A rail shooter for a system with a touch screen like the DS seems like a bit of a no-brainer, no pun intended considering the foes you face in Touch the Dead. A touch screen offers a level of precision that is hard to match, but in a shooting game, making accuracy easy can come with a few issues. They certainly aren’t insurmountable, but Touch the Dead comes up with what could have been an interesting concept and is unable to accommodate the level of control the controls have given you.
Touch the Dead, also known as Dead ‘n’ Furious, has no true ties to the House of the Dead rail shooters by Sega that it highly resembles, and that is a bit of a shame, as comparing the two games really helps to emphasize how Touch the Dead drops the ball. In fact, I’d wager a touch-based House of the Dead port would be pretty good still, but Touch the Dead is working from a creatively bankrupt base and doesn’t really do much to rise out of it. Touch the Dead is a very basic zombie shooter, you moving forward automatically as you gun down small hordes of the undead, and the story setup hardly even tries to justify things. You play as a prisoner named Rob Steiner, and while he is innocent of the murder he was jailed for, the game makes no effort to tell you that fact. Steiner’s personality only shows when he tries and fails to make witty one-liners and when he wonders aloud about why the zombies are attacking. The game never really does explain the set-up for this zombie attack, although the fact the prison is attached to a hospital and military base seems to suggest it was military experimentation gone wrong. It’s not like the game needed a really good story, as it is quite clear that the game is all about imitating that arcade feel of gunning down hordes of zombies except now you’re using a stylus instead of a big plastic gun.
Sadly, the gunplay, the central focus and pretty much the only thing to do in the game, is quite lacking. Firing at an enemy is as simple as tapping them on the touch screen, but it’s got a few things holding it back from being mindlessly thrilling. You begin with a pistol that has infinite ammo, but to reload it, you have to grab an ammo icon on the bottom screen and drag it over to your clip. This process is needlessly clunky, slow, and it disrupts the manic flow of the gameplay, but it is quite clearly meant to be the way of limiting you as otherwise you’d be far too capable at taking down the zombie menace. Reloading does get easier with time, but the fact the ammo is on the same screen that you tap to shoot the zombies means that if you aren’t precise in the heat of the moment, you might fire the few remaining bullets in your clip at the corner of your screen. This doesn’t hurt much with the pistol, but the game introduces two weapons with limited ammo: the shotgun and the submachine gun. The submachine gun is always aching for ammo, the game giving you it late in the game and holding back ammo for it save for a few special moments, but the automatic weapon isn’t that useful compared to the game-breaking shotgun. Once you get the shotgun, Touch the Dead’s challenge fades away. The parts where you’re just limited to the pistol are a bit monotonous as they are just about shooting the zombie in the current pack that is closest to you, but the shotgun blasts zombies away so easily that they stop posing a challenge. At first you may be hesitant to use the gun too often since its ammo is limited, but shooting crates, breaking glass cabinets, or opening side paths leads to abundant shotgun shells. So long as you don’t use it exclusively, ammo woes will be rare, and the gameplay quickly becomes picking off any zombies close to you with the shotgun before switching to the pistol to save some ammo on the guys that are a safe distance away. It should be noted that you can’t just choose to ignore the shotgun as your other weapons don’t have the clearing power to keep you from losing health in a confrontation. The game also introduces a melee weapon in the form of a crowbar, but it’s mostly just useful for slowly bashing open metal doors.
The shotgun is also pretty powerful at long range, breaking open the game’s attempts to mix up how enemies are presented to you. It may take an extra shot to peg that guy in the back compared to one that is up in your face, but you’ll hardly get hurt so long as you reload your shotgun when it’s safe. I have to admit there is something a bit thrilling about getting to that point you can fire the shotgun, reload, switch to pistol, reload that, and continue the cycle, but it soon becomes robotic repetition as the enemy types don’t really challenge you in any unique manner. There are basic zombies all throughout the game, slowly growing more durable as you progress but your weapons get more powerful in step so it’s never too big an issue. There are fat zombies that are probably meant to be tougher than the basic zombies, but there is a point where they are about the same durability due to the basic zombie’s toughness scaling up, and near the end I think the fat zombies were actually easier than the horde fillers. The game throws a few large animals at you that are basically fat zombies on the ground, but then it at least makes the tiny rats, bats, grubs, and weird flying machines more interesting in that they approach in huge groups that you must dispense with quickly or you risk taking constant damage. Shooting them at range is easy enough with even the pistol though, and both the shotgun and submachine gun make quick work of them if they’re too abundant so some of the thrill disappears there. The bosses aren’t really a step above the basic enemies either. They have more health and have specific weak spots, but besides the first boss their patterns are too forgiving and it’s far too easy to avoid damage during them. If the game had not given away the weak spots at least there could have been more challenge to it, but I think the game was afraid its health system wasn’t generous enough.
