Stubbs the Zombie review: Brain power

by VR Lars
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2021 seems to be a year of surprising Steam releases – first El Shaddai, now Stubbs the Zombie, a veritable relic of the OG Xbox era that’s had to rise from its grave on PC a couple of times. But this time, Stubbs seems to be back for good, and Aspyr have finally cracked whatever it was that made the game so technically troubled beforehand.

Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse originally released in 2005, developed by a studio headed by one of Bungie‘s co-founders, Alex Seropian. It’s a fantastic oddity, chronicling the tale of the eponymous Stubbs as he rampages across the retro-futuristic city of Punchbowl, eating brains and dropping rancid farts. It’s probably as far away from the typical use of the Halo engine as you could possibly imagine, similar in tone to Destroy All Humans. Being a shambling member of the previously deceased means that Stubbs’ arsenal is much more limited, though – so he has to get creative, employing the contents of his festering guts as biological weaponry.

Besides dropping and tossing his guts, Stubbs can melee attack and chomp on brains to raise his enemies back up as zombies. This is the fun part – whilst the toilet humour is great in small doses, the novelty can quickly wear off, but slowly amassing your very own zombie horde by sowing little bits of chaos here and there is really satisfying. A limited number of zombies can follow Stubbs’ whistle at any given time, but you can herd them in specific directions with a hard shove. It’s surprisingly strategic – Stubbs can be brought down by a few lucky bullets, so surrounding yourself with a meat shield and using it effectively is the only way to make it through the harder fights.

Enemy gun fire draws the attention of every zombie in the horde, an extremely satisfying reversal of usual zombie game mechanics. It’s actually a bit cathartic being on the other side of that for once, considering the amount of times it’s been forced down our throats over the last ten years or so. Stubbs the Zombie captures that chaotic “everything’s gone to hell” feeling really well sometimes, making the player the architect of society’s sudden downfall. It’s sheer dumb fun, and that can feel like it’s in short supply in the modern gaming industry.

This is a straight port of the original Stubbs the Zombie – there’s no fancy HD retouching or extra bells and whistles. I didn’t encounter a single crash or freeze during my playtime, though, and given this game’s complicated history on PC that’s a pretty good selling point. Wideload Games did have a sequel in the pipeline, which had potential to be something really special, but unfortunately they were closed down by Disney after the media giant acquired them in 2014 (not before they turned them into a mobile game development studio. Ouch.). As a result, this little glimpse of greatness, for all its flaws, is probably the last we’ll see of Stubbs. At least it’s playable on Steam now, if nothing else.

As for flaws, it does have a few, and they’re not all just because the game is almost old enough to drive. The city of Punchbowl itself is colourful enough to offset its emptiness, but when the game diverts to other locations it’s just a mud-coloured, hollow shell. There’s never really much direction – you’re just shambling in the direction you hope is the right way, until the game takes pity on you with an objective marker. I suppose this is more accurate to the zombie horde experience, but it does make for a dull game sometimes. This is compounded by an almost total lack of ambient music

Stubbs the Zombie – Still alive, despite all odds?

The question of whether or not you should give this release of Stubbs the Zombie a try really depends on what you’re looking for. It’s not a gritty experience, it’s not particularly deep, but it does deliver rapid-fire jokes and cartoony gore at a remarkable clip. This is a game from 2005, perfectly preserved, a relic from a brave new age of gaming that’s long passed us by. If you played it and loved it back then, chances are you’ll still find plenty of good times in Punchbowl now, even as a fascinating piece of history. Besides that, it’s hard to make the call – if you love zombies, fart jokes and retro games, this could be the only game that’ll ever tick all those boxes this well.

Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is available now on Steam, Switch, Xbox One, and PS4. Additionally the game is available on PS5 and Xbox X/S through backwards compatibility. Find more of our latest reviews here!

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