It's the end of the world, and you and a group of embittered soldiers are holed up in an abandoned research facility with a few hundred zombies under lock and key. Time to release your frustrations in the bloodiest way possible? Well... maybe not. Lab of the Dead by Evil Dog and SickDeathFiend is a unique spin on the zombie game. Part simulation, part puzzle, all shambling monster, it puts you in the shoes of a scientist scrambling to amass all the data he can on the horde at his mercy, and whether he does so with patience and compassion or cold violence is entirely up to you.
Pick a zombie, any zombie; it doesn't matter which you choose, but the way you deal with it does. The game consists of working with your new rotting pal in a run-down lab, offering it different things and observing both how it reacts, and how those reactions change depending on its mood, hunger, humanity, and so forth. Just click on the icons at the bottom of the screen to get started and experiment; the three categories are weapons, food, and objects, and while each one is fairly self explanatory, the zombie's reaction to them depends not only on their mental wellbeing, but on their own personal tastes, since each one prefers different things. The game's currency is RP, Research Points, which you earn simply by interacting with your zombie, and you can spend on everything from new items and weapons to research upgrades that can influence things like point gain and overall influence on your zombie. In order to progress the story and get new items, however, you'll have to satisfy specific requirements for each stage, such as achieving unique reactions or using enough items. You'll also be able to find notes and tapes left behind by the mysterious "Alpha Team" who occupied the facility before you... who, by the way, have a disappointing lack of "Masters of Unlocking" on staff.
Analysis: Lab of the Dead is a bit of an odd duck, but a welcome one. The game is actually really well presented across the board, with some surprisingly strong voice acting performances, appropriately chosen musical tracks, solid writing, and of course, expressive zombies. It's clear that a ton of thought and work went into this one, and the result is zombie game that stands apart from the pack. In most cases, however, how you feel about the game is going to be tied to how you feel about your test subjects. It's slow moving, and sorely needs to let you press a button to skip reaction animations you've seen before, and combined with the amount of grinding for points you might need to do, it isn't a game for everyone.
However, it's actually surprising at how engrossing it can get when you least expect it. You may go into it expecting your typical slice-and-dice zombie game, but depending on your attitude it can be anything but. On the other hand, having to research items fully and tweak your undead pal's mood and status before you can achieve certain reactions can also be sort of frustrating. Darnit, zombie, you are going to have a touching moment of humanity with that dead rat and you are going to like it! What was interesting about the game for me personally was that it showed me what a weak stomach I actually have for violence; take a creature I've blown up remorselessly multiple times in other games, chain it to a wall, and have it stroke a dead rat with an expression of perplexed, vague sadness and I can't bring myself to hurt it. I wonder if Buffy ever has this problem?
Lab of the Dead is a lot of things; sometimes creepy, sometimes funny, sometimes even oddly touching. Fans of more action-packed, splatter-iffic zombie games might want to check out Evil Dog's earlier work, Road of the Dead, which incidentally takes place right around the same time this game does. If, however, you've always secretly suspected you and Bub would have totally rocked the scientific community and made movie-goers everywhere tear up like they're watching the end of Old Yeller, you just might find something to love about Lab of the Dead. At the very least you should give it a try. And, hey, turns out, zombies and lollipops? Comedy gold.