It has to be said here first that the premise is very ludicrous, even for a theme that includes zombies. Sentient, anthropomorphic plants defending a house from zombies that happen to be outright clones of each other can be too much for an average game consumer to acknowledge; this reviewer admits to having overlooked this game until many months after its release due to this reason alone.
On the other hand, if a game consumer can overcome his/her apprehension, Plants VS Zombies will show him/her that a very goofy premise can be had together with very fun and sophisticated gameplay.
However, to an observant player, the hilarious theme of sentient plants can be replaced with some other theme that would be more easily associated with the killing of zombies, such as robots and machines (as ludicrous as that would sound anyway), without much of a change in the gameplay. In other words, the theme of plants fighting off zombies is really little than an attempt to drum up hype through its ludicrousness. Of course, this would only be clear in hindsight, as a player is likely to get caught in the gist of the premise once he/she has experienced the gameplay.
The game won't spend much time trying to describe the premise, as the marketing for the game already had. The player takes on the role of a home-owner in a sub-urban region that has been overrun by hordes of zombies that appear to be clones of each other. However, unlike his/her very much doomed neighbours, the protagonist had the foresight to have stocked sentient plants that appear to have natural talents at getting rid of zombies.
It is indeed a ludicrous premise.
There is a nefarious mastermind behind the zombie onslaught, but to describe this anymore is to include spoilers. It should suffice to say though that these zombies are surprisingly articulated, humorous and quite polite for creatures that are trying to kill the protagonist; there will be more elaboration on this later, when the writing for the game is described.
However, there is no attempt to explain the sentience of the plants, their predisposition against zombies and their support of humans. The fact that the player character (and another human character; more on him later) appears to be well aware of the purpose of the plants is not explained either, other than beyond using them to defend his/her home.
On the other hand, the game won't try to bother the player much with the premise and backstory, and he/she should not be doing so with a game from Pop Cap, which is known for throwing believability out the window for the sake of gameplay.
The first few levels in the adventure mode, which is the only mode available from the start, act as tutorials to impart to the player the basics of fending off zombies with plants. The player is introduced to the mechanism of "Sun", which is the resource needed to place plants (or upgrade them; more on upgrade-type plants later) and which appears on-screen as brightly coloured sunburst icons. The player has to click on this to collect them, upon which they will be added to a counter on the top left of the screen.
Sun icons drop down from the top of the screen when the level being played occurs during the day (there will be more on the day/night variants of levels later). However, these are too little to support a yard (or roof; more on roof levels later) full of defensive turret-like plants, so the player has to plant Sunflowers, the first plant that the game will introduce the player to.
Sunflowers provide Sun icons periodically, though the time periods appear to be irregular; a Sunflower may produce six Sun icons within a minute, or just three or four. It can seem like luck is a factor in the production of Sun from Sunflowers, which can be a bother to players who do not like luck-dependent mechanisms in games. Fortunately, the player can plant more than one Sunflower, and eventually the wiser of players would learn that at least two rows of regular Sunflowers are needed to have a dependable supply of Sun. This minimum also does not impair the player's ability to defend the house as there are enough plots of ground remaining for defense, which is fortunate.
Speaking of rows, the player will also be introduced to the grid system that governs the placement of plants on the screen. Depending on the type of level being played, there may be five to six rows and up to nine columns of square plots that can be used to place plants, each of which take up one plot. Generally, the zombies will come from the right and will shamble towards the left, taking out any plants in their way (by eating them, of course) to reach their goal – the inside of the protagonist's house. Of course, if this happens, it is game over and the player has to restart the level.
The first level also introduces another plant, the literal Pea-shooter. This plant, as its name suggests, fires peas down the row that it is planted on. It is a very basic plant, which the player will soon learn is quite under-powered for anything other than the first few levels of the adventure mode. Unfortunately, the Pea-shooter won't be the only plant with limited potential and utility in the game; there will be elaboration on these later.
The zombies may be many, but every level will only have so many zombies. A meter on the bottom right of the screen will show the player's progress in a level. The tutorial levels do not explain the visual designs of the meter well, but an observant player will eventually notice that as the meter fills up, from the right to the left, the fewer Zombies there will be left to deal with before completion of the level (which is of course signified by the death of the last zombie and the player's claiming of the reward for level completion). (The meter also has the text "Level Progress", making it the only part of the interface that has text, which can be an odd contrast.)
The meter has flag counters, which when reached, will trigger a significant wave of zombies, the density of which depends on the game mode and its difficulty. This wave is certain to defeat a player who has not prepared beforehand, either by making sure every row is defended or having enough sun for one-shot plants (more on these later). There will always be at least one flag in every level, and this one is typically right at the end.
A wily player may observe that by delaying the killing of certain zombies, the progress of the meter towards the flags can be delayed, possibly allowing the player to collect some more Sun. Although the player can certainly do this, Pop Cap's game designers have also noticed this exploit and implemented a timer system to make certain that even if the player delays the killing of a zombie, the meter will progress forward anyway. However, this also means that a player that is struggling against the zombies of the previous wave would have to face a new batch, which can lead to a game-over.
When the last zombie in a typical level is slain, it will yield a reward. For the player that is going through the Adventure mode the first time around, this will usually be one of the 42 standard plants to be had. (It should also be noted here that this number of plants may also be a tribute to a certain sci-fi novel – and movie – with a goofy premise.) These plant types are represented with cards, which goes into slots next to the Sun counter.
