Although most people instantly think of Disgaea when they think of Nippon Ichi, lately, they’ve really been branching out from the usual SRPG games they put out. There’s Cladun, an excellent action RPG, Disgaea Infinite, a weird little game in Last Rebellion, and a platformer in Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero. They even brought over Sakura Wars V and have started their own little anime business with titles like Persona: Trinity Soul and Toradora. With their latest title, ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs Darkdeath Evilman, the minds behind the original Disgaea reunite to bring us, not another SRPG as you might expect, but a roguelike.
For those that are unaware, Roguelikes are a combination of SPRG and Turn-Based RPGs in which your character moves a single square or takes a single action and then so does every monster in the game. This means even the slightest movement takes on a lot more importance and roguelikes are very much akin to playing a game of chess. As well, the dungeons are randomly generated which means each time you go in, you have no idea what is in store for you. Finally, most roguelikes also force you to start all the way back down at level one each time you enter a dungeon, meaning that these games are generally amongst the hardest subgenre in the RPG world. Although the most successful roguelike in North America has been the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, even that hasn’t been that successful. For some reason, roguelikes just haven’t taken off in the States. Other titles that have made it to the US and have had mediocre sales and reviews include Chocobo’s Dungeon, Izuna 2, Adventures 2 Go, and Baroque. I have a feeling most of you reading this haven’t heard of these titles and fewer yet will have played them. Even on staff, this subgenre is pretty much only played by Mark B. and myself, both of whom adore them. I’m really hoping that Z.H.P. finds an audience because after finishing the first two chapters of this game, I can honestly say it’s almost as good as Azure Dreams, which nearly every fan of the genre considered to be best roguelike ever made. By the time I’m done beating this game, it just may have ended Azure Dream‘s 12 year reign as the best we’re ever seen from this style of RPG.
The key point here is the story itself. This game takes place in the near future in a fantastical city known as Tokyo. Darkdeath Evilman, the most powerful supervillain in all the world has kidnapped Super Baby, a child born on the 6th hour of the 6th day of the 6th month, who is prophesied to save the world and lead it into a new golden age. In order to stop Darkdeath Evilman, the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger has challenged him to a showdown. The fate of the entire world rests on the result of this ultimate battle where two undefeated beings will clash for the first and final time. Unfortunately the Unlosing Ranger is hit by a car on his way to the big fight and is killed since he didn’t have his super powers activated. Whoops.
A bigger whoops comes into play when the Unlosing Ranger’s dying act is to bequeath his powers and responsibility on to you, the main character…who is a scrawny nerd in a track suit. You get to name your character whatever you want. I named mine Lord Bravery. I wanted to go with Lord Smoked Meats & Fishes but there wasn’t enough room for that many characters. Thankfully no one has asked my protagonist for a muffin or a scone yet. Anyway, your protagonist goes into the final battle between good or evil…and is slaughtered like a cow in an abattoir. Evil wins. And that’s just the start of the game!
Milliseconds before you die, your character is whisked off to Bizzaro Earth (not to be confused with Bizzaro World from DC comics) which is a mirror of our world except instead of people it’s populated with dwarves, catfolk, mummy men, and the like. Here your character trains to be a true warrior and to properly carry out the name of the Absolute Victory Undying Ranger. Once trained you return to Earth only seconds after Darkdeath Evilman thought he had killed you to show humanity why one should never give up, even in the face of adversity. Then Darkdeath Evilman kills you again. This processes repeats until you are finally strong enough to defeat Evilman and save Super Baby from his clutches. Or you know, you might just keep dying forever or until Super Baby grows up into adulthood. I mean, I’m only two chapters in after all.
Each chapter involves going through a set of dungeons. Each dungeon could be a single level deep, while others could be multiple, or even dozens, of levels deep. Your goal is to complete each dungeon and gain experience and stat boots. Or to die and try again. Whichever works out best for you. There’s also a storyline goal for you to enter these dungeons besides training. For example in Chapter 1 you enter, “A Dungeon So Easy, Monkeys Could Beat It,” in order to save the life of Bizzaro Earth resident Jose Gaspacho because the real Earth version of Jose died of shock from how badly you were massacred by Darkdeath Evilman. The dungeon is actually two different dungeons of five levels each – the end of which involves a boss fight with a creepy Jack-In-The Box.
It’s important to note that like in most roguelikes, you have to worry about both health and hunger. Your hunger is designated by an energy meter in this game. When energy drops to 0, you start losing hit points with each action or step you take. As such, you’ll want to make sure you eat food that you find in dungeons along the way. Weapons and armour also deteriorate with use, so you’ll want to replace those frequently with new ones you find along your journey. You can either save worn items to be repaired at a blacksmith, chuck them at enemies for distance based damage or simply discard them. You can only carry ten items at a time, so you’ll have to decide what’s worth keeping and what is expendable.
Besides dungeons and the blacksmith that we’ve already covered, there’s also the general store where you can buy healing items. Food items can only be found in dungeons, which adds even more challenge to this game. You’ll also have options like visiting your home where your wife (who is a Prinny, dood) and your obnoxious daughter live or visiting a crazy doctor who will turn items you find in the dungeon into chips to give you bionic energy. For example a dagger can be turned into a chip that gives you a permanent +1 bonus to your speed and permanent additional bonuses each time you level up. These bonuses stick with you even after you leave a dungeon, and so your eventual base stats will rise beyond the piddling jobber your main character was actually meant to be.
It’s amazing how much customization there is in this game, and how hard it’s been for me to put this down. The plot is hilarious, the characters are adorable, and the gameplay is pretty intense. I noticed that money is exceedingly rare and everything is pretty expensive so you really work for everything you get. As well, the game is pretty unforgiving. Although I haven’t experienced this personally, the game does tell you that if you restart the game in the middle of a battle or you hit the power button to pause the game since you’re on a metro or getting tired or something, the game will remember that you did this ala Animal Crossing and consider you as having lost that battle/dungeon, forcing you to start over. Now this may be a little too much for some people, as this is a portable game after all, but as the game says, “There’s no pause/reset button in real life. Why should you get one here?” Ouch. I love it, but some gamers are going to blanch at this.
Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman comes out for the PSP in UMD and digital download on 10/26/2010. We’ll definitely have a full review of this title up before then here at Diehard GameFAN. Come check back and see if Z.H.P is as good at first impressions show it to be!