Sickest Garden on the Block – A Plants vs. Zombies Review

Plants vs. Zombies is a game I have long been aware of but had never really played. My stepdad and brother would play it together when my brother was small, but for whatever reason (perhaps because my little brother liked it?) I never really latched onto the idea of playing the game. I knew it was popular – popular enough to get spinoffs like Garden Warfare which experimented with other genres. But it was never on my radar in any meaningful way, and my life probably would have continued like that if not for a rambunctious little redhead living in my house.

My child (henceforth referred to in this article by their nickname, Inkling) is a second grader, and while they are very smart they are also very hyperactive and easily distractible. This had the teacher concerned about some important testing coming up early in the year, so I decided to pull out the big guns to convince my kid to focus during the test: bribery. “If I get a good report from your teacher about your behavior during both days of the test, we’ll get you Plants vs. Zombies.” We made sure to emphasize that this was about focus, not performance – my kid is whip-smart but neither I nor my partner want them to grow up feeling pressured like they have to get A’s all the time. “As long as you stay focused, behave in class, and get the test done, you get the game.” Sure enough, Inkling buckled down and the teacher sent me a wonderful report on how well they did during the testing, so that weekend we put Plants vs. Zombies on the old laptop where we allow Inkling to play.

Now the thing about parenting a kid who loves games is that you yourself often end up playing those games too. Just ask my mother, who still has a deep hatred in her heart for the Macbeth level in Star Fox 64. So it wasn’t long before I was being asked to assist Inkling with their zombie woes, and over the course of a week or so we took turns and worked together to carve a path all the way to the end of the game’s campaign, Adventure Mode. That’s given me plenty of understanding of how the game works, so I figured during this time where I’m not playing much that I feel like writing about, why not write a little somethin’-somethin’ about Plants vs Zombies?

Let’s start with the basics. Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game where you have to protect your house from a zombie invasion. If the zombies make it into your home, they’ll eat your brains, so you have to use your garden of flowery protectors to keep the zombies at bay. The game’s adventure mode is broken up into five chapters that each consist of 10 stages. Eight of those stages are focused on the game’s traditional gameplay, while the fifth and tenth stages are generally a minigame or challenge mode that you have to overcome in order to progress. The chapters are differentiated by the part of your house you are defending and the time of day, getting progressively more complex as you go with unique challenges to deal with during each phase of the game.

The basics go like this. During a normal stage, you’ll be shown the types of zombies that are going to try to approach your house. Based on the types of zombies present as well as the conditions of the chapter, you’ll choose seeds for plants you want to have in your arsenal. After you’ve made your selection and the stage begins, you’ll have a few moments of quiet to start planting. When the zombies begin to arrive, a meter appears on the bottom right of the screen that tracks their approach. Depending on the stage, you may have one or more large waves of zombies you’ll want to be prepared to take on. The time between waves allows you to build up resources and place plants, while the big waves are more active times where you’re going to have a lot of threats to keep track of and react to. The bigger waves also tend to be when the more dangerous zombies show their faces.

Your most essential resource during a stage is sunlight. Suns represent the energy you have to plant seeds in the ground. During daytime levels, sun will fall periodically from the sky for you to click on and collect, but your most reliable source of consistent sun will be specific plants: sunflowers or sunshrooms. These plants give you a steady supply of energy which you can then use to place offensive plants that actually attack and drive away the zombies. The zombies approach you in lanes, starting on the right side of the screen and moving towards the left. You generally want to have the back of each lane be a sun-producing plant, with other plant types further on the right to protect your sun production and to fight the zombie menace.

Plants can be said to fall broadly into a few different categories. Some are attackers, like the peashooters. These plants focus on doing damage to zombies. Some are protectors like the walnut – they take significantly longer to eat than other plants, serving as a wall to hold the line while the plants behind them deal damage. Some plants are single-use that you place to take out a particularly troublesome zombie or possibly defeat multiple zombies at once, like the cherry bombs. And some plants are support plants that may not do damage but provide some other beneficial effect, usually specific to the unique terrain you’re dealing with in a given chapter. You start each chapter with a relatively small number of plant types but you unlock a new one at the end of most stages, slowly expanding the number of strategies available to you over time.