The player may only bring a limited number of cards into a level that allows the player to select a deck before it starts. At first, the player may only have up to six cards, but the player can obtain more from Crazy Dave (the other human character; more on him later), up to ten cards. Using a card places it into cool-down time, which prevents the card from being used until it fully refreshes. Most cards are balanced in this way, such as the powerful, expensive ones, which would have been overpowered if the player can use them multiple times in quick succession, given enough Sun. Furthermore, some cards come already charged, whereas the rest – especially the one-shot plants – have to recharge from scratch.
Each of these 42 plants appears to have different functions compared to each other, with the exceptions of a few that are straight upgrades of a few others (though these are not to be confused with upgrade-type plants, which will be separately mentioned later). For example, any other pea-shooting plant is a straight upgrade over the aforementioned regular Pea-shooter, such as the Re-peater (a terrible pun on Pop Cap's part indeed) that fires double peas per volley and the Snow Pea, which fires ice-cold peas that slow down zombies that they hit. Of course, the Pea-shooter has the advantage of being cheaper than the others, but it takes up space that could have been provided for more powerful plants.
These very different plants, together with the variety in the zombies that would be described later, contribute significantly to the sophistication of the game. However, some of them would appear to be flukes to the discerning player. The weak Pea-shooter has been mentioned.
The second of these is the Starfruit, which is a plant that has an odd firing pattern. It can fire to the north, south, west, northeast and southeast, all in the same volley, which may seem fantastic at first. Unfortunately, the player would notice that it can't defend its own row well. More importantly, its projectiles still take time to reach its target, and yet, there appears to be no provisions for its A.I. scripting that allows it to lead targets; it will only fire once a zombie crosses one of its five lines of fire, and despite how slow a typical zombie is, the projectile may well miss it; this is especially the case for zombies that cross the Starfruit's northern and southern lines of fire.
The player can attempt to compensate for this by having more Starfruits on the lawn – and the game would suggest this through a mini-game (more on mini-games later) that specifically involve Starfruits – but this takes away space for plants that may be of more tactical use.
The third of these is the Wall-nut, the first of three high-endurance plants intended to directly impede zombies. The Wall-nut is introduced as a plant that is to be placed in the path of the zombies so that they spend time gnawing away at it while being fired on by plants that are behind the Wall-nut. There will be two other plants that do the same thing and more, namely the Tall-Nut, which stops any zombie except the huge or vehicle-riding ones, and the Pumpkin, which can be placed onto other plants as an upgrade of sorts. Of course, it can be argued that like the Pea-shooter, it is cheaper than the other two, but it is just not good enough for much more difficult levels.
The Split Pea is the fourth. Although its ability to fire up and down a row may seem useful, a wise player would realize that resorting to this plant is to plan for failure. There are only a few zombies that can get very far behind the player's defences, and even so this happens because the player has failed to make preparations to prevent them from doing so in the first place, or failed to spot them if he/she has short-term solutions to stall or stop them.
Other than these let-downs, the plants are generally well-designed and may even have nuances that may surprise or at least amuse the player. If not, then they still at least have situational uses.
For example, the Pult family is composed of plants that launch projectiles overhead to strike zombies directly on the top of their heads; their projectiles will conveniently alter directions to land perfectly. This is contrast to most plants that fire straight forward, which have to go through whatever shields that zombies are carrying. This design is not told to the player, but it will become apparent when said zombies are slain by Pult plants before their shields are destroyed.
Another example is that the Tall-Nut, which is the bigger brother of the Wall-Nut (and a straight upgrade), prevents zombies that can hop over shorter plants from doing so, immediately removing whatever tool that they are using to do so.
A couple of plants shoot projectiles that can freeze and slow down zombies that they damage. Slowing down the already slow zombies can be a very important consideration, as the zombies compensate by having the advantage of numbers. However, the player may learn that attempting to use these plants together with the Torchwood would negate the advantages of the zombie-freezing plants. This is understandable, as the advantage provided by the Torchwood would have been devastatingly overpowered if it can be used together with the latter.
Speaking of the Torchwood, the Torchwood is useless if it is not used together with pea-shooting plants. When it is, it turns the latter's peas into fireballs, which not only do more damage, but can also damage groups of zombies that are bunched up.
Then, there are the Shrooms, which are only active during night levels. Of these, the (oddly named) Sun-shroom is the most important, because levels set during the night do not have Sun icons floating down from the sky. The Sun-shroom also has a lower purchase cost, thus allowing the player to have some Sun income earlier than if the player had used the Sunflower instead.
Two other Shrooms are just as important, but only because they are completely free to plant. The Puff-Shroom and Sea-Shroom can be used by unscrupulous players to stuff rows, if only to delay the zombies by giving them dirt-free (pun not intended) plants to gnaw on.
Some Shrooms are very useful, such as the Magnet-Shroom, which can pry away metal objects from zombies that are holding them (thus turning them into regular zombies), and its "upgrade", the Gold Magnet (which automatically collects coins and other money items, but loses the ability to disarm zombies).
However, to use Shrooms in levels set during the day, the player must equip the Coffee Bean card. All Shrooms sleep during the day, making them vulnerable to the zombies until they have been woken up by application of the Coffee Bean (which is only in the game for this purpose, unfortunately). Moreover, the Coffee Bean will take a while to apply itself. This makes certain Shrooms impractical to use during the day, namely the one-shot Shrooms like the Ice-shroom. This is understandable, because otherwise, the relatively higher Sun income during the day can render these one-shot Shrooms an overpowering addition to a deck.
