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Undying is one of the best indie games of 2023

What happens when you mix Ico, Project Zomboid, and Stardew Valley together?

We grow up and our parents teach us how to live. They prepare us for the world and its dangers, and then we live apart as separate entities for a while before, in an ideal world, paying it back when they’re old and need help.

It’s not like that for little Cody, a pre-teen boy caught up in the zombie apocalypse with his mum, player character Anling. There’s no separation between being cared for and becoming the caregiver in a world where your luck can turn on a dime.

Before the game even kicks off, Anling is bitten by a zombie and infected. This creates a kind of reverse power curve, where the symptoms from the infection worsen the longer you survive, meaning you’re forced to rely on Cody for more as the game goes on.

Anling crafts as Cody watches in Undying.

You'll never have enough resources to make everything you want. 

Your ultimate goal is to survive around two months and make it to extraction. Until then, you’re juggling defending your home, collecting supplies, dealing with other survivors, exploring, meeting your and Cody’s needs, and teaching him everything you can as you go. Cody learns through observation whenever you do anything, so long as you call him over.

Later in the game, I developed a symptom that made me throw up whenever I searched through scrap piles. Luckily, Cody was able to step in and take my place. And when the illness weakened me in combat, Cody was trained with a slingshot. But this was only because I managed my time well, making time for him to shoot targets and hunt small game. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been ready to deal with the undead. Even now, it’s sometimes better to grab his hand and run.

As time progresses, Cody surpasses Anling in a lot of ways. She still has to be a parent and tell the lies parents tell to their children – honestly, Cody, Dad is just working late – but he’s faster at crafting, repairing, and scavenging once he’s got to grips with it all. He becomes the caregiver as the tension ramps up and society breaks down.

Once the power grid goes down, you have to start deciding whether the gasoline you’ve stored is better used in your car or the generator powering your house. Do you turn the power off when you’re out, risking the food you’ve stored in the refrigerator spoiling but saving some juice in the process? Do you head out to the survivor you met and turn in that quest, or do you head to the forest and chop some trees so you can board up the windows before night comes?

Cody aims at a target in Undying.

Cody aims at a target in the backyard. Just make sure you have wood to repair it. 

Undying is what you’d get if you mixed Stardew Valley, Ico, and Project Zomboid into a big pot. It has a story, but how it plays out depends on the choices you make – mechanical choices in gameplay, rather than choosing different options in dialogue. Skip seeing your neighbor’s daughter for a day and there will be consequences. Forget to leave the heating on at night and Cody might come down with a cold, scuppering your plans for the next day and steamrolling the rest of your week, snowballing until you’re under siege.

Zombie games aren’t a unique concept, but Undying's execution is. Its characters don’t have faces and the localization needs some work, but you’ll still find yourself caring about this mother-and-son duo because whatever predicament they’re in, it’s your fault entirely and you're a terrible mom.