For reasons that we could guess (money and, well, money), there hasn’t been a true Plants vs Zombies game released for some time. The thought makes us more than a little sad, but we can swallow it down for the moment, as Zombo Buster Advance – while it doesn’t have any plants to speak of – is a lane-based tower defence game with zombies, and it scratches the same virulent itch.
Zombo Buster Advance is actually the second in a series. Zombo Buster Rising was the first, and it launched on Xbox at the tail-end of 2021. We slapped a 2.5/5 on it, mainly because it tried to splice tower-defending with intensive gameplay, and the unholy marriage just wasn’t much fun. Luckily, developers FIREBEAST have taken note and reversed away from twitch-based shooting completely. The result is far superior.
There are fifty levels on offer here, and they all ask you to do roughly the same thing. Two-to-five lanes run horizontally across the screen, and you can place three troops into each of them. Zombies begin to shamble down those lanes, and – cruelly – they often choose to do so in lanes where you’ve got bugger all reinforcements. But fret not: you placed your troops in lifts (or elevators), which means you can swap them accordingly.
Placing troops costs energy, and that energy gets added to every few seconds or so, so you’re choosing the right-priced troops for the best moments, and then slotting them into the lane that most needs them. Perhaps a lane full of armoured zombies needs a troop with armour-piercing rounds, or a horde of zombies needs an explosives expert like the cannoneer.
Particularly in the later levels, the three slots get filled pretty quickly, so there are a few activities to keep your attention. Three gadgets can be used and then get placed on cooldown, with our favourites being cat-traps that deal damage to every zombie that walks on them, a Thanos snap that kills roughly a quarter of the enemies, and a time-stop that leaves you an opportunity to catch up. There’s a dozen or so of these to choose from, but only three can be in your loadout for each level.
And finally, there are single-use power-ups, which are the most bemusing part of Zombo Buster Advance, and they serve to highlight Zombo Buster Advance’s mobile origins. You start with a limited number of these energy and health-replenishing power-ups, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. We used them up in the first third of the game and couldn’t find a way of getting more of them. Presumably you could have bought them for real-world cash in the free-to-play mobile version, but here, nobody bothered to code in a means of getting them – at least as far as we could see.
That mobile-pedigree is a bit of a chink in Zombo Buster Advance’s armour. Its interfaces were clearly made for the swift tap-and-drag of a touchscreen interface, but on Xbox things are a little more awkward. Moving from the troop menu, across the game screen and over to the power-ups is a wrestling match, and it never felt smooth or second nature. When power-ups are needed in a pinch, in vital seconds of the battle, the clumsiness is a major obstacle. It’s even more egregious on some of the game’s main menus, when you are trying to do simple things like combining resources (more on that in a mo), as the game refuses to highlight the button you want it to. It’s all a bit arduous.
But while the menus are fiddly, they’re surprisingly deep. One of Zombo Buster Advance’s greatest weapons is its progression systems. Complete a level and you get coins, badges and medals. The medals are the most fun, as you can spend them on permanent upgrades to your squad. Improved firepower, health and energy-generation are the killer apps here – so much so that you wonder why anyone would pick things like ‘cash reparations when you destroy one of your own troops’.
Away from the medals, you get badges which can be pinned to individual troop types, improving their DPS, reducing their cost or speeding up their rate of fire, among others. Cash can be spent on upgrades to gadgets, or you can pay to combine your badges, which boosts their level. And you can get more cash and medals by completing achievement-like tasks within a sub-menu.
It’s all more than we expected, and makes the between-level stuff rather fun. Sure, it’s a bit nobbly to interact with on a controller, but the power-increases are noticeable, and there’s glee to be found in outfitting a newly unlocked troop and seeing if it complements your roster. Those troops are so varied that the answer is ‘no’ fairly often, but it’s fun to find out.
As the fifty levels truck on, there’s a surprising amount of variety on offer, considering this is five lanes and fifteen slots for troops, and that’s pretty much it. Even on the last set of levels, things get mixed up by introducing scenarios like tube stations with zombies arriving by train, and the sheer number of zombie types that try to eat your brains is above the game’s £4.19 pay-grade.
There’s only so much Zombo Buster Advance can do with its limited tools, though. Comparing to Plants vs Zombies is helpful here, as it shows the game’s limitations. In Plants vs Zombies, you can place a plant anywhere, and that leads to much greater strategy. You would also pay attention to the very end of a level, as a zombie finally nibbled away your last walnut. But in Zombo Buster Advance, it’s far more restrictive on what you can place. The result is that many games end with your troops in optimal positions, and the latter parts of the level are spent idly waiting for your power-ups to come off cooldown. We can imagine a more adventurous, strategic version of Zombo Buster Advance, but this isn’t quite it.
Released so soon after the mediocre Zombo Buster Rising, we expected very little from Zombo Buster Advance. But by keeping things simple while simultaneously adding depth, Zombo Buster Advance leapfrogs the original with plenty of air between them. It may not compare well to the masters of the genre like Plants vs Zombies, and it’s not quite shed its free-to-play mobile roots, but it’s a worthwhile little tower defence that keeps things ticking over nicely.
You can buy Zombo Buster Advance from the Xbox Store