Unless the word ‘zombies’ is followed by ‘are getting really boring’, in most areas of entertainment the genre is becoming more and more of the same thing. Just like vampires, werewolves and teen angst, zombies are an entirely done-out sort of creature. So why would anyone want to go near it unless it equals the standards of The Last of Us or the entertainment factor of the Left for Dead series? Well, that’s where we run into a problem because March of the Living is a zombie game with a bit of a difference.
March of the Living is a roguelike survival strategy game inspired by the likes of FTL and popular zombie fiction. You start your journey as Greg, a determined father, concerned with the safety of your ex-wife, Chloe, and your son, Tom. Despite your efforts she won’t pick up the phone and God knows what’s happened to them. So you pack up what you can carry and head out into the post-apocalyptic nightmare to find them, unsure of what you’ll meet on the way.
When I said before that zombies are becoming a bit of a yawn-fest I meant it with all my heart, but March of the Living is the only product of the genre for a long time to catch my full attention. Where a lot of survival games now rely on the combat to make it entertaining, March of the Living uses its detailed RP to set the tone of the story as well as building it. With over 80,000 words and 160 different scenarios it’s hard not to sit back and say wow, somebody buy Creaky Corpse Ltd a beer for their efforts.
Where design and sound is concerned it’s fairly typical. With low-res, pixelated graphics similar to games like FTL, Darkside Detective and The Last Door, it has nothing to hide behind should it lack substance. Luckily Creaky Corpse Ltd has done a bang-up job with it on that front. I reserve a certain admiration for that sort of bravery, and for developers who either enjoy that graphical style or have more than enough faith in their product alone, AAA graphics or not. Rather than admiring how realistic the look of the game is or being overwhelmed with lifelike jump-scares, March of the Living allows for us to enjoy the story without such distractions. The sound effects and music also add to the atmosphere in a subtle way without being inappropriate or obnoxious, peaking only when enforcing that combat is imminent.
The best (and worst) part of it is that it’s mostly randomly generated. The beginning always starts the same but the map, stopping points and scenarios differ. For example, when you reach Chloe’s apartment there’s a crazy man in it who points a shotgun at you if you don’t just shoot him before he gets the chance. The first time I played, I called him on his threat and took a step toward him. As a result the shotgun jammed and he ran off without any further trouble. The next time I came to play it I followed my previous tactic, only this time the gun went off, catching me in the leg and taking away a chunk of my health. This method makes it unpredictable what the outcome will be, therefore making you think and hesitate before choosing your path.
In that same sense March of the Living can be a real dick. Regardless of how well you’re doing and what tactics you’ve played, most of the time the game is about luck. How lucky you are with your starting map; how lucky you are with the people and adversaries you run into; how lucky you are when you’re scavenging for supplies. One time in a city I chose the shortest amount of time to scavenge (with the lowest chances of combat) and I ran into zombies every time. On the other end, in another play-through I got infected and thought ‘Ah, hell with it’, choosing the highest risk possibilities. Not only did I not get discovered, I also got a lot of gear and supplies, leading to many tuts and groans of exasperation. I’d also encountered a story choice where I just got hit by a car. It gave me an action to follow, suggesting that I could escape the situation, but no. Out of the blue I just died and had all of my stuff taken. Boo you society.
What’s a bit disappointing is that you can’t continue with a story if you die whilst with a group. I know it doesn’t make sense to continue without your protagonist but I just assumed that would be the case. Instead you have to start over again regardless of whether the others in your group are healthy. This is especially frustrating if you get scratched or bitten and become infected for example. It means that, unless you’re loaded up on meds, it’s just a matter of time until you lose too much health and join the ranks of the dead.
Another area I found a bit flat was the combat system. Between Rotters, Biters and whatever else was waiting for me in the world, to fight them was more aggravating than challenging. Whether it was with a gun or a melee weapon, the number of times my attacks resulted in a ‘miss’ was laughable. I know that fatigue had a lot to do with it but I actually couldn’t differentiate between results even when I was full-up and well-rested. Had they made the ‘healthy vs exhausted’ performance during combat more successful/unsuccessful I would have been more attentive to my guys’ well-being. As it was, any efforts just resulted in lots of melee misses and wasted bullets. Not ideal and not fun.
Just like This War of Mine, March of the Living is an emotional game built on good luck and the hardships of moral decisions. Do you waste a bullet to put someone out of their misery or do you save it? Do you shoot someone before they shoot you or do you try and talk some sense into them? Like plenty of roguelikes before it, March of the Living is the love-child of addiction and frustration. Despite dying multiple times and encountering some of the dumbest bad-luck possible, I can’t help but go back to play again and again in the hopes that maybe I can get just one town further before I’m mowed down or eaten in that cruel, cruel world.
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