(It also has to be mentioned here that Magnet Shrooms can be upgraded into Gold Shrooms in levels set during the day without having to wake them up with the Coffee Bean beforehand. This is in contrast to the Gloom-shroom upgrade of the Fume-shroom, which has to be woken up. This may be a glitch.)
The player may also notice that certain plants can only be planted in very specific ways. Whereas most plants can be planted on soil, Lily Pads or Flower Pots, the Sea-shroom can only be planted over water, and the Potato Mine and Spikeweed can only be planted on soil. This means that they cannot be used in levels that do not feature the necessary foundations, especially the relatively more difficult roof levels.
Some other plants have highly situational uses. For example, the Grave Buster is only useful during backyard and front-yard levels set during the night, as the zombie asset that it counters, Graves, only appear during these levels; Graves cannot be destroyed by any other means. This may seem like a chore, but the advantage that Graves give to the zombies – they act as forward spawn points and prevent the placing of plants on them – and the reward that the player gets from eliminating them (usually coins) would encourage the player to have the Grave-buster handy for such levels.
Two other examples are the Blover and Plantern, both of which counter fog in backyard levels set during the night; fog obscures close to half of the screen, preventing the player from having visual identification of incoming zombies. The Blover is a one-shot plant, blowing not only fog but also Balloon zombies. These are only the official descriptions; the Blover also has the benefit of being able to blow away ladders that have been placed on defensive plants in the same row by Ladder Zombies. (The only alternative is to simply remove the affected plants, which can be a bother.) The Plantern can deal with the fog indefinitely, but does practically nothing else.
The Umbrella Leaf is another noteworthy example, because it counters two specific zombies that happen to make attacks from the air, such as the Bungee-jumping zombie. However, it is unfortunate that despite this logic (albeit very fantastical logic), The Umbrella Leaf does not work against a small zombie that happens to be thrown into the air by another much bigger one.
Then, there are two specific plants, which are meant to be hard-counters against the Balloon Zombie, which can only be targeted by plants after its balloon has been popped.
Some plants have situational uses, not by deliberate design but because of design flaws. One of these is the Gloom-shroom, which is the "upgrade" of the Fume-Shroom, a plant that rapidly fires fumes that go through certain objects that Zombies hold out in front of them as well as through a bunch of Zombies. The "upgraded" plant can fire in all eight cardinal directions, making it potentially powerful and useful. Unfortunately, Pop Cap has decided that it should be balanced with shorter range, making it difficult to use against zombies that are tough enough to get close. However, it sees niche use in backyard levels in Survival mode (more on this mode later), where it is very handy to annihilate the zombies that jump into the pool lanes, provided that they are protected by Pumpkins.
Some plants are simply needed for a level, even if the player can choose not to have them on the deck (at his/her great expense). These are the Lily Pad and Flower Pot (which is not exactly a plant, a fact that the game will point out with great humour). The Lily Pad is needed as a base for which to place plants over the pool in the backyard levels, whereas Flower Pots are needed on any plot in roof levels, where there is no soil at all for the placing of plants.
The Marigold is noteworthy enough to have its own segment in this review, as it is a rather risky plant to have in a deck. It does not help the defence of the house in any way, but players would keep it around for a very simple and lucrative benefit: the Marigold produces coins periodically.
However, as handy and/or important as most of the plants are, clever players may notice that one-shot plants, which can slay human-sized zombies outright, are very convenient plants to have in Adventure mode, at least the first time around when the number of zombies that the player has to face is lower. That the player can remove any plant that has been planted instantly with the shovel tool helps this. (However, the player does not regain any Sun from the removal of the plant.)
For example, the Chomper chomps down on a humanoid zombie two squares in front of it (and not one square, oddly but conveniently enough), automatically killing it. It is vulnerable for 42 seconds (which is perhaps yet another tribute to a goofy sci-fi novel/film), but the player can remove it to plant another, and this is made easier by the fact that the card for the Chomper recharges quickly. (The Chomper quickly becomes useless after Adventure mode has been completed for the first time, unfortunately.)
Another example is the Potato Mine, which is cheap enough to use to eliminate the few zombies that appear in the first couple of minutes of every Adventure mode level, so that the player can spend most of his/her Sun on Sunflowers instead of offensive plants that are of more permanent nature.
Yet another example is the Squash, which is versatile due to its ability to eliminate any zombie that it spots one square ahead or behind it – it can even eliminate an entire bunch of zombies if they are packed tightly. (However, it has to be mentioned here that there appears to be a glitch with the Squash spotting zombies behind it; if the zombies are more than two-thirds of a square away, the Squash fails to spot them.) The Tangle Kelp works similarly like the Squash.
Of course, players who are playing the mode for the first time would experiment with newly acquired plants, but more experienced players are likely to just go for the more reliable ones.
(There will be more elaboration on the second and consecutive runs of the Adventure mode later.)
Yet, not all of the one-shot plants are suitable. The Cherry Bomb can explode and eliminate any zombie around it, but it recharges too slowly. The Doom-shroom has an even bigger explosion, but leaves behind a wrecked plot that will take a long while to heal before anything can be planted on it again.
During the Adventure mode, the player will encounter Crazy Dave, the only other human in the game and the only human that is shown on-screen, and like his name suggests, is indeed quite crazy. The first encounter with him has him introducing to the player one of the mini-games (more on mini-games later), which involve bowling over zombies with Wall-nuts and variants of Wall-nuts – which is of course plenty zany.
