Review: Zack Zero (Sony Playstation 3)

Zack Zero
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Crocodile Entertainment
Publisher: Playstation Network
Release Date: 01/17/12

You may not realize it if you aren’t a fan of the genre, but we are living in a golden age revival of the 2D platformer genre. The last two years alone have seen the console releases of Super Meat Boy, ‘Splosion Man, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby, A Boy and His Blob, and on and on. Recently some people have been pointing at the low sales of Rayman: Origins as if the market is not interested in the genre anymore, ignoring the success of several other titles.

Well, I don’t know if the market is or isn’t interested in the genre. I only know that I love it and I want to see more. Last week more 2D platforming came out on PSN in the form of Zack Zero, a 2D platforming adventure that looked amazing in preview videos.

In a few ways it is another interesting platform game. In many other ways, it is also a mess.

Let’s start with the story of the game. Zack Zero starts off in the midst of action, trying to save his girlfriend. Oddly enough there are no cutscenes that preface the game, it just starts. Throughout the game there are cutscenes, which are also odd in that despite the game looking really good these aren’t animated videos, they are just still cartoon frames with a narrator providing a voice over. The whole thing kind of comes across like someone is reading a child’s picture book. The story itself I think is meant to be intentionally goofy, like a B-movie, but if so these cutscenes go past the point of intentional camp and straight into low budget crap. Zack Zero would be better off without these.

Unfortunately they exist, and they set the story of how some aliens started just messing up worlds, because they’re evil, and they cross the line when they attack the planet that Zack Zero and his girlfriend are taking a vacation on. So Zack attacks them back, and one of the main bad guys accidentally kills himself, and the other bad guy swears vengeance because that was his brother. Or something. So he grabs Zack’s girlfriend and that’s the setting for the game.

What isn’t explained is why he happens to have a super powered space suit that has the powers like some futuristic Captain Planet. He can use the power of fire, ice and earth. It also isn’t explained why his name is Zack Zero, but he does have a large glowing Z right above his crotch, so take that as you will.

Look, I recognize that the story in most 2D platform games isn’t exactly more than window dressing. The fact that the developer tries to shoe horn some really awkward cutscenes into the game actually take away from the experience. Hell there’s a whole part towards the mid-late portion of the game that involves a race of underground dwellers that is dumb, groan inducing, and feels like it is there to intentionally slow down the momentum of the game. It may be one of the few games I ever play where I wish there was less narrative instead of more.

On a more positive aspect of the game, it looks really good, especially for a cheaper DLC game. There are a lot of details both on the characters and in the background. It doesn’t say so, but it kind of looks like similar games made using the Unreal Engine. The effects from the different suit powers look great, and there is a large variety of different settings in the game. The game even plays around with having things go in and out of the foreground and background.

Now back to the complaining again. You see the sentence above? Here’s my plea to all 2D/2.5 platform game developers: PLEASE, PLEASE do not have jumping into and out of the fore/middle/background in your games unless you have strong indicators as to what is in the fore/middle/background. While Zack Zero does not use this feature often, there were times I kept going through a platform on the second level because I thought it was in the foreground. There is very little in terms of visual cues in this game (LittleBigPlanet is another offender of this type) for that and it becomes annoying, fast. There are also sections later on where objects that can cause you damage are moving in and out of the background, and because of the 2D camera angle it occasionally is hard to judge the distance of these objects in relation to the character.

Another issue with graphics in relation to how the game plays would be hitbox problems. There are objects where it looks like I’ve landed only to fall anyway. This goes for enemy attack animations as well, some bosses have attacks where you can see the wave of damage. Often I’d be beyond that area and still get hit. What’s strange about that is there are boss fights where the best strategy is to stay within that damage radius and just jump. Even if the limb/weapon of the boss hits Zack it just passes through him with no damage. It took me a minute to figure out I was better off dry humping some of the bosses than trying to dodge where they were attacking.

The audio is decent, with fitting sound effects and background music. I’ve had some audio glitches where for some reason there will be almost a loud feedback sound, as though I put a microphone too close to a speaker. I’ve already said what I think of the narrator for the cutscenes.

The meat of the game is your standard 2.5D platformer fare, only with some questionable design decisions. As mentioned the hit boxes for items and enemies seem off, with damage extending beyond where you would thing it would reach, or platforms not extending as far as you might think based on their visual edges. This is obviously a problem with a game that has a lot of platform jumping, especially since the jumping feels a little floaty as well. However I became adjusted to it after some time and once I got the hang of it there are some really well thought out platform level design present within the game. You can tell a lot of thought went into how these parts of the levels were laid out, and there were a few later I the game that I was truly impressed by. Overall the level design is a little too dependent on activating buttons, but considering that’s the majority of Portal’s level design I will not hold it against this game.

