The adventure market doesn't lack for homebrew efforts full of good intentions, but the sad fact is that so few of those efforts hit their marks that expectations for any small-group title tend to be low. What's surprising about Metal Dead is not that it far exceeds what a lot of other low-budget independent games accomplish, but that it even holds its own against releases from larger, veteran studios. In fact, this first outing by two-man developer Walk Thru Walls floored me pretty much across the board with its humorous, gory, zombie-filled romp.
Metal Dead kicks off with main character Malcolm and his buddy Ronnie, a pair of metal head slackers, heading down the road in a beat-up car. Seems the dead have risen from their graves and Malcolm, who was perfectly content to hide out in his apartment until the whole thing blew over, has been dragged out into the world by his roommate. While Malcolm thinks they are escaping the zombie menace, he soon discovers Ronnie is intentionally driving them into the heart of the infection. Soon enough, our music fans find themselves outside the MediGeniTech building, which seems to be drawing the undead toward it. When Malcolm becomes surrounded by a crowd of shamblers, however, he has no place to escape other than into the building itself.
Once inside, Malcolm learns that MediGeniTech may be behind some pretty crazy experiments that, if not directly responsible for the zombie invasion, are certainly capitalizing on it. A group of fellow survivors is holed up inside, including the building security staff and some outsiders who have made their way in for their own purposes. Before long, one of the survivors recruits Malcolm to gather some necessary people and items from around the building in order to escape using the helicopter on the roof. To accomplish these tasks, you will need to gain access cards to reach certain floors through the one working elevator. Each access card unlocks a couple new levels of the building, including areas such as the nurses station, the botany lab, and the cafeteria, and is usually retrieved from the (living or dead or formerly dead) body of a person you must find.
My first impression of Metal Dead was: this game is funny. The polished writing surpasses that of efforts from much larger studios, and reminded me a lot of LucasArts in its adventure heyday. The jokes come quickly, and are rife with pop culture and movie references, hitting far more often than not. So much so, I'd stand writer Liam O'Sullivan's script up to anything written by Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer. In addition to the witty dialogue, the story holds its own with unexpected twists, turns, and reveals—including an absolute riot of an ending.
Fortunately, the gameplay holds up just as well, with a traditional array of interaction options used to navigate the inventory-based puzzles which form the entirety of the game. Actions you must undertake are usually logical and foreshadowed by earlier conversations. The puzzles themselves are clever and make good use of the rather limited setting, whether you’re finding a way to distract a drug dealer or building a bomb big enough to clear a hallway full of zombies so you can reach a (not-so-grateful) captive. With the exception of a late-game puzzle that requires fast action, you have as much time as you need to surmount whatever obstacles get in your way, as the “imminent” zombie threat tends to idle as long as you need it to. Early in the game you get a portable hint system you can consult if you get stuck. The hints are solid, though the game is not hard and experienced adventurers will likely only use the feature to enjoy the amusing conversations.
Mousing toward the top of the screen brings down the navigation bar where you can check your inventory, consult the hint system, or switch your active cursor. As a shortcut, you can also right-click through all the action icons, including the current inventory item. As you scan each environment, the cursor you are using (an eyeball for looking, a pair of Dio finger-horns for taking, etc.) will highlight when it encounters something you can interact with, though it never indicates if you can use that specific action or not on the object. All the highlight really tells you is whether you can do something with it. This often causes the main character to caution you against touching certain non-player characters or trying to talk with environmental elements.
When interacting with characters, you are presented with a handful of topics following a quick introductory exchange. These conversations reveal plenty of helpful info and add a lot to the story. Characters such as the newsvendor who refuses to acknowledge the zombie outbreak and the trio of stoners who have taken over one of the conference rooms are clearly defined with a unique “voice” and quirks, though every exchange is solely text-based. As you go through each conversation, the text grays out for completed topics or branches into a new line of questioning. Clicking on a topic you've already discussed causes the entire conversation to play again. Usually you can accelerate this by clicking quickly through each line, but some conversations are long and cannot be skipped.
The cartoonish 2D line drawings and bright palette fit the tone and humor of the game, and are brought to life with impressively smooth animations. A lot of minor touches really make the environments stand out. During one sequence, a zombie trapped behind a plate glass window leers at Malcolm when he comes in and follows him from a distance as he walks from one end of a room to the other. It has no story relevance whatsoever, but it really builds an environment that engages and feels alive. The blood and gore, which can be plentiful in certain areas, may turn off those with sensitive stomachs but the comic nature of it all takes a lot of the edge off.
Sound effects serve the game well, but the music is fairly lo-fi. Aside from the signature tune, which admittedly is a toe-tapper, overall nothing about the soundtrack really stands out. This is a bit disappointing given the central role music plays in defining two of the major characters, as well as a key sequence at the midpoint of the game. It feels as though it would be more at home in a 16-bit title rather than a modern game, though given the fairly retro art style, I wonder if having better music wouldn't have caused a rift with the look and feel of the game.
Metal Dead is brief—I finished it in under four hours—which will disappoint some gamers, but it’s affordably priced at the developer’s website, and I found that the length nicely fit the story and atmosphere. I appreciate funny games, but often the humor wears thin if it goes on too long. There are thirteen achievements you can unlock by encountering specific parts or doing certain actions, which might give gamers enough impetus to take a second stab at it if you miss any the first time through (I certainly did). Overall, this game turns the combination of death metal and the zombie apocalypse into an adventure game that hearkens back to the genre's classic titles, though you don't need to be a fan of older games to be entertained by the quirky and consistently funny story and characters here. I thoroughly enjoyed Walk Thru Walls’ heavy metal debut and anxiously await an encore.