More importantly, Crazy Dave is associated with another mechanism in the game: the Shop. Once the player has unlocked this feature in the first run through the Adventure mode, the Shop is ever available (except during a level) for perusal. There are items associated with the various game modes available for purchase with coins and gems that the player may have collected.
Of these, the most noteworthy – and most expensive – are the "upgrade" cards for certain plants.
These upgrade cards turn certain plants that have already been planted into another plant. For example, the Twin Sunflower is the upgrade of the regular Sunflower, and it offers double the Sun production rate.
However, these upgraded plants can be too expensive for the benefit that they offer. Returning to the example of the Twin Sunflower, it pays off its default upgrade cost of 150 Sun in more than two minutes, which can be too long for Adventure mode. Another example is the Cob-Cannon, which at 500 Sun, would be too expensive for most Adventure mode levels, which have plants that have been placed going to waste as soon as the levels are completed.
On the other hand, in Survival mode, which is one of the modes that would be fully unlocked after the Adventure mode has been completed for the first time, the "upgraded" plants would see more use, as well as some of the 42 regular sorts that were of not much use in Adventure mode the first time around, such as the Garlic. Before elaborating on this, the designs for Survival mode have to be described.
In Survival mode, the player must survive waves of zombies that come in multiple rounds (called "Flags" in-game, but the more practical term would be "rounds"). Each round functions in the same way as a level in Adventure mode would, e.g. new zombies are brought in and the player has to build a deck of cards, but with a twist: the player retains the Sun collected from the previous round as well as any plants that have been placed or upgraded. Even the recharge status of cards is retained.
It should also be mentioned here that rounds do not end when the last zombie in the final wave is slain. Instead, the round ends some time after the final wave in the round in the round has arrived. This means that if the player fails to eliminate any remaining zombies, they will also be in the next round, which can be a problem.
The final – and hardest – level to play in Survival mode is Survival: Endless, where the player can expect no end to the rounds and zombie onslaughts. In this level, things can get hairy enough such that entire rows can be cleaned out before the player can stabilize the situation. Yet, zombies will come onto this lane in the next round anyway.
This is where the Garlic comes in handy. It is used to divert zombies over to other lanes, so it can be used to shift zombies away from devastated lanes in the next round. However, the Garlic will eventually be eaten, or simply destroyed outright by vehicle-riding zombies or the giant ones. The cacophony of disapproval by zombies that have taken bites from the Garlic can be rather annoying to listen to, as well.
As for the "upgraded" plants, they are very much needed to deal with the hard variants of the Survival levels, including Survival: Endless itself, which is a backyard level set during the day. Not all of them can be used together due to incompatibility though.
The Gatling Pea is likely to be used in strategies involving the Torchwood, whereas the niche use of Gloom-shroom and the convenience of the Gold Magnet have already been mentioned. The Cat-tail is an upgrade for the Lily Pad, and it can attack any zombie on-screen, even those that are far back behind it. Winter Melon, which is an upgrade for the Melon-pult, is very effective against mobs of zombies, but cannot be used with the Torchwood/Gatling Pea combo as peas that have been turned into fireballs would cancel out the freezing debuff on zombies.
Regardless of any strategy used to stretch the player's run through Survival: Endless, the Twin Sunflower will likely be used, if only for the enhanced Sun income. Spikerock, the upgrade of Spikeweed, is also likely to be used, if only to counter vehicle-riding zombies and stall Gargantuars (more on these later). Cob-Cannons, the upgrade of the Kernel-Pult (naturally), would also be needed to handle the very dense mobs of zombies that would come.
A major difference that Survival: Endless has compared to the other Survival levels – other than the fact that it is endless – is that it places ever-increasing premiums on additional "upgrades" for plants after the first one. In other words, any subsequent "upgrade" costs more and more. This can be very difficult to maintain, especially when the player's tally of rounds completed has gone into the double digits. However, it does make Survival: Endless difficult, which it should be.
On the other hand, that the player must resort to the "upgraded" plants to prevail in Survival mode does seem to restrict the range of possible strategies for this mode.
The last game design about plants that is worth noting here is that every plant has hitpoints, which determine how many more bites that they can suffer from zombies that have reached them before they are eaten and removed. These hitpoints are not apparent to the player, which is a problem. As these hitpoints are retained regardless of time lapsed, a meticulous player may want to replace damaged plants with new ones, but this is only possible for the Pumpkin, Tall-Nut and Wall-Nut, which have different sprites for different states of integrity; the other plants do not have more than one sprite variant.
Like the plants, the zombies contribute a lot, if not as much, to the entertainment value of the game. Like the plants, there is quite a lot of variety among them, though not as much as the plants. Still, they do have surprisingly amusing character, despite being zombies that have practically atrophied faces.
Before the start of any level or round in a level, the player is shown the variety of zombies that would be encountered, as well as the proportions to be encountered (visually shown via the numbers of zombies of specific types shown on-screen; the exact numbers will never be told to the player).
Most of the zombies are clones of the same zombie, which happens to have a brown jacket, white undershirt, torn blue trousers and a red tie. This may be a sublime suggestion about the identities of the zombies or it may just be the result of designing them so that they are distinctive looking. Despite most of them looking the same, and that all of them shamble, they have subtly different gaits and postures, made possible by the fact that the game uses sprites that are composed of multiple smaller sprites, connected to each other with seamless borders. (This is a technique that happens to be very common in sprite-using games of its time.)