The major problems lie outside of the platform sections. For some reason there are a lot of areas in this game where you will fight off waves of enemies. This is a confusing design choice when you consider that the fighting is pure garbage. There aren’t very many types of enemy, and they just swarm into the screen in large clumps, sometimes from the fore or background. You can use one of the many suit abilities, but honestly it’s just easy enough to jump around and spam the regular blade attack. Trying to use the suit abilities usually equals death, because you see the character auto aims at the closest enemy, and not the largest threat. So if there’s an enemy in the fore or background shooting at you, you can’t just target them. You just spam attack and hope you hit them. Cheap deaths will occur frequently from off-screen enemies or from guys in the fore/background. It doesn’t help that for all the abilities that the suit gives Zack, defense isn’t one of them. Zack can take a couple of hits, at best, before it’s game over. When the game starts throwing enemies onto the screen it can be hard to even tell what’s attacking you at times.

To summarize, poor offensive abilities, enemies you can’t target, low health, and the game sends swarms of these guys at you. Usually about four to five times a level. Sound like fun? Oh yeah, and aside from being really weak to attacks, enemies drop health, but the health drops run away from your character. Someone thought this was a good idea.

There is a leveling system as well where you can upgrade different offensive moves. This feels like they inserted a leveling system just to have it. At no point do you get to choose what levels up or unlocks, the game does it for you.

The boss fights are also terrible. These are split into three part battles. At no point do any of the bosses require much though to defeat them, or even use of the different suit abilities. For example, the level seven boss, he’s a giant molten lava dude. He’s angry, but if I was made out of hot lava I might not be feeling very friendly either. For awhile I couldn’t figure out what could beat this guy. Even when it looked like he was taking damage, flashing red when hit, the damage bar wouldn’t reduce. I tried suit powers out. Ice, despite being a reasonable choice, did nothing. The Earth punch power made the boss fall into a weird laying down animation, but didn’t prevent him from attacking somehow as though he were standing. This caused the whole game to lock up, so I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to do. The right answer? Waiting for the boss to get into a specific attack animation, when he leans down and spits fire. It’s the only way he will take damage, there’s no indications as to when he’s invincible to when he isn’t, and I’m not really sure what triggers that attack pattern. I once waited and dodged for 5 minutes before he started into it.

The thought that went into the platform level design does not at all carry into any other aspect of the game. The developers seemed to have realized that maybe dying from missing platforms due to odd hitbox size, floaty physics, poor combat sections, and bad boss battles might be frustrating to a player. I say this because there are checkpoints EVERYWHERE. Given the problems with the game there is absolutely no way anyone would ever bother playing it to the end without there being checkpoints everywhere, but still, liberal check points do not balance out bad game design. There are games that provide a knife edge challenge that have checkpoints well spaced out, so that when you die you try and figure out what you did wrong and work to not do that thing again. Putting checkpoints everywhere is not supposed to cover sloppy game design. It doesn’t count as a challenge when I land square on a platform only to see the falling into a pit death screen again.

The multitude of checkpoints make the game actually pretty easy. You can just sort of brute force your way through the game if you’d like.

There are collectibles in the game, and you can replay levels. These collectibles in turn will help Zack level up. As mentioned leveling up is kind of pointless unless you really want to get the trophy for doing so. There is very little reason aside from trophy hunting to ever replay the game again. As far as the addictive score we give out here, if you’re really addicted to seeing the same falling in a pit screen over and over again, then you’ll love this. Otherwise it’s about as addictive as a kick to the sack.

Appeal? The game is $13. For that price you can buy some better made indie platform games. Or hell, you can buy some better made PSN platform games, whether they be original or old playstation releases.

Wow. I got pretty harsh on this game. The game isn’t all that bad. The graphics are really good, and some of the platform sections show good platform level design. It’s just some of the technical issues, and pretty much everything that isn’t platforming in the game is sloppy or nearly broken. Some of it seems like it was practically forced in. The leveling, the combat sections, the boss fights, the really awkward narrative. If the developers had just focused on what does work, the platform level design, and less on what doesn’t work, everything else, then Zack Zero could have been a much better game.

The Scores
Story: Awful
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Mediocre
Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Awful
Balance: Worthless
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Worthless
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Awful
FINAL SCORE: Bad Game

Short Attention Span Summary: As a fan of 2D platform games, Zack Zero commits pretty much every pet peeve I have of the genre. There are those that it might not bother as much, however personally I did not enjoy my time with the game, and with a $13 entry fee I can think of numerous cheaper platform games I would recommend before ever purchasing the sloppy mess that is Zack Zero.