Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
Zafehouse: Diaries is an indie tactical, survival horror made by Screwfly Studios. The game is less about bashing countless zombie skulls in whilst looking for answers and more about simply surviving by any means necessary and/or getting out of town with as many survivors as you can. With games like FTL and even zombie rip off The Organ Trail, there is clearly a demand for tactical survival these days. How do the diaries fair in comparison?
You start each play-through with five survivors, cooped up in a house with a handful of supplies. From that point on, you are tasked with either making it to the helicopter at a specific time or fixing a car and getting out of dodge. Except for the beginning, every single play-through is completely randomised; the size of the town, the number of buildings, even the type of buildings are never really the same. While the way the game is played may rarely change between play-throughs, this does keep the experience fresh each and every time.
Zafehouse: Diaries is a very tactical and methodical game with a real emphasis on risk/reward. Upon booting up a game, your major objective is to explore the town and look for supplies and information, but how to go about it is up to you, just remember that time is rarely on your side. Do you barricade as you go, lessening the chance of zombie attacks? Or quickly move into locations, take whatever they have, then move on? Do you loot the small houses littered about that rarely contain too many zombies or do you move in on more beneficial areas like hospitals, hotels and police stations (which make injuries easier to treat, allow you to rest and may contain supplies of ammo, respectively) but are almost certain to be swarmed with enemies.
After you set your team’s orders, you click the watch button, which forwards the clock by an hour. The amount of pressure and tension as you wait the second or two for the game to tell you what has happened is palpable, especially when trying to breach a zombie infested location (if there are more than 6 zombies in the house, odds are good that you’ll at least receive an injury.
There are a few bizarre additions that don’t gel very well with the gameplay. Most noticeable of which are the decisions that pop up every now and again, including an old man looking for a “super zombie”, a little girl knocking on your door and a lynch mod wanting to kill one of your party. While intriguing at first, every response seems to result in the same course of action every single time, without fail. For example (mild spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph to avoid it), should you decide to help the old man kill the “Super Zombie”, it will always, read ALWAYS, appear immediately and kill every party member you have.
In a game like FTL, decision moments are always tense as the outcome is always different, but due to every decision in Zafehouse: Diaries leading to the same conclusion, it’s less tense and more just plain annoying as you watch all that hard work disappear so quickly through no fault of your own. Why even give the illusion of choice?
That being said, some of the elements that are drastically different with each play-through can bring their own annoyances; if nobody on your team is any good at searching locations or barricading entrances, you may as well just start a new game as your long term prospects wont be good.
For the most part, the user interface is rather slick. Very basic though, the only things you can look at are the town map, a table of mission vital equipment and information, and of course the diary itself. On the hour, every hour, you set your survivors their tasks for the following hour, the results of which are displayed in the diary. It may not seem like fun to receive all your information through text, but the style of the writing, plus the occasional blood splatter and sound effect, usually means that little information will pass you by without you knowing about it.
One matter that can be a little hard to keep track of though are your supplies. While the occasional picture of a hammer or a gun is taped into your diary, the game could do with a few more touches like that, even if only to make organising things a bit easier, especially when looking through your inventory. Having to actually look for the word “crowbar” would be a lot easier with a graphic or a picture, in both the diary and the inventory. A minor point, but one that would make things run a bit soothly as supplies can stock up a lot quicker than you’d think.
Which isn’t to say that things don’t usually run well. There is of course a hump to get over, but once you do you’ll be surviving the Zombie apocalypse in no time. The tutorial or help desk may appear overbearing at first but there really isn’t that much to learn. Other than a rather annoying bug that makes the game (and your save) unplayable, which happened maybe three times, your only worry will be surviving.
Giving orders is as simple as clicking and/or dragging for the most part. You may send a team off to a house to investigate when you actually wanted to move into that location, but other than that occasional annoyance the game is easy to pick up. Some of the orders could do with some more variables as the design mentality assumes that you’re only ever doing one thing at once. For example, you can assault locations in the hope of thinning out the zombie numbers before breaching in, though to play it safe you may give the attacking members all the ammo and guns you have.
Your team will take this as an excuse to use up every little piece of ammo they have, even if they keep on missing their targets. An option to save some ammo for defensive purposes only would be appreciated. Also, after assaulting, your team will immediately return to the house they assaulted from. Having the option to actually move somewhere else or even queue up certain actions would mean much less time is being wasted, vital for a game in which time plays such a crucial role. Despite all this, the game is still very simple to pick up and you’ll no doubt notice these shortcomings quickly and will plan accordingly.
One final aspect that merely teases at potential awesomeness is the ability to create your own content in the form of maps and, much more enjoyable, survivors. The potential of creating characters that you can actually get attached to (similar to games like X:COM) is very high, though due to the random nature of the game, al you can do is hope that all your custom made survivors will show up in the same game. Randomising skills are fine (though making it at least somewhat optional would be nice), but why can’t we have the option of at least choosing what characters to take out into the zombie apocalypse?
Another, more final, note. I was all set to score this game and move on, but I thought I should check out the official site before I do. The folks over at Screwfly Studios sure have been busy. They are very active on the forums, responding to any glitch problems posted and they seem to be making monthly additions to the game in the form of patches and new game modes are even being implemented. Some of these new functions clear up a lot of issues I had with the game (only being able to give one order at a time for example) and honestly makes me look forward to jumping back into the apocalypse.
As such, I’ve been thrown through the wringer when deciding what score to give the game. I finally concluded to up it by 1 point. Many may argue that the game should have been that well polished upon release, and while I don’t disagree, the fact that the game can only really be purchased online does allow one to make certain assumptions about internet connectivity, an option to download the patch from the game’s menu itself would also be nice though. Make of the change of score however you like, it’s still a fun game and nice to see it be supported after release.
The Final Word: Zafehouse: Diaries is a fun, tense and surprisingly addictive game. Some design issues and conflicting mechanics mean that it isn’t quite as memorable as The Oregon Trail or FTL, though it is still quite hard to put down until you have at least completed it once. If you see it on sale, buy it, hell maybe buy it regardless, especially given the developers continued support.
Zafehouse Diaries is available on PC (reviewed).