Inside Pulse 12

Review: Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman (Sony PSP)

Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Roguelike
Release Date 10/26/2010

In 2003, Nippon Ichi basically reinvented the tactical role playing genre with the release of Disgaea. In truth, they had put our SRPGs before this like, Rhapsody and La Pucelle, but Disgaea hit the zeitgeist and really brought the company into its own on both sides of the Pacific. Now, seven years later, Nippon Ichi hopes to do the same thing with rougelikes, which are pretty much the LEAST favourite type of RPG. Why is this? I’m not sure, but it could have something to do with the fact they tend to be the most challenging type of RPG as well, with their randomly generated dungeons, characters having to start from level one each time they enter and a whole host of punishment heaped up on the gamer should they die inside the dungeon.

Now publishers keep bringing roguelikes over, but they rarely get critical acclaim or much in the way of sales. Square-Enix has tried with Chocobo’s Dungeon, Atlus has tried with Baroque and Izuna, Natsume has given us Adventures to Go (which let you keep your levels at least), and so on but they just don’t get over with RPG fans. In fact the only two I can think of that have been true successes are Azure Dreams, which was published by Konami back in the PSX era and later ported to the original Game Boy, and the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, which manages to be the standard bearer for the genre in terms of being financially lucrative and accepted by critics and gamers alike. Of course, Nintendo never did bring over the WiiWare Trilogy of PMD games, which means they weren’t successful ENOUGH for NoA’s liking.

Earlier this year, Nippon Ichi gave us a truly great turn based RPG in Trinity Universe and a superb retro dungeon crawl in Cladun: This is a RPG!, making old standards and clichés feel fresh and new again. Were they able to make it three in a row with Zettai Hero Project: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman, or was the best thing about the game its bizarre title?

Let’s Review

1. Story

IT IS THE END OF DAYS. Or is it? The world is still in pre-apocalyptia, and all of mankind prepares for the final battle between the Ultimate Victory Unlosing Ranger and Darkdeath Evilman. Both are the most powerful warriors on the side of good and evil, and finally the two shall meet on the field of combat due to Darkdeath Evilman’s kidnapping of Super Baby, a powerful infant prophesized to save the world. However there’s a bit of a snag and the Unlosing Ranger is hit by a car and killed before he can get to the battle. Whoops. With his dying breath he bequeaths his outfit and powers to you, the hero, so that good may triumph over evil once and for all.

It doesn’t. What actually happens is Darkdeath Evilman squashes you like a bug and a millisecond before you die, you are teleported to Bizzaro Earth, a world populated with monsters and weirdness that someone parallels (but not really) our own. Here where time is almost at a standstill compared to the real Earth, your character will be trained in the art of how to become a super hero, save the day several times over and then return to Earth almost at the same point you left so that good may triumph over evil once and for all.

It doesn’t. This time you last another round or two longer against Evilman and so once against you are teleported back to train some more. Repeat quite a few times and you have the plot of Z.H.P. The game is divided into chapters, each one focusing on a person, or set of people, from normal Earth that are directly impacted by your horrible failure as a hero and as a human being. To right your own unintentional wrong, you’ll have to fix things on Bizzaro Earth so that the karmic reverberation is felt back on normal Earth. Along the way you’ll fight monsters, collect items, gets cybernetic implants and all sorts of insane gear to equip your character with. It’s all very funny and a wonderful parody of super hero comics and anime series like Gatchaman.

From being forcibly married to a Prinny to being coached by the ghost of the real Unlosing Ranger, Z.H.P. is hilarious from beginning to end, but it also sneaks in important messages to act as the theme for that “chapter” in the same way cartoons like Thundercats or M.A.S.K. used to. Whether you’re a longtime fan of Nippon Ichi’s sense of humour, a fan of roguelikes, or just looking for a well written RPG, you’ll find Z.H.P. has something for everyone.

Story Rating: Good

2. Graphics

You can definitely tell Z.H.P. is done by the Disgaea team as the character sprites all have that familiar style and inherent weirdness to them. It definitely feels like you could mix and match characters from one game to other and why not? There are prinnies in Z.H.P. and Disgaea has Prism Rangers, so why not an Unlosing one as well? All characters, both your hero and enemies are well done and give you a wide range of characters to encounter. My only complaint is that many characters are actually reused as both monsters and friendly NPCs so you might get confused at times.