Such appearances are not entirely for aesthetic purposes too. Although the hitboxes for all of these regular clone zombies are the same regardless of their postures and gaits, their gaits, or more precisely, animation speeds, do determine their rate of progress down a row. However, the differences are very subtle.
What is certain about the regular zombies is that one or two of them will always be ahead of the rest at the start of any level other than the latter rounds of the Survival levels, giving the player an early but easy challenge. Its appearance on any row is randomized, but it is certain to have a very slow gait. The later ones will be distributed throughout the lanes with varying speeds, though it is very rare that the scripting for distribution would glitch and cause one row to have more zombies than the rest.
At first glance, merely inflicting damage on them does not appear to do much to stall them; they are implacable, after all, as to be expected of zombies. However, after taking enough damage, there will be visual and aural indication that there is progress in killing them: one of their arms pops off humorously. This is not just for visual purposes either; one less arm means that a zombie has one less hand for handling plants that it has reached, thus reducing its damage output.
Eventually, their (second) deaths would be depicted by the sprites for their heads popping off and disappearing. Whatever happens afterwards, such as their headless flailing around, is just for laughs. For players who are worried that their dying throes may obscure the other zombies, then they would be half-relieved to know that dying zombies also lose their hitboxes, meaning that shots pass through them. However, their sprites still obscure the other zombies; this can especially be a problem with the much larger of zombies.
Sooner or later, the player will have to face the wilier of zombies. Some are actually regular zombies that are wearing something on their heads or happen to be carrying something with their arms; said something generally increases their toughness, unless the player places counter-measures to neutralize these.
For example, the zombie that places a metal bucket over his head (thus giving it a tremendous increase in toughness) can be thwarted by Magnet-shrooms, whereas the zombie holding a screen door shield (which increases its toughness and negate the secondary effects of snow peas and fireball peas) can be thwarted by fume-spewing Shrooms, Pult plants or the Magnet-shrooms.
However, the zombie with the traffic cone on his head cannot be countered in any way, which is a bit of a disappointment. (Of course, the player can attempt to eliminate any troublesome human-sized zombie with a one-shot plant.)
Then, there are other human-sized zombies with very different sprites (e.g. different clothes) and animations (though they appear to have the same hitboxes). These tend to be a lot faster than the regular zombies, such as the Pole-Vaulting zombie which actually sprints despite its undead state. However, each and every one of these can be countered in one or more ways to reduce their effectiveness, either by making them weaker or slower.
For example, the Pole-Vaulting zombie sprints and will vault over the first plant it reaches, but reverts to a regular zombie thereafter. A wily player can trick it into pole-vaulting early by placing a plant in its path before it reaches the player's actual defensive lines. Another example is the Football zombie, which also sprints and has a football helmet that makes him just as tough as the Buckethead zombie, but which can be countered by the Magnet-shroom (but it does not lose its speed afterwards).
Some types of zombies eat plants faster than the rest, making them more of a threat. One example is the Newspaper zombie (which moves faster if its newspaper "shield" is destroyed).
A few zombies are designed to circumvent defences that the player has; the Pole-vaulting zombie has been mentioned. Another example is the Ladder zombie, which can place a ladder onto the first Tall-Nut, Wall-Nut or Pumpkin that it reaches, and yet another is the Snorkelling zombie, who is smart enough to immerse itself in water to avoid incoming shots. On the other hand, all of them can be countered in one way or more, some of them quite clever in hindsight.
Some zombies are harder to counter than the rest though, and these are typically introduced much later into the game, when the challenge rises. To Pop Cap's credit, the increase in the challenge is gradual and quite manageable the first time around in the Adventure mode, though learning what zombies that have not been encountered before can do can be an unpleasant surprise, especially these ones. However, the same can't be said for Survival mode; there will be more elaboration on this shortly.
The vehicle-riding zombies are the first of these to be encountered. The Zomboni is as slow as the other zombies, but it simply ploughs through all plants in its way and is far tougher than most zombies. It also leaves behind a trail of ice that prevents the player from placing plants on them, at least until it disappears after some time (or the player removes it using one-shot plants or fireball peas).
Eventually, the player may figure out how to defeat them (usually through reading the descriptions of the plants),though he/she may raise an eyebrow after having done so, as these counters are actually rather easy to pull off. The zombie with a basketball-chucking cart is the only zombie with ranged weapons (excluding those in one of the mini-games; more on this later), but it also has a similarly easy counter.
Then, there are zombies that can only be countered by specific plants, outside of resorting to one-shot plants (which always slay any zombie caught in their area-of-effect); the aforementioned Bungee-jumping and Balloon zombies are some of them. The Digger zombie is another example that would be just as troublesome, though there is more than one way to counter it.
Perhaps the most troublesome of the zombies is the Gargantuar and its Imp companion, both of which seem quite out of place among the zombie hordes, both thematically and in terms of gameplay. The Gargantuar, as its fearsome name suggests, is a huge brute that can take a lot of damage, and it annihilates most plants in its way outright. When it gets too damaged, it tosses its Imp friend down the lane, and there happens to be no way to stop the Imp from landing and circumventing the front-line. There is no hard-counter for this zombie, other than to stall it until the player can deploy one-shot plants or simply deal enough damage to drop it.
(Only one of the upgrade-type plants can be used to stall the Gargantuar for a long time.)
