Like microwavable Tex-Mex, Zombie Farm fuses two populist mainstays into a totally indulgent quick fix. The daily crop management of Farmville meets the zombie invasions of Plants vs. Zombies. Except in this case, you raise both the plants and the zombies, and you are attacking other people for gold and brains. You’re really an evil farmer building an undead green empire, and unexpected twists like that are what make the game work. While Zombie Farm apes the visual style and appeal of its two predecessors to the point of being a clone, its shameless mixing-and-matching of them has created a worthwhile, if imperfect, mutant.
You begin by picking out a farmer avatar and being introduced to your green patch. The game at this point looks exactly like Farmville, except that in addition to your onion stalks, there’s a decaying arm sticking out of the ground. When you click on the arm, a zombie is pulled out of the ground, leaving a hole to plow back into a farmable square. That’s the first twist to the formula: You can plant zombies as well as crops, and they’ll grow over a course of hours or days into harvestable material. If you wait too long, most of these will decay (the zombies lose their green pallor and turn lumpen gray) and go to waste. So you’ll need to come back regularly to manage your field.
Harvested plants generate gold that you can use to buy more crops or zombies in the market. Also available are decorations like trees, fences, haystacks, gravestones, and a “zombie topiary.” Decorations in Zombie Farm have an effect on gameplay rather than being merely cosmetic, though their influence is a little vague. They generate Life Force that helps prevent your next zombie from turning out a dud. Life Force also apparently encourages fruitful mutations, such as a Tomatohead Zombie that has the head of a tomato. Mutations occur as some combination of buying the upgrade in the market, having sufficient Life Force, and planting zombies next to the corresponding plants. But it’s unclear how exactly their effect breaks down.
Mutations are good because they increase zombie stats like speed and attack power, and also because they make the zombies the game’s own. The lovable undead of Plants vs. Zombies have clearly made their mark on Zombie Farm, and it’s only when the game puts new makeup on its zombies that their differences become clear. For instance, a bearded, dwarfish Garden Zombie will roam your field and occasionally fertilize your crops to increase their value.
But you really want the zombies because they are your army. If you have at least eight zombies (up to a maximum of 16), you can “invade” another farm every two hours. Though there needs to be more variation on neighboring farms—”Old Mcdonnell” is the only farmer you can attack until you reach level 16—this adds a crucial new dimension to the game. A zombie invasion is seen from the side, rather than the standard isometric perspective. Your zombies on the left prepare to attack the farmers on the right. As they line up one-by-one, their thoughts appear in cartoon bubbles; and your job is to poke out distractions like flowers or butterflies until it hits them that they want brains. Then they’ll charge to the right and do battle until all the farmers have been killed. When you win, you’ll get a big helping of gold and possibly even a brain—a special currency, also purchasable with your own cash, that you can use to get special items.
Conducting a zombie invasion quickly grows old, unfortunately. Invading provides a quick, action-oriented way to get more gold or brains, but there’s no thought involved in tapping repeatedly on zombies until they inevitably overwhelm the opposing forces. At least farming requires you to consider your timing and placement of crops. Yet the farming portion of the game feels largely geared toward fueling the next invasion rather than building and expanding a beautiful farm. With so many items and upgrades geared toward building a better zombie army, the combat needs to feel at least as dynamic as the farming.
Finally, the social aspects are currently nil. Your friend list is built automatically when you connect to Facebook. Though it lists all your friends playing Zombie Farm, you can’t yet visit their farms or otherwise interact with them. It would be a natural future step to let players invade each others’ farms, or combine forces against Old Mcdonnell and others. A vibrant social element may be exactly what’s needed to prevent the game’s withering from neglect.
Zombie Farm pushes the genre toward a new direction, but it’s a promise as-yet unfulfilled. The crossbreed of plants and zombies feels immediately different than other farming games to date, but not necessarily more fun. Farming can feel more like grinding than building; and invading can simply feel like a grind. Luckily, both things have plenty of room to grow.