Character portraits are rather nice looking, but they are static and unlike a lot of other games that still use portraits, characters only have a single drawing, rather than a series to elicit different emotional reactions from the character. This is a bit of a disappointment, especially since most roguelikes pack in a myriad of portraits for even the least important NPC.

The neatest aspect of the graphics comes with the final boss fight. Or should I say multiple final boss fights. Considering the whole game is about trying to do the “last battle” over and over again until you finally get it right, the last battle is actually the first battle is actually the end battle for each chapter. Confusing isn’t it? Well, as you progress through the game and your character gets better, the final battle graphics change, When you first start, the visuals are akin to Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star. Get a little bit in and the final battle graphics will change to something out of Final Fantasy IV or VI. So on and so forth. It’s a lot of fun to see how the visuals change as you progress, almost as if you are being given a tour of graphics from one video game generation to the next.

So the graphics might not be amongst the best on the PSP, but they are a lot of fun. The boss battles are a multi-layered joke and the character sprites are original and adorable.

Graphics Rating: Enjoyable

3. Sound

This is by far the best overall aspect of Z.H.P. The soundtrack is simply amazing and is easily one of the best in any Nippon Ichi games. Each track is very catchy and you’ll find yourself humming at least one of them long after you put the game down. The music is very poppy. I do wish someone actually SANG the lyrics to the Ultimate Victory Unlosing Ranger Song instead of just having them included somewhere deep in your character sheet.

The voice acting in the game was also superb. I was surprised by how much there was considered how big this game is and how small UMDs are. It’s just a sign how for far technology has come since we were blowing into carts to get them to work. Your protagonist is the stereotypical silent hero that has populated JRPG since time immemorial, but the cast and crew surrounding your character more than makes up for it. From Darkdeath Evilman’s Raoh meets Megatron voice to your prinny wife telling you, “Dinner’s ready dood!”, you’ll find the voice acting on Z.H.P. to be some of the best out of any PSP title released this year.

Sound effects are rock solid too. Each weapon type has their own sound effect and there is a wide range of noises for all the different special attacks and spells the game possesses. Every time I pick up Z.H.P. I find some new aural nuance and I’m continually impressed by how much sound is packed onto this tiny disc (Or digital download copy if you decide to go that route.).

Sound Rating: Great

4. Control and Gameplay

Okay, if you’ve never played a roguelike before, this takes some explaining. Whenever you go into a dungeon, you start over at level one. Even if you left a dungeon at level 856,212, you start over at level one. Dungeons are randomly generated, so you never know what the layout will be, but you do have a decent idea of what you’ll encounter. As you go throw the dungeon you’ll pick up weapons, armour, food, and healing kits. Weapons degrade as you use them and armour degrades as you get hit, so you’ll want to replace worn out things with the best weapons in your inventory. You also have a hunger meter. When this empties, you’ll start to leak hit points like the Titanic after a collision with an iceberg. So you’ll need to eat food regularly too. For every step you make, enemies make a step too, even enemies that you can’t see because they are far away on the other side of the map. Think of movement and attacking in terms of chess, except that you only have a single piece on the board.

If you successfully complete a dungeon, all the items you had in your possession come back with you. You can have them repaired back up to 100% condition, you can store them in your house, you can sell them, or you can have them turned into cybernetic chips that raise your stats. You can also buy implants (cybernetic not saline) that boost the effectiveness of your equipment, let you carry more items, or even let you keep a few items when you get killed. This allows your character to start a new dungeon with higher stats and you get to customize him however you want. Do you want a defensive character? How about a hand to hand attacker? Maybe distance weapons are your thing, or you just want a ton of hit points. Whatever you decide you want out of a character, you can make it happen…you just need to be able to get through a dungeon with gear in tow. Best of all, those levels you lose when you complete a dungeon and drop back to level one? Well, they become stat gains for you as well. So even though you lose levels and are back down to level one, your level one character after beating a few dungeons has noticeably higher stats than he did when before he entered his original dungeon. There’s so much customization and strategy that comes into play with a roguelike and Z.H.P. is no exception. Do you bring your best items into a new dungeon and risk losing them? Do you leave your pouch empty so you can carry away new stuff but also risk not having any back up armor or weapons when your current stuff falls apart? These are all things to consider.

Z.H.P. has a very deep engine and it’s one of the rare few roguelikes where you actually have distance weapons. I can’t begin to tell you how awesome guns are in this game, and how powerful they are in the earliest dungeons or while you are learning the game. Distance attacks can make or break a battle, so keep that in mind.