In fact, more often than not in Survival: Endless, it would be a mob of Gargantuars that herald the doom of the player. This strongly suggests that the Gargantuar has a role as a game-ender in this mode, either as a deliberate decision by Pop Cap or as a consequence of unwitting designs on Pop Cap's part. That there is a special variant of the Gargantuar that is even more difficult to deal reinforces the former notion.
It has to be mentioned here that humanoid zombies share a lot of animations, especially those for dying. While this repetition is still acceptable, that they share some sprites that appear upon death is not so. All zombies, regardless of how their heads look like, will produce the same sprites when their heads are popped off, that of the head of the regular zombie. Considering how much effort that Pop Cap has invested in this game's visuals, this shortfall is rather glaring.
Almost all zombies and plants – with the exception of variants – have entries in the Almanac, which is an in-game encyclopaedia that Pop Cap has conveniently included in the game. There is also a handy link to the Almanac in the pages that are associated with the building of decks (next to the link to the Shop, which is also handy), so the player can read up on the descriptions. The Almanac also contains most of the game's writing, which is quite witty, if a bit sarcastic.
In addition to lines that are more useful and relevant to gameplay like the functions of the plants and the capabilities of the zombies, there is also a hilarious anecdote for each plant's or each zombie's backstory, which is not to be taken seriously of course because it is incongruent with the rest of the presentation for the plants and zombies in the game (namely the fact that they are all clones whereas the anecdotes appear to suggest that they are unique individuals).
The rest of the writing appears to be in the notes that the zombies leave behind prior to the end of a type of level (and usually before the start of an irregular level) in the Adventure mode, such as the note that explicitly informs the player that the zombies are about to launch a massive attack. Such notes can be amusing to read, as they portray the ravenous zombies as otherwise polite.
Crazy Dave also gets some lines, though these of course serve no more than to inform the player that Crazy Dave is indeed quite crazy, and apparently even less capable than the zombies at communication (yet the player appears to be able to understand him quite well, thanks to subtitles, though this also suggests a lot of dubious things about the mysterious player character).
Last, but not least, there are the lyrics for a certain song in the game, written and performed by Laura Shigihara who would then be known for providing her talent to games that dare to be different from the rest. To describe this song would be to put one too many spoilers in this review, so this review won't.
Throughout the Adventure mode, the player may unlock a few mini-games, puzzle levels and Survival levels. The paucity of these would strongly suggest to the player that their associated game modes are post-ending content, and they indeed are. Completing the Adventure mode for the first time (which can take several hours) unlocks more levels for these game modes.
Perhaps the most challenging of the post-ending content is the Survival mode, which has already been described earlier. Incidentally, some of the "upgraded" plants are only available after completing Adventure mode for the first time. Another plant that is only available after that is the Imitater.
The Imitater is a plant capable of mimicking other plants, which in itself would have been terrifically convenient. However, to prevent it from being too overpowered, the player must select the type of plant that it can imitate before a level or round, and it can only ever mimic this plant; it also cannot mimic "upgraded" plants. Moreover, it also takes a while to deploy, thus discouraging the player from using it to mimic one-shot plants (but with a bit of timing, the player certainly can). Regardless of its drawbacks, the player is likely to use it for Survival mode, especially to place Pumpkins over existing plants to improve their survivability (pun not intended).
The Puzzle mode is perhaps the segment of the game that may frustrate the player most, as luck is a more significant factor in the challenge than it is in other modes. This is especially the case with the Vase-Breaker puzzles, which is perhaps the least well-conceived game mode.
In Vase-Breaker, the player must break all vases that are on-screen, as well as slay any zombie that appears from them; the resources and plants that the player needs to do so are also obtained from the vases. What plants or zombies appear in which vases are randomized.
This randomness would not have been a problem if the vases are not opaque by default. Unfortunately, they are, meaning that the player will have to cross his/her fingers every time he/she breaks a vase. The player's luck may differ greatly: a player may somehow release zombie after zombie before he/she even obtains a plant, or he/she may be lucky enough to break vases full of Sun for a while before releasing something else, or release Planterns that can be used to look into other vases. This fickleness in the contents of the vases is especially a problem in Vase-Breaker: Endless, the last and hardest of the levels to be had from Vase-Breaker, for which every subsequent round becomes more difficult, e.g. having more and more Gargantuars.
The other kind of Puzzle levels is not as frustrating to deal with, fortunately. I, Zombie has the player taking on the side of the zombies instead, deploying zombies to overcome a bunch of cardboard plants that apparently can still attack the zombies. The selection of zombies that is available to the player is always fixed. The types of plants that the player would need to overcome are also fixed, though the distribution is randomized with procedural generation. On the other hand, this distribution is always visible to the player, in stark contrast with the contents of the vases in Vase-Breaker.
(It should also be noted here that the player has to use the Sun resource to deploy zombies, oddly enough. This could have been the result of convenient designs.)
Then, there are the Mini-Games, perhaps the most diverse of the post-ending content. Most of the mini-games reflect the conditions of non-regular levels in Adventure mode, in which the player does not perform the usual building of decks and does not place plants in the standard way.
To elaborate, most of the mini-games involve the "conveyor-belt" system seen in most of these irregular levels, where the player is given cards by the game and must use these, though he/she can stock cards further down the "belt", just in case he/she needs these later. This system can seem a bit too luck-dependent, but the game does seem to consider the player's current situation and available cards down the belt when generating the next card.
However, a few Adventure levels are not included as mini-games, such as a certain backyard level set during the night that also happens to have a thunderstorm, which causes the screen to periodically turn dark and obscure everything. This is fortunate, as the visual obscuration can make for frustration instead of sophistication in gameplay.
