This is the beginning of a long, long battle. How long? About the length of a whole game. Like, probably as long as 2 seasons of an anime.
Ready to grinding?
I often make seemingly contradictory statements when regarding RPGs:
These assertions sound like combative claims at first, but they are actually dealing with two entirely different sub-genres of RPGs. The first account applies to more of the adventure RPG like, oh I don't know, main series Final Fantasy (will I or will I not get shit for this?), where as the second draws further wind from the positives of the roguelike genre. I don't know of many people who would declare roguelikes to be their preferred RPG type, and it's not a great mental stretch to see why--they take time; instant gratification is non-existent. Endless customization is addicting. When you die, you die. Some people, like myself, have that precise OCD tick that doesn't allow the game to be put down until the last save is the most flawless that it could possibly be at that particular juncture. On the flip side, roguelikes tend to have much shorter main storylines than a more narrative focused RPG that the player can rush through if they so choose. This is what differentiates my two original statements from each other. Don't get me wrong, though, Z.H.P. does tell a tale, and a relatively focused and humorous one at that.
Normally I wouldn't recommend a roguelike to everyone who loves RPGs, because there are way too many specific perplexities that could turn more casual RPG fans away. Yet, in the case of Z.H.P., Nippon Ichi has delivered a title that pulls you in without creating a social-life losing habit while also containing some of the better voice-acting, scriptwriting and even graphical dexterity to be executed by the company since its formation.
Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman (PSP)
I guess I might as well get the central plot information out of the way before I move on to more technical analysis, because the humor within this title is something that resonated with me from the start. The game opens at the finale, so to speak, with the "last boss", Darkdeath Evilman, attempting to destroy the world's future hope for peace and salvation: Super Baby. The thing is, no one in the vicinity is really all that worried because whenever a threatening situation like this arises, the supposed invincible Unlosing Ranger dashes in to save the day. Only this time, something goes terribly array: the hero's mortality is proven as he is struck by a car on the way to battle Darkdeath Evilman (none of this is spoiler material, as it's all in the opening scenes before the player even gains control).
As the Unlosing Ranger begins to cross over into the afterlife light, a bystander (You) happens to appear before the dying (soon-to-be former) protagonist; with his last breath, the Unlosing Ranger bequeaths his powers to what is now the Main Character. Then, minutes later, you die trying to fight the final boss with zero experience. The journey of the game takes place in Bizarro Earth, a screwed up mirror-image of the real world, where you train, train, train and do some more training as your stats build up enough to take on Darkdeath Evilman and save Super Baby. Basic stuff, right? The appeal of this game is that it draws heavily upon RPG cliches, while not beating them to death with low-brow humor. The writers knew what they were doing. One of my favorite scenes early on is when the dead Unlosing Ranger (complete with halo) tells your character not to lesser himself by using a tank power-up to roll over some spikes: "A true hero must never resort to hideous tank tracks!" Something like that.
What Nippon Ichi does with Z.H.P. that works so well on a gameplay level is that they blanket the often-unattractive characteristics of a roguelike with the time-tested surface value of a tactical RPG. Subtract the mass party-building sections of something like Disgaea, add a more rapid-paced movement scheme instead of the turn-by-turn format as well as disable a huge continuing inventory and constant visual confirmation from leveling and the amalgamation of all this is Zettai Hero Project's base of operations. Now, that last bit may sound a bit confusing so let me clarify. As your train in the countless dungeons, you do gain levels, rather quickly as a matter of fact, but as soon as the player is transported back to the hub location your character's level is reduced to 1. Fear not, because even though the screen clearly shows a meager 1, the combination of your training sessions equates to a single overall level. The obvious downside to this is that sometimes it may not feel as if you're making a whole lot of progress, but trust me, it shows in the damage totals.
Some roguelikes implement forced mechanics like in-battle time limits to keep players on their toes, and Z.H.P. is no exception. While the game doesn't use literal time restraints, during dungeon-crawlings the player must keep track of not only their HP bar but an energy (EN) bar as well ("Even a hero can't fight on an empty stomach!") Yes, you have to feed your character, and in some of the longer dungeons this can get burdensome. Thankfully, if you treat your hub-world waifu well (allocate money every so often) you can call upon her (she's actually a Prinny) to deliver you replenishing lunchboxes on the battlefield--huzzah!
Similar to the EN bar is the condition (COND) percentage tally on each and every weapon you pick up; the more you use it, the lower the COND is and the further the attack and defense stats drop. You can switch weapons on the fly, even holding two completely different weapons in each hand, weight permitting, without losing a turn (but everything else counts as a turn), and when a weapon is down to 0% COND two options open up: toss the weapon at an enemy for some damage, or summon the blacksmith from the hub to restore some functionality. I really appreciated this feature, as there are plenty of item/equipment drops and I never felt like I was going to die because of a lack of a decent weapon.
Even though it may not seem like it because of their ability to be tossed away at any point in time, items and equipment are a big part of this game. Any time you swap out a piece of armor or weapon, it appears on your character's sprite, even in the cutscenes. Taking a page out of the Disgaea playbook, the picking up of these items (and small-enough enemies as well) is an inaugural part of battle and sometimes the key to a difficult victory. Even though Z.H.P. has a lot of original gameplay content, it does come off as borrowing a bit too much from the Disgaea repertoire: the dungeons transpire like that of the previous mentioned title's Item Worlds, enemies have that patented field-of-attack/vision surrounding them (though in this case, when you step into it they follow you around until one of you is knocked out) and barrier traps can be set up to launch elemental attacks much like the way Geo Panels performed.
Due to the randomized dungeon structure, grinding is inevitable. Yet, there's something about being reduced to level 1 post-chapter that propelled me to never want to put the game down unless things were legit perfection. Like I said earlier, when you're in each dungeon, you do gain levels at a good pace, but once your overall base level starts getting up there, the levels you progressed in the dungeon start to have little effect on raising on your full-scale base stats. It's kind of weird conundrum, and one that will most likely turn a good deal of prospective players away. The roguelike qualities, without a doubt, do outweigh the tactical ones in Z.H.P., so if that's going to be a deterrent for you, take note here and now. Once you get in the flow of everything, though, this is an arduous title to walk away from. The spot-on, even when it's cheesy, comedy points in the script as well as the VA work (much of an improvement over past NISA dubs) should help to minimize the stress brought on by the heft of grinding.
For all it's trope demonstrations, Zettai Hero Project is a worthy effort from Nippon Ichi and a game that I believe, over time, will stand up against the likes of Disgaea, Phantom Brave and La Pucelle. Not only that, but it's a standout example of how to make the roguelike genre more accessible to skeptics.
Score: 8 – Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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