Of course, you’re not the only one who is getting better over time. The zombies, too, have new tricks up their sleeves as the game progresses. Often once you’ve learned about the useful functions of a particular plant, the zombies will develop a countermeasure that you have to learn to overcome – usually with a new plant you’ll get after you’ve dealt with that zombie type for the first time. An easy example is the pole vault zombie – these guys jump over the first plant in your line. If a walnut is at the front of the lane (which is generally recommended), the pole vaulter will skip it and immediately start eating your more vulnerable plants. A good counter for this is the chomper, a plant which can instantly take out most zombies but then is briefly vulnerable while it chews them up. When the pole vaulter lands on the chomper behind the walnut, they get eaten, and the walnut protects the chomper from other zombies while it is in its vulnerable state. Mastering Plants vs. Zombies means learning about the synergy between plants like this and understanding what seeds to bring into play against what zombies in order to give you the edge.

As mentioned earlier, each chapter brings unique challenges that force you to think about your plants in a different way or perhaps negate certain strategies that you relied on in the previous chapter. Some chapters happen at nighttime, for example, where you don’t have sun falling down from the sky. This means that you have overall lower sun production and need to use cheaper resources but perhaps less powerful resources. Starting in chapter three, zombies begin attacking your back yard instead of your front yard. The backyard has a pool, which expands the lanes of attack to six and makes the two in the middle water lanes. Most plants aren’t aquatic and so a lily pad has to be placed underneath them, costing more time and sun in order to fortify your pool. The fifth and final chapter takes place on your roof, where instead of only two lanes that require extra prep to plant (the pool), all five of your lanes need to be prepared with flower pots in order to place your plants. The roof is also slanted, which makes most of your attacking plants ineffective on rooftop battles. Developing new strategies to deal with these challenges gives each chapter a unique feel, and for the most part prevents certain plants from dominating the game – each one is situational, and your strategy is focused around choosing the right tool for the job.

Two stages in each chapter don’t focus on the normal Plants vs. Zombies gameplay and instead function as minigames of sorts. Generally the purpose of these is to change how you engage with the core challenges of the game. Sun production is removed as a factor and instead you are steadily given seeds at regular intervals, but the seeds are seeds specifically chosen for the challenge rather than ones you selected. This changes how you approach planting, because you can plant any seed in your possession at any time but you can’t plant something you don’t have. Burn a useful resource like a jalapeƱo too early and you’ll be up a creek without a brain when you really need it. Certain minigames even change the function of the plants, such as walnut bowling – instead of serving as defensive walls, walnuts roll down the lane like a bowling ball and ricochet into a new lane each time they hit a zombie, dealing damage to each target they strike. Winning a minigame in Adventure Mode unlocks it in Minigame Mode, which you can then play for trophies as well as money to spend on upgrades that apply across all the modes.

The fact that money and seeds carry over from other modes is a neat aspect of the game that allows you to gather resources when you hit a wall. One of the most important resources for my chapter five success, for example, was the twin sunflower – an upgrade seed you place on a planted sunflower in order to double its sun production. Upgrade seeds like this cost a significant number of in-game coins, but I didn’t earn the finances for it myself. They were actually earned by Inkling, who when I wasn’t playing would do the minigame mode and rack up high scores in modes like Walnut Bowling and I, Zombie in order to get lots of coins. We then carried those coins over to the adventure mode and purchased resources that made victory more achievable. This means that when you hit a wall in the main game, you can use the other modes to “grind,” developing your skills as well as expanding your resources in order to get the upper hand.

For those who master the main game and want to go to the next level, survival mode is the way to go. In survival mode, you take on multiple “stages” worth of zombies in a single sitting. After the final wave instead of resetting the board, you keep all of the plants you’ve already placed and get to choose a new set of seeds in order to handle the next stage. This allows the challenge to build more significantly over time and it pushes you to think about the long-term impact of the way you set up your plants. For example, you may start out with a configuration in the first stage that is focused on quickly getting out plants to protect your sun production, but in the second stage start replacing the simple peashooters you planted with bigger attackers. A new enemy type added in a subsequent stage may change what types of plants you need to prioritize, challenging you to replace your current set of seeds with something more effective for the changed situation. As an experienced tactics player, I found survival mode to be the piece of Plants vs. Zombies that really felt like the right level of challenge for me. But Inkling had plenty of fun and challenge with the standard levels and the various activities in minigame mode.

Overall, I’ve been surprisingly impressed with Plants vs. Zombies. I typically don’t care much for tower defense games but this one scratched my strategy game brain in a way that I haven’t experienced with other titles in the genre in the past. The combination of resource management with the sort of mini-puzzles posed by utilizing the right plants against the right zombies is a fun mental exercise. The stages are pretty short and the steady influx of new plants and new zombie types mean that the adventure mode never overstays its welcome – you’re getting new tools right up until the very end, so there’s never a time when you’re just doing the same thing over and over again to try and make it to the end of the game. Not only was it an effective way to help my kid excel at their testing in school, but it has been a fun game for us to take turns playing together here at home.

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