Review: Zortch is an irresistible indie shooter morsel

There is a meme in which a reclining Sonic the Hedgehog says, “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding”. Zortch, or “Zortch Maxinum Against the Alien Brainsuckers” to use the full title, is that kind of game. Largely made by one-person studio Mutantleg Games, apparently in Hungary, Zortch is a retro shooter with a distinct DIY feel. Available for just a few bucks, it is easy to recommend to fans of the genre.

Made on a homebrew engine, Zortch has 3D graphics of the charmingly low-poly variety. Its chunkily old-school looks are somewhat reminiscent of Turok, and in true indie style a number of the game’s textures are lifted from various free-use sources. The game is no beauty, to be sure, but is solid technically and has received a patch to enable high framerates. Sound and music are the game’s principal weak point – also from free-use sources, they are poor fit for the action. Where a pulse-pounding rock track would be perfect, Mutantleg often has only an ambient piece to offer. At times, this gives the game a distractingly empty feel.

Our hero is Zortch Maxinum, “short order cook, amateur engineer and professional slacker”. She falls victim to an insidious holiday scheme, and ends up imprisoned by those alien brainsuckers on their deadly planet. Zortch has a narrative which is exactly as thin as expected; the “story”, such as it is, is delivered entirely by floating green question marks which trigger text messages from a mysterious benefactor.

Upon escaping, the player will begin to explore the alien planet. Playing Zortch feels like going on a journey with the developer. It isn’t that the locations fit together logically, or create any tremendous sense of place. Instead, each level introduces some new mechanic which Mutantleg appears to have just learned to code for, and then exploits with gleeful abandon. Often, these are fun replications of something from a classic shooter. There are squishy living jump pads like the ones in Half-Life, the remote explosives recall Blood, and the “break in case of emergency” exit switches are cribbed from Duke Nukem 3D.

An alien burger bar in Zortch

An alien burger bar is far from the oddest sight on this bizarre planet

The key gameplay elements like moving and shooting are sturdy, but unspectacular. The game falls into a number of pitfalls. One example is the inclusion of some near-useless weapons, like the starting wrench and a laser pistol. Some of the later maps feel a little rushed, incomplete explorations of a promising idea. Often, Zortch feels like it is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. 

When these anarchic touches work, they add greatly to the game’s charm. One level has an exit room which is inexplicably upside down; triggering the exit produces an end-of-map summary which is also inverted. Sharks instinctively eat any meat that enters the pools they swim in, which means that shooting one of them will distract the others. Enemies are an oddball mix of aliens, robots with attached circular saws, zombies, giant floating eyes, and for some reason, dinosaurs.

Zortch is so playful that it feels as if just about anything could be around the next corner. This sense of unpredictability compensates for a lot of its homebrew shortcomings. Its brisk campaign takes a few hours to tackle, and while it may be only a one-time deal for many players, it never feels slack. Zortch is far from the equal of something like Cultic, but is another reminder of the boundless creativity that the FPS formula can inspire and what one person can accomplish.

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