‘Deadlings’ review: pay to play, then pay again to win (iOS/Android)

March 23, 2014
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It shows early promise, but a surprising shift into "pay-to-win" territory leaves it an ultimately unsatisfying experience.

Death is bummed. He's lonely and kind of bored, sitting home aimlessly surfing the web. Suddenly, an idea hits! He knows how to throw off this funk: Make other people suffer for his amusement! Except, being Death, he's not really very good with "people," so he opts for the next-best thing: zombies!

That's the entire setup of Deadlings, in which you step into the cloak of the Grim Reaper and force legions of the undead to traverse deadly obstacle courses for no better reason than that you're kind of a jerk. The zombies seem okay with it, though, and it's not like they can die again, am I right?

Anyway. It's a cute little exercise, with non-threatening cartoon zombies who pop like blood-filled balloons when they run into just about anything in the deadly laboratory, which is packed with spiked walls, buzzsaws, laser beams and other such implements of fun. There are multiple types of zombies with varying abilities, from straight-up walkers to wall-crawlers to fat messes who fly by farting, and the obstacle courses themselves can be downright devious, although the difficulty ramps up fairly gently from level to level.

The game progresses in a manner similar to Candy Crush Saga, with a sequential series of levels spread across multiple maps, each rated one to three stars upon completion depending on how quickly you complete it and how many brains you collect along the way. The graphics are serviceable, the sound is decent and the controls are simple: each zombie has one ability, which you trigger by tapping the screen.

It seems at first like a perfectly serviceable if somewhat unremarkable arcade puzzle game, although I did occasionally run into trouble figuring it out. Levels that introduce new mechanics provide small, iconographic explanations of how they work but they're not always very clear; the second level, for instance, indicates that a button on the top-left of the screen is the "strategic/arcade mode" control but says absolutely nothing else about it. There's also nothing said, or at least nothing I noticed, about the skulls that are awarded for completing a level, which caused me some grief later on.

I discovered, after growing sufficiently curious, that the skulls are used to purchase power-ups and extra zombies; each level assigns a set number of zombies of various types but you can add more at a cost of one skull per zombie, a handy thing to do if you're this close to finishing a level and make an ill-timed jump. The power-ups allow you to re-animate zombies or remove traps from the field. I blew skulls here and there, experimenting to determine which surfaces a walker zombie can safely touch (answer: none) and just generally horsing around, until in fairly short order I was out of skulls. And that, as they say, was that.

Unlike the resources in many free-to-play games, it turns out that the skulls don't regenerate in Deadlings. The only way to recover your supply is to earn them (in very stingy amounts) by completing levels, or by opening your wallet. What this means is that sooner or later—probably sooner, if, like me, you're not paying attention—you're going go find yourself up against a tough level with no way to ameliorate the difficulty but to fork over more cash. That's not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it unfamiliar in free-to-play games that offer optional boosts to simplify levels or increase scores. But this is a paid game, and the inclusion of such a blatant free-to-play mechanic—and let's be honest about it, this is "pay-to-win" we're talking about—really rubs me the wrong way.

It's worth noting that the game actually is free-to-play on Android, which might make this economy less grating. But iOS players will pay a premium and then be forced to pony up even more if they want to progress.

It might be easier to swallow if Deadlings was a better game. But it never really rises above the level of "unremarkably good"—it's decent, cute and reasonably well-produced, but not particularly interesting or engaging. It's the sort of game that's just "there," but that doesn't really do much to draw players in. And cranking up the monetization machine with a pay-to-win mechanic, especially without making it very clear that it's happening, ultimately just pushed me away.

  • Deadlings
  • Developer: Nimbi Studios
  • Platform: iOS (played), Android
  • Price: $1.99
  • In-app purchases? Yes


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