We’re running low on food. We need more people to man the walls during the occasional zombie attacks. But every time I send someone out for food, we have to spend a tense night hoping the undead loitering outside the walls don’t hit us tonight, hoping they’ll wait until after everyone gets back, hoping the scavengers will return with enough food to buy us a few more days to try to recruit another soldier. And we’ve just spotted a horde three days from our position. So all told, I have bigger problems than the low morale. Yeah, everyone’s unhappy. Tell me something I don’t know.

But morale doesn’t matter until it matters. Then it really matters. Tonight, tempers flared and a fight breaks out. Our most experienced soldier kills the scientist who was researching a cure. At least the food will last a little longer with one less mouth to feed. But in the morning, with a horde only two days out, it will be the beginning of the end. This zombie apocalypse isn’t going to end well. Maybe Rebuild, a deliciously bleak, gratifyingly intricate, and surprisingly story-driven zombie apocalypse strategy game, should have a less optimistic name.

After the jump, they’re coming to get you, [insert name here]

Rebuild is a turn-based game about capturing and holding territory. You use your characters to secure more city blocks so you can have more characters. Occasionally, zombies try to take it back. At first just a few, milling around mostly harmless. Soon more than a few. They start banging on the walls. It gets harder and harder to keep them out. Eventually veritable zombie tsunamis are crashing against your barricades.

But the brilliance of Rebuild is that it’s not always the zombies that get you. Just ask my scientist who died last night. Or the scavenger killed by wild dogs. Or the woman I sold into slavery for a pair of rocket launchers. Or the people who’ve starved to death. Rebuild adds plenty of detail: character skills that level up, useful equipment, special buildings, tech research, morale, food. Like any good zombie movie, the undead aren’t the only problem.

If you play Rebuild at the easier difficulty levels, which is a great way to figure out the basics, you’ll find lots of replay value to encourage you to explore. You’ll discover the unfolding gameplay and the branching storylines that wend their way to various victory conditions. This is a great single-player single-session adventure, like Elder Sign: Omens. It has a firm grasp on the premise that fewer decisions make for more important decisions which make for higher stakes which make for more important decisions.

But when you play Rebuild as a game about earning a high score, you’re going to eventually bump up the difficulty level. This is a game that does a scoring systems exactly as it should be done. Failing a game on a harder difficulty level will get your more points than winning a game on an easier difficulty level. The post-game debriefing explains exactly why you got as many points as you got. So once you’ve learned the basics, you’re either in it for the story beats, in which case explore at the easier difficulty at your leisure. Or you’re in it for the scoring challenge, in which case just go ahead and jump into the almost aptly named “impossible” level.

This is where Rebuild is one of the best zombie games I’ve ever played. It’s bleak, difficult, and most often ends in failure. It’s about desperately needing to do three things but only having the resources to do two of them. It includes suicide, starvation, disease, lawlessness. Even the dog can die. Looming over it all is a sense of impending doom as the zombie attacks get bigger and more frequent. Over time your survivors form a band of combat hardened bad-asses. If you didn’t give them names when you recruited them, you’re going to learn their names or change them once they’ve survived a while (Rebuild will even give some characters a nickname based on certain injuries). At which point the inevitable losses sting all the more.

Like X-Com, Rebuild is all about getting attached to characters who will likely die. Also like X-Com, it’s about revealing gameplay mechanics as you progress. The banks, science labs, and heliports aren’t just decoration. Just as autopsies in X-Com revealed crucial new parts of the game, so too do sections of the city in Rebuild.

Rebuild is almost single-handedly the creation of indie developer Sarah Northway, who has iterated it from a web game to an iPhone game, enlisting some nifty comic book cutscene art and a darkly unsettling score from talented contributors. It still hangs frequently on my iPhone, but thanks to the autosave, I’ve never lost any progress. Like Pandemic, this is one of those games too good to stay a free web-based Flash game. And like Atom Zombie Smasher, this is an example of how zombie mythology has a lot more to offer videogaming than chainsaws and horde modes.

5 stars
iOS