The opening sequence sequence of Dead Rising 4 finds Frank West chasing a specter through hordes of zombies in a run-down shopping center. In this Christmas Carol-esque prologue, he is forced to hear the ethereal echoes of his own voice and relive his past decisions.
The fourth installment of this frenetic, goofy take on a zombie crisis circles back to where the whole franchise began, but as with every Christmas homecoming, Frank quickly learns that things aren’t as quite the same as he remembers them.
Setting this game during the holiday season was an interesting choice, tying into the game’s December release date and also providing some narrative resonance for Frank’s latest outing. This time around, the town of Willamette has moved past the initial outbreak that occurred years ago in the very first Dead Rising game, erecting a brand new shopping center that is more gaudy and overindulgent than any mall has the right to be.
Rather than providing pointed commentary on the consumerist nature of Christmas and the Willamette Memorial Megaplex, Dead Rising 4 plays its holiday setting for clever laughs. Like Die Hard and the more recent Iron Man 3, the game isn’t necessarily a “Christmas story” but it certainly benefits from the colorful decorations and jolly tunes.
The mall was scheduled for a grand opening on Black Friday, but something went terribly wrong. Investigating a suspicious lead involving military activity and zombie sightings, Frank and a student head out to solve the mystery. Things quickly go wrong, as they always tend to do for the jaded, sarcastic protagonist, and he finds himself reliving a familiar zombie nightmare, trapped in perpetual Christmas cheer that seeps into every facet of Dead Rising 4.
All of the menus feature upbeat, twinkling jazz renditions of instrumental Christmas hits, and practically every environment is decorated in tinsel and snowflakes. Even some of the weapons that you can craft and find hidden throughout the mall are themed around the holiday, including detachable snowman heads, an ornament launcher, and a magic wand that instantly turns enemies into crumbling candy canes.
Outside of themed DLC expansions containing seasonal costumes, video games rarely embrace the Christmas spirit as adamantly as Dead Rising 4 does. Exploring Willamette and the surrounding streets, you can’t help but notice the strung-up lights, the many Christmas trees and gift boxes strewn about, as well as the winter attire that adorns the undead enemies swarming you.
As far as gameplay is concerned, this is Dead Rising at its most simple. There are no restrictive time limits or non-responsive AI partners, just an open sandbox environment that lets players decide how to clear out the threatening horde. Story moments toe the line of irreverent comedy and chilling conspiracy, tending to play big developments for laughs rather than beat the audience over the head with yet another tired scientific explanation about the zombie outbreak.
The Christmas setting gives Dead Rising 4 personality. Even simply looping music over the shopping mall loudspeakers and yuletide decorations go a long way to make the game feel distinct.
Capcom’s zombie-slayer has always felt focused more on intense combo chains and wacky weapons than any gritty, realistic survival, and the seasonal story told in this fourth installment extends to several entertaining set pieces, including a boss battle with one particularly angry mall Santa and a recreation of the North Pole.
While it may not be the most emotionally stirring or mechanically engaging game of the holiday season, Dead Rising 4’s benefits from its unique presentation. There’s something to be said about bringing players home to a familiar location and giving them a set of shiny new toys to play with that elevates the zany zombie slaying to a new level.