Some filmmakers have a formula that you can always count on them to follow. I love Tim Burton, but I know exactly what I’m getting into every time I see one of his movies. On the flip side of the coin, there’s M. Night Shyamalan, whose adherence to the “what a twist” film has essentially killed his career. Writers are no different: fantasy author David Eddings is so formulaic that it is almost literally true that if you’ve read one of his books, you’ve read them all (and yet, I love so many of them). More importantly to this site, game developers do the same. After playing and enjoying the Disgaea series (some games on multiple platforms), and then playing (but not enjoying) Phantom Brave on PSP, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for me with any game by NIS, and that’s the attitude with which I approached Zettai Hero Project: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman (ZHP). As I learned, though, it can be dangerous to go into a game thinking you know exactly what to expect – you just might get surprised.
In fact, ZHP is such an unusual game that it begins with the battle between the hero and the final boss. Unfortunately, as the story begins, only Darkdeath Evilman has shown up for the fight. His opponent, the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger, is nowhere to be seen. There is a good reason for the Unlosing Ranger’s tardiness, though. Well, sort of. As he walked to the battle, he neglected to pay attention to traffic and was run over. OK, that’s not really such a good reason, but he is not completely irresponsible – as he lay dying in the gutter, he passed the torch to a worthy soul. A 15 year-old boy who happened to be walking past. Wow. Things aren’t looking so good for the Earth.
Of course, the brand new Unlosing Ranger completely fails to live up to his name, losing his first fight (against the final boss) in just a few turns. And when he loses, Darkdeath Evilman is so disgusted by the weakness of this supposed “hero” that he flings the vanquished Unlosing Ranger into space. The good news is that space is exactly where the Unlosing Ranger needs to go. As it turns out, there is another planet called Bizarro Earth located exactly on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, and Bizarro Earth is where heroes go to train and improve their skills.
Bizarro Earth is also home to regular folks who may look like monsters, but who are in fact alternate versions of people on Earth. Although their lives don’t line up exactly, a person’s experiences in one world affect their alternate on the other. In each chapter of the game, the Unlosing Ranger must find a way to help individuals on Bizarro Earth to better themselves. This helps their counterparts back on Earth improve themselves, earns the Unlosing Ranger a new special attack, and makes him better prepared for a rematch with Darkdeath Evilman.
ZHP’s story is certainly unusual, but it is also very engaging. The dialogue is well-written, and although the characters initially appear to be very one-dimensional, they grow and reveal a lot more about themselves by the game’s end. I was surprised by some of the plot twists, amused by plenty of the jokes, and genuinely moved by some of the problems the Unlosing Ranger helps to solve. This story feels true to the NIS formula that I’ve seen at work in the Disgaea games, but ZHP is more mature than that series without losing its sense of humor.
On the subject of humor, I do have one story complaint. The jokey cut-scenes that come at the end of each chapter are sometimes funny, but the characters revert back to prologue-level maturity even at the end of the game. For example, your mentor gives good advice during the regular action, but terrible advice during these cut-scenes. I’ve seen similar silly “next time on our show” bits at the end of episodes in anime series and even other NIS games, so it’s not unprecedented by any means, but it doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the game.
The humor and story aren’t the only elements that mark ZHP as a game from NIS: its graphical style is instantly recognizable as well. The characters are all 2D sprites on a 3D map, with an isometric camera overhead. The camera can be rotated at 90 degree increments, and I never ran into a case where that wasn’t enough precision. The character sprites are very expressive, and as long as you’re not turned off by the pixelated style, they’re great. Equipment shows up on your character, and some of the combinations look awesome, while others look hilarious.
Likewise, the sound elements are clearly a product of NIS, and I mean that as a compliment. Except for one track that drew my finger magnetically toward the mute button, I enjoyed the music. It’s energetic, but not overwhelmingly so, and it provides a good background for the action. Enemies don’t say much, but they all have their own unique death cries (the cacti say “I’m drying up!”), several of which brought a chuckle from me every time I heard them. Most importantly to me, though, the voice work is really good – the mentor’s voice actor did a particularly nice job. The default volume levels are a little wonky, so voices are difficult to hear over the background music, but a quick trip to the options menu is all that’s needed to resolve that issue.
