of who's inside and what they're up to, plus a list of commands you can issue. Choose a command and you can pick which survivor(s) will carry it out - each name comes with a star rating to show how effective they will be at the task, to help you decide. When you’ve issued all of your commands and kitted your dudes out with the right tools, you click the clock to progress an hour. The results of your orders are then described in a nifty diary, complete with polaroids of any cool items found or places you’ve discovered.
Zafehouse: Diaries demands a careful strategy to succeed. For instance, boarding up a building quickly and noisily will limit the number of entry points for brain-hungry zombies, but also attracts the attention of nearby walkers. Similarly, you’ve got to make sure your survivors have the kit they need to survive. Sending two librarians out to storm a hospital, armed with nothing more than a golf club and a pack of hobnobs, pretty much guarantees the zombies a hearty meal. You need to find the right balance between securing your location, keeping watch for threats and expanding your reach to other parts of town, to find fresh supplies and a way out.
Your tactics are further complicated by the survivors’ relationships. As with Walking Dead, the cast grow to either like or despise one another, and keeping two people who can’t stand each other in the same building can lead to all kinds of messy arguments.
Occasionally you’ll have a tough decision thrown at you out of the blue, to add further tension. For instance, someone might catch their supposed buddy stealing supplies, and you have the choice of confronting the thief or letting it lie. At the other end of the scale, one of your survivors might get infected and you’re forced to make a horrible decision – keep them on and risk them turning and attacking the others, or put a bullet in their skull. Your actions affect the group morale and have a massive effect on the rest of the game.
Zafehouse: Diaries doesn’t always make total sense, however. For instance, one of our hapless survivors ‘Lauren’ was badly bruised when another woman threw an alarm clock at her, an attack that was entirely justified because Lauren was, for want of a better word, a complete ****. But somehow this superficial wound turned into a full-on infection just two turns later, and we were forced to put her down with a generous helping of buckshot. Thankfully, Lauren was so much of a **** that this actually improved the group morale.
Just a little patience
Be warned that you need plenty of patience to make it through Zafehouse: Diaries too, thanks to the often unpredictable nature of the game. It reminded us of FTL in many ways, thanks to the constant restarts when things go massively pear-shaped. Quite often a character will scout out a building and claim they could only see a single solitary zombie inside, but when you storm the place there’s actually two dozen of the blighters, and they rip apart every member of your party in about half a second. There’s no quick save to undo such errors, which means you need to take every decision very seriously, but also means you’ll be replaying the game over and over to try and finally beat it.
That unpredictability is also compounded by the way that battles play out. As soon as you send a group into a new location, to infiltrate and wipe out any lurking zombies, you lose all control until either the place is cleared or your crew is wiped out. Not only does this flatten the tension somewhat - the fight is simply laid out in one big diary entry all at once, so you immediately know the outcome rather than ‘living’ it - but it also means you can’t back out if you’re vastly outnumbered, something which we saw happen a few times, even with all five members attacking at once with masses of firepower.
Zafehouse: Diaries has a second game mode which sees you finding and repairing a busted old car to get the heck out of Dodge, a fun alternative to the original mode even if the fundamental gameplay is the same. We’d expect further game modes to come out over time, and a bit of variety would help to keep things spicy and encourage gamers back for further sessions. We also loved the ability to add your own friends and local buildings into the game, complete with pics, as if the apocalypse was kicking off right there in your home town. Just make sure you choose people you like, or you might find yourself sending them into infected hospitals late at night armed with a rubber hose and a bunch of daffodils.
Zafehouse: Diaries is an original take on the zombie genre, which has you sat behind the scenes rather than getting stuck in with a crowbar. It's easy to pick up but hard to put down again, despite an occasionally harsh difficulty level - the fact that we were willing to hit 'play again' after our entire team was wiped out in five seconds of frustration shows how addictive it really is. Strategy fans craving something a little different will get a real kick out of it, and the low system requirements means you can throw it on your laptop for your next cross-country trip.