It’s simple, but simple leaves you with nowhere to hide. It’s basic, but basic means you have to get everything right. PomPom’s latest sees indie gaming’s masters of the squeamish and gruesomely intestinal reigning in the slithery excess, but the end result remains as distinctive as ever. This is one of those special games that threatens to define its platform: the most appropriate PSP Mini yet released is modest in scope but sharply focused. It’s slight, but surprisingly rich in both character and atmosphere – and it will suck up much more of your time than you might initially expect.
Modest, then. Prod through the game’s anaemic menu systems and you’ll discover that the off-hand backstory is a pitch-perfect parody of three decades of phoned-in videogame narratives. You’re “a spaceman, doing something or other on a mining platform floating around a random planet”, suddenly beset by hordes of murderous Alien Zombies. Your agenda, in a word, is survival. Fend off on-coming waves, nurse your score, collect power-ups, and see how long you can stick it out.
It’s a curious design at first: a side-on arena shooter set against a series of pretty, cosmic backdrops, Alien Zombie Death
has platforms to jump between, but nowhere in particular for you to really get to. Instead, the game’s tightly controlled horizontal and vertical spaces are there to give you breathing room as aliens attack from both side. You can fire in either direction too, and getting to grips with the control scheme that has separate buttons for blasting left or right is where the core appeal lies.
This mechanic could seem like a fudge – an ingenious compromise for a piece of meddlesome hardware with only one stick – but it’s actually in place to give proceedings a gentle puzzley nature. PomPom wants you to think about character placement, forcing you to move incessantly around the tiny maps and live – or more likely, die – with the consequences of bad positioning. It’s a system that creates a thrilling sense of vulnerability: you’re weak, but somehow brilliantly so, and every extra second of survival is all the sweeter for it.
There’s variation across the game’s unlockable levels, but it’s never allowed to tamper with the hard-won sense of claustrophobia. With a handful of short-lived power-ups, a fairly restrained collection of uglies (including brainless green beanbags that slobber towards you in packed rows and flocks of murderous red bats), and simple hazards like sparking arcs of lightning, each fresh arena is built from a few basic ideas that can prove surprisingly devious when they come together. Meanwhile, a no-nonsense combo system provides the depth you’ll be looking for when you’ve mastered the controls and learnt how to best use the vertical space you’ve been given.
As ever with PomPom games, there’s a caustic sense of humour lurking behind the scenes, intermittently visible in the wattled, lop-sided baddies, in the brutal asymmetrical warfare, and in the buzzing, bleating, warping sound effects. A fizzing treat that refuses to ever dissolve away entirely, Alien Zombie Death is pacy, mean-spirited, and delightful.