If there is anything that can turn even the most banal of arcade shooters into a grotesquely adorable slugfest, it's zombies, and Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ is loaded with an impressive array of undead. It also boasts a great sense of humor and combines fast-paced shoot-'em-up gameplay with twisted fairy tale characters to create a more unique experience. Unfortunately, control issues, frequent slowdown, and a slew of other quirks often undermine your joyful zombie slaying, reducing Zombie BBQ to just another mediocre shooter on the DS.
Little Red Riding Hood's latest adventure opens in Fairy Tale Land, where a devastating zombie plague has turned the lovable denizens of folklore, such as Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio, into gruesome flesh-eating zombies. You'll assume control of either Riding Hood, who is deeply fond of her machine gun, or Momotaro, who riddles his enemies with ninja stars, as you search for the source of the infestation to save the world. Though the simplistic, disjointed plot barely holds the game together, it still emphasizes Zombie BBQ's refreshingly dark humor, which should be a treat for fans of classic zombie films.
Gameplay is straightforward, spanning both screens with an isometric perspective and challenging you to plow through zombies as you advance through a stage. Zombies appear on either screen and slowly shuffle their way toward Riding Hood, who is positioned on the bottom screen on a horizontal, seven-panel movement field that you tap to dodge enemy attacks. You simply select a zombie or touch the screen in the general direction you wish to fire and hold the stylus down to shoot, while lifting the stylus reloads; if you get touched by a zombie or level obstruction, your health meter depletes, and if it diminishes entirely, the game is over. The lack of objectives, character ability growth, or even weapon modification is disappointing, but there is sufficient weapon variety to keep things interesting. Weapon icons are conveniently displayed on the bottom screen, which you merely tap to select, making weapon cycling fast and efficient--a necessity when a horde of zombies is stumbling your way.
The game's most fun aspect is its healthy zombie variety and inclusion of minibosses, which are steadily introduced as you progress. You'll encounter spitting zombies, slimes that cover the field in goo, creatures that lob objects at you, and even flying skulls and laser-projecting nutcracker men; you'll also notice creative, if simple, boss design that forces you to pummel zombie bosses while quickly memorizing their attack patterns in standard arcade fashion. Though defeating bosses can be exciting, there is very little depth or strategy involved other than memorizing these attack patterns or shooting the occasional exploding barrel, which is often oversimplistic and dull.
While slaughtering zombies should be quite enjoyable and extremely entertaining, poor controls can make it frustrating at times. When you tap Riding Hood to instruct her to duck, for example, the game will sometimes register the command as shoot and you'll end up as zombie fodder. Similarly, when you target a zombie that has approached your movement field, the game will often misinterpret this as a movement command and position you in the path of imminent danger. The poor controls are accentuated by a drastic leap in difficulty that occurs about a third of the way through; at this point, disposing of zombies requires more luck than skill due to cheap enemy attacks that block you into a corner, where you're forced to take damage from other foes because you're unable to move out of the way. Furthermore, some boss attacks or even environmental objects significantly obscure your field of view.
Despite the game's control errors and steep difficulty jump, its most vexing problem is frequent slowdown, which occurs whenever multiple enemies are onscreen in conjunction with gunfire or explosives. This slowdown is highly disruptive when you're dodging attacks, cycling between guns, or dispatching a large zombie horde that's dangerously close to surrounding you, because it slows the action to a crawl. It's also incredibly frustrating when the slowdown causes you to die, because the game only autosaves between stages, which forces you to restart the level from the beginning. The slowdown is also often accompanied by bullets that go through zombies without dealing any damage, or even by the occasional freeze.
Graphically the game's 3D environments are rather primitive, but they're adequate for a DS title, with colorful, slimy dungeons and moderately detailed enchanted castles to blast your way through. Zombies are usually 2D with 3D bosses and are sufficiently grotesque; they spout blood as they take damage, and you can easily spy beating hearts and fresh zombie brains spewing everywhere. Very peppy, exaggerated rock music supports the action without being too annoying, while ambient sounds, such as explosions and zombie gurgles, are sufficient if not spectacular.
You should find yourself soaring through Zombie BBQ's 21 stages in a few hours since each stage is about three to four minutes long, but this will depend on how much bad luck you're having with certain bosses and what difficulty setting--normal, hard, or extreme--you're enduring. You could go back through the game on a harder setting, but you may find anything other than normal mode absolutely grueling considering the rate at which you experience slowdown or die from poor controls. Three additional modes--Survival, Boss Attack, and Stage Select--offer a bit of fun if you enjoy slaying bosses in succession or revisiting a favorite stage, but they don't add any new gameplay aspects. There's also no point in completing the game a second time to achieve a high score because you aren't awarded points. While there's no denying that Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ is an occasionally fun shooter with a good sense of humor, its low replay value, finicky controls, and frequent slowdown may make it a more frustrating than pleasurable experience.