Now there is only one real problem I have with the engine of Z.H.P., but it’s a big one. Now I get that this game is supposed to be “hardcore” and that roguelikes in general punish a gamer far more than they reward one, but there is one design choice that I take severe umbrage against. You see, the developers decided that if you encounter any sort of mishap in real life you will be punished for it in game. If your PSP gets accidentally turned off in a battle, the game will know ala Animal Crossing and you will lose all your items and money. There is no quick save, there is no “Mr. Gency’s Exit” equivalent, there is no anything to let you leave a dungeon save for beating it or running into a caravan. Now if this was a console game, I’d be fine with that. However Z.H.P. is a PORTABLE game that punishes you for playing the game in a PORTABLE setting. On the subway and you reach your stop? Too bad. You can’t turn the system off, so it’s good bye everything. Are you on a mid-Atlantic flight and your PSP’s battery is about to go dead? Too bad. You lose everything. Did your pet rub against the PSP and accidentally turn it off? Again, too bad. Any portable game without a quicksave or that doesn’t let you take quicksave, especially when roguelikes have very deep dungeons, is one with a large design flaw. Now a game that actively seems to despise being on a portable game system and punishing you for playing the game like any other portable title? Well, that just doesn’t sit well with me. This isn’t “hardcore gaming” – it’s just stupid. It’s going to turn off a LOT of gamers that would otherwise enjoy playing this, and even other portable roguelikes allow you to quick save or have an items that lets you leave the dungeon without being punished. This is just a really bad design choice in an otherwise excellent engine. It’s as if Nippon Ichi assumed all games were Hikikomori instead of thinking about WHY portable games have quicksaves or roguelikes offer an escape route for players.

So yes, the engine of Z.H.P. is a pretty good one. There’s a lot of customization, but it’s not as deep as a lot of other roguelikes. It lacks the range of characters, powers and evolution aspects of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon or the city building aspect of Azure Dreams, but the character customization system is awesome. The elephant in the room however is going to be one that dissuades games from picking this up, but that should have been obvious from the beginning. More’s the pity.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Unlike a lot of roguelikes, Z.H.P. is a very linear game. Sure you can go back to previously cleared dungeons for extra items and experience, but the story will always unfold in the exact same format each time. Most roguelikes are pretty opened ended. You have an eventual goal, but there are generally a lot of sidequests, mini games and other things to distract you from the main plot point. In Z.H.P., you don’t really have that. Now part of that may be because Nippon Ichi has never done a roguelike before and part of it may simply be due to the trappings of the story, but the game simply doesn’t have a lot of the bells and whistles other roguelikes have to keep a gamer coming back to it over the years.

Now what the game DOES have in a deep character customization system, which can be used to give you a dramatically different character each time you play. After all items equal implants and if you use different items (or the random dungeon generation simply doesn’t bring a particular type up) then your Unlosing Ranger 2.0 will be very different from your original one. Combine this with the excellent story and voice acting and there’s still reasons to come back to Z.H.P.; there’s just not as many as you’ll find in a lot of other roguelikes.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

On the flipside, Z.H.P. is one of the most balanced Roguelikes out there. This mainly comes from the “total levels” aspect. As mentioned earlier, your character gets permanent stat bonuses for each level he gained in the dungeon. This really makes things easier on you. Even if you are new to roguelikes and die a lot, those stats will eventually stack up to help you out.

As well, the game introduces a concept of phobias. Let’s say a petite dragon eventually kills you. You will developer “petite dragonphobia.” If you can overcome the phobia and kill a petite dragon, you’ll gain bonus XP. Kill enough of them and you’ll lose the phobia. This is a great way to rewards gamers, especially those new to the subgenre.

Introducing distance weapons, a rarity in any roguelike also helps to balance out the more brutal aspects of a roguelike and makes it more accessible to the average gamer. I synthesized higher level handguns regularly and stored them for whenever I entered a new dungeon. Save those suckers for boss fights!

Finally, the complete character customization is something almost unheard of in a roguelike and again, this really balances out the, “If you die, that is only the beginning of the pain we will inflict on you” aspect of these games. Personally it’s great to see a roguelike that tries to be a little friendlier to gamers (save for the whole turning off your system cruelty) that isn’t a Pokémon Mystery Dungeon title. Newcomers to roguelikes will find this game pretty hard still, but veterans to the subgenre will be impressed by how well balanced this game is, even if they find it a little easier that other games of this genre. Wow. A Nippon Ichi game EASIER than its contemporaries? Has that ever happened before?