One of the most notably difficult of these mini-games is Zombotany, which is somewhat non-canon. In this mino-game, the zombies now have plants for heads instead of their usual atrophied faces. This gives them the same capabilities as said plants, though they can still eat like they do in other modes. There are no suitable substitute animations for eating though, so the zombies in this mini-game can look rather awkward as they continue to shoot out of their mouths while eating, further reinforcing the non-canon impression.
Of all the mini-games, the most entertaining and rewarding to play is perhaps Whack-A-Zombie, which also occurs in one level of the Adventure mode. The player's mouse cursor turns into a mallet that can terminate zombies very quickly, especially if the player is capable of furious but precise clicking. It may seem a bit easy at first, but the mini-game will raise the difficulty very quickly by spawning zombies at increasingly alarming rates. On the other hand, the finale can be rather awkwardly underwhelming, because the final wave is just a handful of zombies, which is pathetic compared to the deluge of zombies that appears some time before the so-called final wave.
Meticulous players are likely to play Whack-A-Zombie, if only because this mini-game gives the most number of coins and rewards for the time that they spent playing the game. New graves pop up much more frequently in Whack-A-Zombie than in other front-yard levels set during the night, thus giving more chances to use the Grave-Buster on them and therefore earn the guaranteed rewards for removing graves. Unfortunately, this also means that this mini-game is likely to be favoured over the others.
The other game modes' offering of post-ending content does not suggest that the Adventure mode no longer has more value to offer beyond completion for the first ime. It becomes more difficult afterwards, with more flags and more waves of zombies to deal with. Moreover, Crazy Dave butts in, and randomly selects up to three cards for the player, which may not be pleasing to players who despise fickle game mechanisms. Regardless, the player would likely play it anyway, if only because the rewards for completing levels are now bags of coins; zombies also appear to drop more goodies when slain too.
Most importantly, the altered Adventure mode offers a certain secret that would not be described here, as it is quite a genuine surprise and source of amusement.
Plants VS Zombies is undoubtedly designed to be a casual game, as to be expected of a Pop Cap game. However, the durations of its levels and the complexity of most game modes may not be conducive to casual play, or at least those who do not have the time to learn the ropes of the game. This is where one of the best features of Plants VS Zombies would be very convenient to maintaining a player's progress.
The player can exit any level in any game mode at any time to the main menu - even quit the game – yet the progress that the player has achieved in the level would be saved, as if frozen in time. Everything is retained, even the recharge times for plants and the presence of coins and Sun icons (which disappear over time if not claimed). The player can continue where he/she left off upon return, or can choose to restart the level. This feature is especially useful for the Endless levels in the Puzzle and Survival modes.
It should also be noted here that this convenient design sets Plants VS Zombies much apart from the other games in Pop Cap's catalogue, which typically erases the player's progress in a level upon exiting it.
However, it does appear to be occasionally afflicted by a glitch that has it retaining conditions of a level that the player has left even after having completed it. Fortunately, this does not affect the Adventure and Survival modes, but it does affect the mini-games.
In a particular level in the Adventure mode the first time around, the player unlocks the Zen Garden. From here on, the player may gain plant seedlings as rewards instead of the usual coins and gems; these are usually presented as icons of wrapped gifts, which may be opened to release pots of these seedlings (or bars of chocolate; more on this later). These seedlings are placed in the default garden area, and can be nurtured into plants by watering them and feeding them fertilizer bought from Crazy Dave. These are not exactly the same plants as those in other game modes, as they just sit in their pots or plots awaiting the player's attention.
The gameplay in Zen Garden may seem rather simple and unchallenging compared to the rest of the game. Of course, this is intentional, as the name of this game mode would already suggest. Soothing music plays while this game mode is active, which may be a pleasant way to unwind after having played some of the more hectic game modes.
Regardless, any player is likely to tend to Zen Garden anyway, as it is an easy, stress-free source of money. Plants yield coins as the player fulfills their requests for water, fertilizer and such, with more rewards for having ushered them into the next stage of growth. The start of every day also causes all plants in the default and night garden areas to request for water, meaning that the player can have a chance to earn some easy money every day.
Plants can be sold to Crazy Dave for quick infuses of money, though to get the most out of a plant, the player has to have it fully mature so that it fetches the best price. Plants that mature in the night garden fetch better prices than plants in the default garden, whereas the very rare aquatic plants fetch the most coin.
It is also worth noting here that Marigolds are not part of the rewards that the player would get in other game modes. Instead, they have to be bought from Crazy Dave for a hefty price. They also sell for far less than other plants. Marigold seedlings also appear to have petals, unlike those for the rest which appear as nothing more than green tendrils when they are still seedlings. Still, a crafty may choose to fill the garden with them just so that they can provide cash when they have to be watered on the next day.
There are a significant number of complaints to be had with Zen Garden, unfortunately.
The least of these complaints concerns the use of consumables, which have to be bought from Crazy Dave. Considering that the player can make mistakes such as feeding fertilizer to a plant that does not need it and thus waste the money spent on said item, it would have been welcome if there had been a warning system to inform the player that he/she is about to make a mistake. Of course, one can argue that this is a petty complaint and that the very clear change in the icon for the mouse cursor would have provided enough visual precaution, but it would be difficult to deny that more precautionary measures would have improved this game mode.
Another minor issue is that switching from the current Garden area to another, or exiting the Zen Garden, will cause coins to disappear. Considering the aforementioned feature to completely retain conditions in a level upon leaving it in the other game modes, this setback is very much a disappointment.
