Review: With 'Dead Rising 4' We've Reached Peak Zombie

'Dead Rising 4' leans heavily on its holiday theme, and it just barely works. Credit: Capcom

Capcom's chaotic take on the undead apocalypse returns with a holiday theme and Arthurian knights because why the hell not

Capcom's chaotic take on the undead apocalypse returns with a holiday theme and Arthurian knights because why the hell not

Dead Rising 4's a joke that's worn a little too thin. It returns to the series' birthplace – a zombie-infested mega-mall in the sleepy town of Willamette, Colorado – but this time, it's in the throes of an equal horror: the holiday shopping season. With that come some not-too-subtle nods to the history of the zombie genre, lest you forget that the the shambling brain-munchers started out as a critique of mindless American consumerism. Given how thoroughly the zombie genre has infected every last acre of pop culture, this line of commentary isn't exactly fresh. Dead Rising 4 doesn't seem the least bit bothered by this.

You control Frank West, a grizzled, jaded reporter pushing 50, in a one-man battle against the teeming throngs of undead who have taken the mall. Sometimes, you're armed with a machete. Other times, with a flaming chainsaw, or a battle axe that shoots balls of lightning. Weird weapons like these – which you craft out of ordinary items you find all over the mall – form the backbone of Dead Rising's slapstick take on the zombie apocalypse. On the more extreme end, you have an acid-spewing Santa, a go-kart-turned-minigun-turret, and dozens of other absurd tools of destruction.

Amidst the chaos, there are paramilitary troops sent to contain the outbreak as well as bands of survivors that have gathered together in oddly-themed tribes. The first of which is a group of Arthurian knights, equipped with period-appropriate gear, like halberds and shields. Each group has its own "maniac" leader who's extra tough and plays their schtick to a tee. They're the butt of the game's jokes, not surprisingly. It's ludicrous to think that within a few hours after the zombie apocalypse, someone would be so committed to a role that they'd risk death in battle to stay in character, but then again, so is a sledgehammer that explodes with every swing. Dead Rising 4 encourages you to just go with it.

Unlike its predecessors, Dead Rising 4 rarely gets mean-spirited with its comedic jabs. There’s no gross caricatures here, in their stead are awkward, albeit benign, quips about sexuality and gender. No, where the game hits its hurdles is in how often it recycles the same ideas and the same few one-liners ad nauseum. Calling down thunder with a modified axe like Marvel's Thor is a treat the first few times, but even the vast array of fantastical swords, guns, and cudgels can't carry Dead Rising 4's conceit for long. Worse still is that there isn't a whole lot of variety to the mechanics. Most of the time, you'll be idly tapping one or two buttons as you decimate entire hordes of zombies. "Maniacs" and the paramilitary officers take a bit more doing, but not by much.

As the vampire's arc through the popular consciousness proves, once you've turned the light of comedy and romance onto a classically-styled monster, they cease to be a threat. The zombie has been similarly eroded by its treatment in pop-culture thanks to the likes of Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, and the Dead Rising series itself. The premise of these games was – and remains – that it's intrinsically hilarious to do wacky things to zombies because they are, at this point, a joke. They're fodder, a canvas onto which we can paint whatever we'd like, be it revenge fantasies and misplaced catharsis, or lust for the misunderstood. But they can't be a threat anymore.

So you can safely squash the undead with a golf cart, or brain them a cash register. Not in some frenzied panic, but in the secure recognition that they can't really hurt you. They're slow and dumb and silly, and Dead Rising 4 wants you to pop a goofy hat on one and take a selfie. But not long after the first time you lower the camera, you realize that the game is fairly insubstantial.

At this point, I've killed zombies in just about every way imaginable – and in plenty I never dreamed of. Setting decapitation against the backdrop of jaunty, big band renditions of holiday classics is at least a new twist on the same idea, but it’s a temporary fix at best. Dead Rising 4's saving grace is its Christmas setting – the strange mix of mayhem and holiday cheer gets more mileage than you'd expect. But it also signals that this series might be on its last legs.