Balance Rating: Great

7. Originality

Although Z.H.P. wears the typical trappings of a roguelike, it really does stand out as one of the most original games in the subgenre. Most roguelikes are fantasy games, while this is a science fiction/super hero title. Most roguelikes are deadly serious (yes, even the Pokémon ones) while this is laugh out loud funny. Most are pretty free roaming, while this is linear with a strong emphasis on plot and character building. Hell, most roguelikes don’t offer any character customization. Here however, your character’s stats are not only at your command, but so is its appearance. At one point my guy had centaur legs, a butterfly torso, a dwarf head and a giant blue arm twice the size of his other one! The sheer level of customization and interchangeable parts (complete with on-screen visual representation is mind-blowing.

Much like how Disgaea totally reshaped the SRPG playing field, Z.H.P. will no doubt do the same thing with roguelikes. Thanks to this and PMD, roguelikes are finally becoming a genre that anyone can enjoy – not just an exceptionally tiny subsect of gamers.

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

I’ll admit I enjoy this genre and I also really enjoy the stories in Nippon Ichi titles, so this was a dream match for me. I loved the characters, the madcap tomfoolery, the token insertion of a prinny into the game and of course the gameplay itself. It was hard to put down this game, and I’d often do one or two dungeons in a row (I only ever got killed once, but I’ve been playing this genre since I was a little kid) before taking a break. Of course, once you’re in a dungeon you really CAN’T take a break, but I digress.

I really had a good time with Z.H.P.. It was a wonderful parody, I spent way too much time customizing my character and comparing stats from one piece of headgear to the next, and deliberated on what to bring in to the next dungeon with me. Best of all though was the story. It’s as heartwarming as it is madcap. Someone who picks this up might struggle with the gameplay, but the story will more than make up for it.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

…and here we come to the fatal flaw in the game. Most gamers don’t like roguelikes. This can be broken down even further to most RPG fans don’t like roguelikes. Whether you want to look at overall ratings for a game or sales numbers, it is a rare roguelike that actually actually becomes successful. Does Z.H.P. have what it takes to make it?

Well, it has two strikes against it in that it’s A) a roguelike and B) incredibly merciless to people who actually expect their portable games to be portable. This latter point is going to kill off a large section of the audience right there. However, aside from that large issue, Z.H.P. is more accessible to the average gamer than any Roguelike ever made save for the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series. Factor in a great story filled with funny characters and you have a roguelike that won’t immediately put off newcomers to the subgenre. Even people that have played and disliked roguelikes in the past may be tempted to give this a try.

At the end of the day though, a roguelike is still a roguelike and even though Z.H.P. is an extremely well made game and has done quite a bit to combat the negative stigma that is associated with this subgenre of RPG, said stigma is still there. I don’t know if it’s the extremely slow paced “one square at a time” gameplay, the brutal consequences for dying, or something else about the game that drives people away from roguelikes and into the bosom of a turn based RPG (which is even slower paced IMO), but gamers tend to shy from this genre.

At the end of the day, Z.H.P. will be more financially successful and critical acclaimed than any roguelike released in the past two console generations save for the ones with Pikachu blatantly pasted on the cover. Most gamers will still pass it over due to being a roguelike or because of the inability to actually get portable with the game, but those that do (and it’ll be far more people than games like Adventures To Go! picked up) will have a tremendous amount of fun with it.

Call it a thumb’s in the middle here. Z.H.P. has the potential to break through the roguelike barrier into mainstream RPG acceptance, but even if it does, it’ll be just barely.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

After years of Nippon Ichi being known as “the crazy SRPG company,” Nippon Ichi has really stepped it up into trying new things. They gave us one of the best platformers of 2008 in Prinny, a fun action in Cladun and the two best RPGs I’ve played this year in Trinity Universe and Atelier Rorona. Hell, they’ve even gone into the anime business. It’s been a crazy good year for this tiny little publisher. So it’s great to see them continuing to try something new with Z.H.P. It’s a fun game and it has a lot of content for the price tag. It’s definitely a fresh look at the entire roguelike genre and a wonderful first effort by a company that has never done one before. It’s not as deep as other roguelikes, but it’s also not as insanely cruel. It’s a fun game when all is said and done and you can’t ask for more than that.

Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable

The Scores
Story: Good
Graphics: Enjoyable
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Great
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
Although rougelikes certainly aren’t for everyone, Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman certainly has a lot to offer to people who are new to the genre, as well as those that have horrific memories regarding how brutal this genre tends to be. Packed with a hilarious story, an excellent soundtrack, solid voice acting and the ability to completely customize your character, Zettai Hero Project will definitely impress anyone who picks it up, even if the overall game isn’t to their liking. The only real downside to the game is that’s on a portable system and yet is designed to punish you for actually being well…portable with your system. This is not a game you can pause, quick save or even take on a long trip with you as the game will read any of that or your battery dying as your character dying (and thus losing all your weapons, armour and money) as well. Keep your playing style and preferences with your PSP in mind before committing to a deep dungeon because of this.

  • Nick

    I’m still truly bummed by the anti-portability aspect of this game. That one feature is a total deal breaker. I’d probably love this game, but since I mostly game on the bus, I’ll never have the opportunity to give it a fair shake… truly a bone-headed move on NIS’s part.

  • Bob

    It’s confirmed that the game works fine via ordinary sleep/standby; just like every other game.
    I’m not sure about your PSP, but mine stays in standby for at minimum of a week. I don’t see any problem.

  • Bob – I don’t say anything about sleep mode not working here. I’m complaining about the lack of a quick save feature. Sleep Mode is fine, but you can still accidentally turn a PSP off, or have the battery run out. That’s my issue.

  • Exkaiser

    Since when are ranged weapons a rarity in Roguelikes? They’ve been a staple since Rogue itself.

    Even as far as console ones go, the Mystery Dungeon games always include them.

  • Exhaiser – Um, most don’t have ranged attacked. SPECIAL attacks that do ranged damage, sure. But regular attacks that do more damage from more than two squares away? The majority of Roguelikes don’t have them. Adventure, Telengard, Azure Dreams, Druaga are all melee combat. You’re also incorrect that all the Fushigi no Dungeon have ranged regular attacks. Only a few of Chunsofts have them.

  • Exkaiser

    All the Shiren and all the Pokemon MD games have ranged attacks. While I’m not intimately familiar with the franchise, and will concede your point (Having not played, say, Chocobo’s Dungeon or Torneko, quite a few of them do.

    Adventure, Telengard, Azure Dreams, and Druaga are not the majority of Roguelikes. To counter those, I could point out that Powder, Dungeon Crawl, Rogue, Nethack, Angband, Moria, ADOM, Drain Storm, and even Spelunky all have ranged weaponry.

  • Pokemon Mystery Dungeon doesn’t have natural ranged attacks. It has items you can huck at enemies or SPECIAL attacks that are ranged, but all normal attacks in all six PMD games are melee attacks. But ZHP actually has it so your basic unlimited attack can be a ranged one if you so wish and that’s unusual. And since you know the genre pretty well, you know how much easier that can make this genre.

    Dungeon Hack (that’s what you mean by Dungeon Crawl, rather than general hack and slash games, right?) and Nethack both do have ranged attacks, but again, both are a limited supply. If nothing is in your quiver, there’s no ranged attacks. Which again, I would put under a special attack because it’s not unlimited. Kind of like if you count Evolution as one or not.

    Yes, there definitely are some roguelikes where your basic attack is a ranged one instead of them being limited or nonexistent, but again, that’s definitely in the minority for the genre.

    Isn’t Drain Storm that weird puzzle game from the mid 1990s? I wouldn’t call that a Roguelike personally, but there are some people that consider Diablo a roguelike so, hey! It’s all relative I guess.

  • Exkaiser

    By “Dungeon Crawl,” I mean “Linley’s Dungeon Crawl,” which is still around today.

    I suppose my point of contention was not differentiating between ammo-based ranged weaponry and unlimited-usage ranged weaponry. My apologies for being adversarial.

  • I’m sorry. I thought you meant the official D&D Dungeon Hack game, which is their roguelike. My fault.

    And I didn’t think you were adversarial at all. It was a fun conversation! It’s great to see someone else who is passionate about roguelikes besides myself and Mark. I’d say we’re both right. You are 100% right a lot of roguelikes have distance attacks in them and I’m right this is the first that really gives you unlimites useage ranged weaponry. Everyone’s a winner!

  • Exkaiser

    Ah, just another thing I wanted to mention- the vocal version of the Unlosing Ranger’s theme is in the game, in case you haven’t found out by now. You can listen to it in the Music Store (It’s under Songs), and apparently it plays in the Mastery Dungeons, but I’m not that far yet.

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