“Plants vs. Zombies”

4 out of 5 stars

Sometimes, a title says everything a buyer needs to know about a product. Take Baconnaise, for example. Its name tells prospective customers everything they need to know about the subsequent marriage of bacon and mayonnaise behind the label. “Plants vs. Zombies,” the latest game from casual developer PopCap Games, comes from a similarly straightforward philosophy. The game merges two normally disparate things, and while that approach might not have been especially effective for Baconnaise, “Plants vs. Zombies” benefits especially well because of its off-kilter roots.

The premise of “Plants vs. Zombies” premise isn’t complicated, which is the norm for most of PopCap’s games. The game follows the usual formula of the tower defense genre: Players have to defend their house from a horde of zombies by using plants with different offensive and defensive capabilities.

Players also have to budget their resources. For instance, buying plants costs sunshine, which only comes from buying sunflowers and during the daytime. The game streamlines some aspects of the genre — the zombies only spawn on one side of the screen — but for the most part, these adjustments aren’t too noticeable.

Money, which can go towards buying items and upgrades, can be earned for killing stronger zombies and playing mini-games. The mini-games are also interspersed into the main campaign, which helps keep the action varied.

“Plants vs. Zombies” may adhere to the tropes of the tower defense genre tighter than it should. But the game makes up for it with especially solid execution. The wide variety of plants presents ample opportunities for formulating strategies — some plants can hold back or slow down zombies, while others can increase the damage offensive plants can cause.

Likewise, the zombies are varied as each level tosses several new types at players. This variety isn’t just visual, though – certain zombies are highly resistant to some plants and weak to others, which gives combat a rock-paper-scissors-esque dynamic. Also, only a limited number of plants can be used in each level. Having to decide the best plants for any given situation gives the game significant depth.

Contrasting its technical proficiency, a vein of absurd silliness runs throughout the entire game – zombie variants include a bobsled team and pole-vaulters, while shopkeeper Crazy Dave’s dialogue regularly includes one-liners about, among other things, his former identity as “Fog Man.”

Remarkably, “Plants vs. Zombies” rarely comes off forced. The game’s aesthetic sensibility falls near “Shaun of the Dead” while its surrealism is reminiscent of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” From the Don Hertzfeldt-inspired visual direction to the misspelled words formed from the letters zombies drop – which politely inform the player about the zombie attack — the game’s light-hearted touch is hard to resist.

But the game’s depth and casual leanings clash occasionally. For example, the zombies and plants all have unique statistics for damage, health and other characteristics. But the almanac – an in-game guide that lists information for the zombies and plants – eschews numbers for terms like “low” and “high.” It’s easy enough to figure out this information while playing, but having to do so feels like a chore. The variety from level to level is also lacking — admittedly, the game is only $20, but with only three level types, the game can’t help but feel a bit light.

Still, good execution forgives a lot of these pitfalls and “Plants vs. Zombies” has this in spades. It’s not necessarily reinventing the well-worn wheel of the tower defense genre, but its quirky aesthetic and solid gameplay hit the right balance between accessibility and replayability.

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