For what issues I do have with the basic gameplay, I do quite like the game’s approach to health. You can get your health quite high so long as you don’t lose it to zombie attacks, and while dying does set you back pretty far in the level, death’s not so common that I could hold it against the game. It does make some of the tedious level design more apparent though as you are constantly going through the same consistent cycle of “zombie horde, quiet break, and then a zombie horde again or maybe the tiny enemies instead”. Usually during the breaks or in the background of a packed horde you can shoot at crates to uncover health and ammo pickups, but the really cool part about the health system involves the end of level bonuses. There are four chapters to the game split into a few Missions each, and after completing a Mission it will show you a list of amputations performed over the course of the level. The game tracks how many heads, bellies, arms, and legs you blasted, and for each of the amputation quotas you meet, you get a bit of health added to your total. You can even stack sets of five hearts up, and if there is a max to the health, I never encountered it due to how much many sets it was willing to give me. In a game with more varied enemies and one where the shotgun wasn’t the perfect line of defense against being attacked, the health system would really help ease some of the issues with rail shooters, their design still often rooted in the coin-hungry difficulty of the arcade but not offering the easy way to continue on their home console counterparts.
While I can’t hold it against the game, the game is also hideous! The DS wasn’t the most powerful system, but it’s important to work within the capabilities of the device you are developing for, and there are times the graphics hurt the experience. From a distance it is hard to make out the features of foes and objects, although its mainly the small enemy groups that suffer for the game’s bad visuals. Bats especially can be hard to make out until they’re pretty close, and the game sometimes puts a zombie shuffling just to the right or left of the screen without any way to look at them until they’ve shambled right into your personal space. These are pretty easy issues to ignore, but it does make amputations harder to gauge as it can be difficult to tell if you did shoot off that far away zombie’s arms, and some zombie types it’s even difficult to tell when you’ve damaged their head. One reason systems like the DS are in the Look at the Latest category has to do with games being at a point where a developer is no longer so restrained by the hardware that they have to make games that look like this, so while it is worthy of comment, it isn’t a detraction that will hurt the game’s quality rating.
THE VERDICT: Touch the Dead had a lot of promise, but after playing the game and seeing how it turned out, I was surprised it was developed well into the life of the Nintendo DS. This wasn’t some launch title fumbling with new technology, it was a game that could work by example and give us a thrilling experience of gunning down zombies with a simple tap of the screen. The biggest limiter to the game though is the developer’s lack of imagination, something that is evident in its plot but shines loudly through its gameplay as well. With a small stable of easy to dispatch enemies, bosses that hardly pose a challenge, and gun balance that heavily favors a strong weapon without giving it enough drawbacks to make its use tactical, Touch the Dead fails to deliver on the promise behind its concept.
And so, I give Touch the Dead for the Nintendo DS…
A BAD rating. Despite all that is working against it, Touch the Dead does at least satisfy a mindless desire to tap a zombie and see them break apart. The clunky reload system works against it, but getting into the groove of the game offers a moment of exhilaration before it is quickly diluted by needing to execute it constantly with little variation or challenge. Even when I was taking hits, the health system was too kind and it was often when I didn’t manage my shotgun ammo expertly, so the moment the ammo was back in the gun, things were too easy again. The game basically shifts from being pretty hard with just the pistol to becoming pure mechanical execution once the shotgun joins the party. It tries to give the game a bit of variety with a few collectibles, but they’re hardly worth going back through the game to find, and the Furious difficulty you unlock just makes the zombies more aggressive while still keeping them easy enough to dispatch with your handy game-breaking gun. There is also a God Mode you can unlock where you have no ammo limitations on your weapons, so it doesn’t take a great mind to guess what you’ll be using all the time there.
Touch the Dead’s failure is simple rather than offensive though. It’s not hard to see how some people could enjoy the mindless zombie tapping, and you’ll likely enjoy it for a bit before the monotony sets in. It’s also worth noting that the viscera from blasting apart as zombie is also rather underplayed and hampered by the game’s poor graphics, so that unfortunately lessens the base satisfaction of the already monotonous task. However, the idea could have been executed so much better that you can’t just give a free pass to a flawed product merely because it was the one we were given. Reining in the shotgun, adding more enemy variety, and upping the difficulty and complexity of the bosses would be a step in the right direction to making it a stronger experience.
Rather then touching the dead, it’s better you let this game rest on the store shelf in peace.