The most significant of the complaints concerns Stinky the Snail, a helper of sorts that would help the player collect coins as long as the Zen Garden game mode is active. Unfortunately, if the player had bothered to do research on Stinky, he/she would probably not purchase him for the Zen Garden. This is because of its limitations and changes wrought on the rewards that would be dropped by zombies.
Firstly, Stinky only stays in the default garden area, and will not appear in the underwater or night variant s (which have to be purchased to be unlocked, if only to allow Shrooms and aquatic plants to mature). Stinky is also rather lazy, going to sleep within a few minutes and has to be woken up again, which is just not worth the time and effort keeping it around. Of course, the game does provide a mechanism to have him stay awake longer via Chocolate, an item that begins to spawn after Stinky has been purchased.
Unfortunately, Chocolate cannot be sold and does not contribute cash directly. It can be used not just on Stinky but on mature plants to make them instantly happy (oddly enough), but reaping the rewards means that Stinky has to be fed Chocolate too if only to have him stay awake long enough to gather coins. Most importantly, Chocolate may be spawned instead of potted seedlings in the aforementioned wrapped gifts, and seedlings are always more lucrative rewards than Chocolate.
Players who realize this – and who do not like having the game turned on just for collecting coins that happy plants drop in Zen Garden - are very unlikely to consider purchasing Stinky if he/she ever starts a new player profile.
The Tree of Wisdom is another aspect of the Zen Garden that is poorly implemented. On paper, this is supposed to be of help to players: players nurture a tree, which in turn dispenses rather useful advice that helps the player in playing the various game modes; it may also provide some codes to unlock some hilarious aesthetic "improvements". However, nurturing the tree requires a lot of money, as Crazy Dave sells the special fertilizer that is needed to grow the tree at a ridiculously high price.
This means that the player is likely to be only able to grow the tree and unlock all statements from the Tree of Wisdom after he/she has gained the experience needed to farm a lot of cash from the zombies - and this experience would have provided the player with the knowledge and skill that the Tree would give. Thus, other than to unlock an achievement associated with the Tree, growing the Tree would be quite a waste of cash that could have gone into purchases of other things from Dave's shop.
As mentioned earlier, Plants VS Zombies makes use of sprites and static artwork for its graphics. Sprites are mainly animated by warping and bobbing their sprites around to give a semblance of motion, though this is done surprisingly well because tearing or pixelation of sprites does not appear to occur. The game either resorts to this technique, or animating sprites that had been cobbled together from multiple smaller sprites like it does for the zombies. Generally, the game does this kind of sprite-based graphics well, but it does have problems like the aforementioned lack of sprite variants for most plants and oddities with the replacement of sprite parts for zombies that have been slain.
Plants VS Zombies does use static art for the background, but the artwork is lavish, detailed and generally pleasing to the eyes.
Most of the game's sound designs appear to have been designed by Laura Shigihara, especially the voice-acting (all of which she likely provided, even those for the zombies and Crazy Dave) and music. There is use of a lot of electronic devices and software to alter her voice, but the results are still plenty convincing and even humorous; listening to Laura utter "brains" with several different voice qualities can be surprisingly amusing.
(It is worth noting here that Pop Cap would later package the software used for this purpose for release as a free app for smartphones.)
Even better than the voice-acting is Laura Shigihara's tracks for the music, which are pleasant electronic tunes. Each different level theme appears to have at least two tracks unique to it: one for the relatively more peaceful beginning of the level, and the other for when things get more hectic later on. Of course, the best of these tracks is the one used for the theme song, which accompanies the credits.
The tracks also have a slight part to play in the gameplay too. There are secondary tempos to each track, which only occur when there are many zombies on-screen, enough to give the player some trouble. This is a handy audio cue for imminent trouble.
The sound effects appear to play second fiddle (pun not intended) to the music and voice-acting, though they are still plenty satisfactory. For example, almost every plant has its own unique sound effects for the projectiles that it fires, though the player may have to strain to notice this over the din of plants popping away at zombies.
With so much sophistication and quality of design in Plants VS Zombies, the player would find the game to be great in value, and this would indeed seem so during the time of the original PC version. Unfortunately, as the franchise ages and expands to other platforms, one would wonder whether it was a mistake to purchase a license for the original version.
Other (later) versions of the game have a larger screen, showing more of the protagonist's house as well as some artwork not seen in the PC (and MAC) version. More importantly, the other versions have multiplayer modes, which until now are absent in the desktop versions of the game. Some of these modes even feature new kinds of zombies, not seen in the PC version.
Of course, one can argue that these other versions removed certain zombies from the menagerie, thus giving the original version some value. However, the absence of multiplayer just could not be overlooked.
These differences appear to detract from the value of the desktop versions of Plants VS Zombies in hindsight, leaving a frown on the face of a discerning customer who would otherwise have been all smiling, satisfied with the desktop versions.
It should also be pointed out that the in-game listing of achievements, which has its own screen and visual presentation, strongly suggests that there may be more than just the two dozen or so achievements to be gained. However, the game has not been updated for years, suggesting that Pop Cap has since abandoned this version of the game.
In conclusion, Plants VS Zombies, during its time, was undeniably a high-value game with lots of content and sophistication, and more importantly, the entertainment and amusement to go with these. However, considering the features and options that other versions of the game has obtained, the glaring lack of updates for the original PC version of the game may suggest that this is no longer the case in the present day.