Stubbs the Zombie has always been one of those obscure but well-regarded titles. A game that aimed to reinvent the zombie genre that was dominated with Resident Evil. It didn’t really take off though, releasing in small numbers and after a turbulent development.
Despite its inventive ideas and more humorous take on horror, it just became thought of as an obscure gem. Now, fifteen years after its initial release, we see original North American publishers Aspyr put in the time to bring this monster of the past back to life and bring it into the modern world. The results are less than impressive.
The first thing to note here is that this isn’t an overhaul of a classic title with new visuals and improved features. Aspyr has done the bare minimum required to bring Stubbs back to life. Some will think this is the right way to go, as it is important to preserve the original title for those who want to revisit and those who never got to before now. This is to its detriment as a modern product though.
The game is almost completely unchanged, with some small but important changes I’ll get to in a moment, as such everything that people enjoyed about Stubbs the Zombie is here for the most part, with some small exceptions. Simultaneously, all the issues it previously had are still here. If anything, that’s the first thing that stands out, bringing the game to modern consoles and placing it into a market with more modern games just highlights all its flaws.
Stubbs was originally built for the Xbox on the Halo engine and was a point of reference for the original marketing. Set in a satirical take on the 1950s city of the future, you are a suddenly reanimated zombie awoken during the official grand opening of the city of Punchbowl, Pennsylvania. The game more or less just tells you to go ahead and have fun with the concept of being the returned dead, giving you a slowly growing, if small, set of abilities to cause havoc with and letting you loose. It feels as though this could have been a concept transposed to a more open-world formula a few years down the line, but here you are playing a linear series of sequences that tell a relatively thin yet still slightly entertaining story.
Despite some inventive powers, the game is very restricted leading to something that actually feels like a bit of a slog at times. There are long stretches of the game where enemies have the ability to one-hit kill you out of nowhere, often leading to repeated replays of long sections due to terribly implemented save points. Much of the time you’ll also not actually know where you are supposed to go with infrequent use of progression markers that only appear once every five or so areas. I was left literally floundering in a loop of an area attempting to find the next section and having no idea what I needed to do or where I needed to go to trigger progression.
The engagement isn’t there to keep you rewarded and over the somewhat short runtime playing quickly becomes a chore. This is made more of a trial by the litany of bugs plaguing the release. I recorded multiple occasions of game-breaking bugs and crashes. NPC’s spawning in out of nowhere, or getting stuck in walls after explosions. Some enemies becoming immortal or simply not spawning in at all.
It doesn’t help that the move from the original console to today’s re-release has actually made things even more charmless than they were before. The first and most notable thing to mention is the soundtrack.
The original release of Stubbs featured a really great and inventive soundtrack made up of covers of classic 50s songs covered by then-modern indie bands. Covers of Lollipop by Ben Kweller, My Boyfriends Back by The Raveonettes, and If I Only Had A Brain by The Flaming Lips and several other really fun and entertaining songs that used to be featured from the moment you booted up the game.
I actually played a few minutes of the PC release on Steam recently, and they were still there, playing over the titles from the off (the game has now been updated and those songs have been patched out on Steam). Now the title screen opens with an awful generic surf rock track, both unimaginative and tonally out of place. Worse still, the bulk of the game is totally devoid of any music at all, which just amplifies Stubbs the Zombie’s other big audio flaws. The outdated and poor quality audio on its VO work.
Bad quality VO is nothing new to games and obviously, Aspyr can’t be blamed for the quality of what they had to work with for the port. But stripping out the original soundtrack makes this low quality and repetitive audio all the more unpleasant to listen to. Now you might be forgiven for thinking that this was unavoidable, after all, we are talking about licensed songs and such licenses may have run out making it legally necessary to remove the songs. Here comes the kicker though, a large chunk of the songs are still in the game.
Now maybe this is due to a legal loophole, maybe they were left in the form they were without permission, or maybe they just got stripped out of the main game by mistake, but this just makes encountering the songs a bizarre moment and the situation in general maddening.
The main bulk of Stubbs the Zombie is a relatively linear 3D action strategy-lite game. As Stubbs, you approach civilians, cops and scientists, eat their brains, and they come back as reanimated zombies that you can have minimal control over. This amounts to giving individual zombies a shove to move them where you need them to go or whistling to get the attention of the horde. This is basically a nonfeature as the other zombies are not great at taking damage and really just serve as distractions for armed enemies as you make your way through each stage. As you attack people to make them vulnerable to a head munching, you can use your limbs to attack in different ways. Stubbs’ hand and head can be detached and controlled remotely, for example, allowing for an explosive attack in a group of people or the possession of an enemy that allows you to control them like a marionette.
The breaks in these stages come with a handful of one-off moments. One stage sees you able to take control of a hover tank, controlling much like the vehicles did in the original Halo with duel sticks movement, that you can use to mow down people or take potshots at with a cannon. Another scripted sequence sees you forced to use your arm to possess a police officer and free Stubbs from containment. The first boss battle you encounter is where those previously mentioned songs make a comeback as, entirely out of the blue, a character challenges you to a dance-off. The whole battle is a poorly implemented rhythm action game. As a fan of rhythm titles, this was initially a pleasant inclusion, especially with the returning music, but the game has very poor input registration when pushing buttons with any semblance of timing. This turned an entertaining aside into another in a long line of unbearable chores.
The inclusion of this moment is nonsensical and that’s one of the game’s strong points. As a surreal comedy satire, Stubbs makes a good attempt at having fun with its players. There’s a charm in how scrappy the game is and often this feeling of the things falling apart at the seams can lead to some laughs. Many of the in-world characters are often making timely jokes that can raise a smile.
The bulk of the humor is, much like the rest of the game, poorly aged though. Like the visuals and gameplay, the script and jokes are all full of jagged ugly edges that make it hard to look at now.
The previously mentioned hover tank shoots blobs of poop and has printed on its rear, the “sod-o-mobilie.” One sequence requires you to pee into the town’s water supply with you able to take direct control over the stream of your pee for an excessively long period of time. The game is peppered with jokes and moments that just feel, at best, a bit cringe.
That’s the whole issue with Stubbs the Zombie in the end, it’s been brought back from the dead into a world where there really isn’t any place for it any more. It’s lost chunks of what used to make it charming, it’s ugly to look at, often glitchy and annoying, and it is a package that is not one I can honestly recommend.
If you believe in games preservation or remember liking the title previously this might make it a curious little title worth giving a look. I myself can appreciate the fact such an obscure and flawed game like Stubbs the Zombie has been given a second chance, but for the most part, this is not a game many people will find much to like about.
A review copy of Stubbs the Zombie was provided to Indie Ranger via publisher Aspyr.
Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
Stubbs the Zombie sees the return of a shambling mangled corpse missing features that used to give it charm. Now its jokes are outdated, ideas poor, and spending time with it is a bit of a chore, despite the goodwill you had for it before.
- Getting to see a well-loved classic make a comeback is great
- Some original mechanics
- Occasionally will make you smile
- Upscaled visuals are fine
- This is literally just a port of a fifteen-year-old game
- Audio issues & butchered soundtrack
- Repetitive VO lines
- Poorly aged humor
- Clunky gameplay
- Levels are a slog with poor direction
- Input reaction during rhythm sections
- Repeated glitches and crashes