While the iPhone is rarely considered a true gaming platform by a glut of the gamer populace, it's actually home to quite a few substantial successes that wouldn't be out of place on the more "accepted" handhelds. Amongst ports of classic FPS titles, addictive puzzlers, and handy applications, the App Store is home to several fantastic RPGs, namely a particularly intriguing one entitled Zenonia.
After the months of hype surrounding the mobile mogul after the 2009 Game Developers' Conference, hardcore RPG fans were forced to reconsider their stance on viewing the iPhone and iPod Touch as viable gaming platforms, especially since they seemed to have suddenly become home to one of the most complex and demanding mobile RPGs available for purchase. Zenonia has it all: the standard RPG conventions that many of us are undoubtedly accustomed to by now, a fantastical tale, and plenty of depth to blow those looking for a casual role-playing journey out of the water. Unfortunately, while Zenonia triumphs in that respect, it also falters, pushing away laymen gamers just looking for an enjoyable ride. It most certainly caters to those of ready for a challenge, as well as an invitation to reminisce about those golden days of 16-bit action.
Strap into the boots (and tunic) of a mysterious main character who, like the majority of role-playing protagonists, has somehow lost his memory. Sandwiched in the middle of a war between the Holy Knights and the Dragon Clan, this young man (sorrowfully named Regret) mourns the sudden loss of his father in a bout that he can't recall quite so clearly. But one thing is certain: a demon was responsible for the death of this lone adventurer's father. This intriguing tale, chronicling Regrets adventure as he uncovers more than just the scum responsible for his father's death, unfolds via multiple scripted cutscenes, pages of dialogue, and interaction between sprightly and colorful characters.
Strictly speaking, Zenonia doesn't revolutionize the genre or anything. It doesn't offer anything new and exciting, which is what we all seem to clamor for these days. But what it sets out to do, it does extremely well. As expected, you'll need to travel throughout a sprawling in-game world, fight battles, grind for levels, and collect cash to trade for new equipment and items, all in order to complete one main storyline. However, while all of this can be rolled up within the camp of prerequisition, there are a few caveats to the traditional "grinding for gold/goal" ideal.
First, Regret must stop to eat occasionally, ensuring that he does not go hungry. Second, unlike most Japanese or similarly Eastern RPGs where you can bash the bejeezus out of enemies until you're blue in the face, Zenonia's weapons will crumble to pieces. The degradation of weapons and items necessitates extra time and gold to compensate for repairs, meaning you'll be spending far more time than necessary collecting extra cash and items to outfit yourself properly. This could be seen as a sneaky way to eke as many hours out of the game as possible, but plays to the tune of strategy and is an appreciable attempt to further personify Regret as a living, breathing person. He must eat and his equipment must be maintained. Even though nothing else in Zenonia is exactly realistic, at least it's grounded in those two conventions.
Although the required maintenance of sustenance and weapons is a page taken from the books of games such as Diablo or the droves of many fine RPGs from the heyday of role playing, it's also a substantial wall between casual players and the more hardcore. Gamers who typically look to the iPhone for their casual gaming fix will be turned off by the apparent lack of simplicity, made even more complicated by the skill trees and skill point assignment system that could be likened to that of World of Warcraft or similar games. When you master enough abilities you can map them to a bar on the bottom of the screen for easy access. While this facilitates your usage of different abilities, it also serves to keep combat interesting rather than the typical button mashing you'd see in similar titles.
Completing Zenonia requires that you complete several quests, including ones that differ from night to day. You can collect up to five quests to be completed at once, but it's prudent to remember that you must leave time to repair and replenish, so taking on more than one quest at a time is a bit futile unless you want to grind to beat the band. And grinding is what you will be doing. A lot. So much, in fact, that it often feels more like a chore. But that's to be said for any RPG, I suppose, and if that's one aspect you can't stand about the genre, Zenonia won't be a good choice for you.
I can certainly appreciate the rest of what Zenonia does well, but its control scheme seems a bit archaic. For instance, you cannot travel diagonally via the on-screen digital pad. Traveling in straight lines is quite restrictive and quickly became an extreme annoyance to me. At the very least, the buttons and D-pad are responsive, which is what I was most concerned with in the first place. To combat this strange design decision, when you move to attack a monster, Regret will automatically turn to face the foe. This is more useful than you might believe, and after dealing with the D-pad for more than half the length of the game, it will become your saving grace.
Zenonia looks absolutely brilliant as a throwback to the classic 16-bit graphics we all remember and love. It could work fantastically as a DS port and it wouldn't have been out of place on the Super Nintendo. That charm is comforting as you work your way through richly detailed and vibrant worlds, annotated by short, catchy, looped melodies. Anime character portraits accompany dialogue, but there is no voice acting. It would have been interesting had some lines of text, particularly the long introduction, been voiced, but I suppose that's asking a bit much of the devs.
At 40+ hours, Zenonia provides excellent value for the low asking price of $5.99. Taking into account that there are three character classes, as well as a good/evil alignment mechanic, subsequent playthroughs should provide even more fresh entertainment should you choose to take the plunge more than once. As a traditional RPG, it provides a clean, interesting, and hardcore experience not meant for those who pick up and put down their iPhone or iPod Touch after some rounds of Bejeweled or puzzle/pet games. Small control caveats and excessive level grinding prevent me from calling it a perfectly-executed success, but it's certainly a formidable adventure for the price - especially if you long to relive those long nights hunched over your SNES in front of the TV... at least, until we get some ports of Earthbound on the iPhone.