ZHP’s gameplay is where it breaks from the norm. Some elements are familiar, some are unusual, and they all add up to a game that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever played (from NIS or anyone else). As mentioned above, the game starts with a fight against the final boss. A fight you’re guaranteed to lose. In fact, you’ll return to fight that same final boss at the end of all ten chapters, and in your first playthrough, you don’t have a chance against him until chapter 10. (New Game Plus, of course, changes everything.) These battles are unlike anything else in the game, and they play out like a standard, albeit simplified, classic JRPG battle. They are essentially cut-scenes with interactive elements.
After each of the poundings Darkdeath Evilman gives the Unlosing Ranger, he returns to Bizarro Earth for another training dungeon. You have a home base there with a number of facilities that you choose as desired, all of which have an unlocking requirement. Some are unlocked over the course of the game, like the Blacksmith, for whom you have merely to complete the (mandatory) initial tutorials. For others, you have to accomplish certain goals. The facilities that you can unlock vary greatly, and you have six slots to put them in, so the level of customization for your home base is great. Admittedly, several of the facilities only appeal for a few minutes at a time as needed, or to players with a specific style, but there are enough good choices to fill all of the slots and then some.
After preparing at your home base, you enter a dungeon to fight monsters and fulfill your mission for the chapter. The dungeons are turn-based in traditional roguelike fashion. Every square you move or action you take is a turn, and your enemies all take one turn for each of yours. They each have a specific range of sight displayed on the ground at their feet, and they only come after you if you step into that range. When they die, if their sight range overlaps with that of another enemy, their death cry alerts that enemy to your presence. As long as you pay attention to your enemies, you won’t get overwhelmed, but careless play can put you into a sticky spot.
Over time, as you move and act, your energy meter drops. As long as you have energy, you gain back some HP every turn. Run out of energy, and you lose some HP every turn. You can restore HP using items purchased in town, but you can only replenish your energy stores by eating items you find in the dungeons. All of the story missions are either 5 or 10 levels deep, although there are optional dungeons where you can grind for levels or equipment that are much, much deeper. There was never an occasion in the story dungeons where I ran out of both energy and food, but there were a few times that I would have if I hadn’t planned ahead. The optional dungeons are another matter entirely – you can set an exit point before you go in, and the risk/reward ratio on where you choose to set it is great. Set it too early, and you miss out on getting some good loot drops. Set it too late, and you may find yourself running for the exit with zero energy, hoping to make it before you run out of HP and die.
The good news is that when you die, it’s not the end of the world. You keep any XP you had earned before dying, but you lose any money, items, and equipment you had on you. Equipment drops frequently, and wears out with use (some with alarming speed), so I never got too attached to any one specific piece. Fortunately, worn-out equipment doesn’t disappear, so if something you love gets ruined, you can repair it once you get back to base. You may have noticed that I said “when you die” rather than “if you die,” because death is likely in ZHP. Some of those deaths are avoidable and come due to rushing blindly ahead, but others are the fault of surprising boss battle difficulty spikes. I died less than 10 times in my first playthrough, but four of my deaths were due to bosses who felt out of sync with the difficulty of their dungeons (one of the four was an optional boss, so I really only have myself to blame in that case). A little grinding and better planning with my equipment took care of the problem in every case, so it wasn’t a major issue, but it did frustrate me a bit at the time of my death.
There’s plenty more to do in the game – I haven’t even touched on the ways you can customize your character to max stat growth as you level up – but those things are best left to a game guide. The tutorials do a great job of introducing the essential concepts of the game, but there is a lot of depth available if you want to dive beyond what the tutorials offer. Sadly, you’re going to have to find an FAQ online if you want to get the most out of the game, because the in-game help lacks a lot of the details you need on the hardcore functionality. This is a minor issue, though, as you can get plenty of bang for your gaming buck out of just what you can figure out for yourself.
ZHP controls quite well. It’s intuitive to the point that even in the beginning, I didn’t really need the game to tell me what to do. The only exceptions were a few specific in-dungeon items that can be lifted and used in different ways than everything else in the game, such as the RC car controller. The game offers no explanation of this item; you just find it laying on the ground in dungeons and see that it’s not an inventory-style item. Thanks to the internet, I learned that if you lift it and press the right buttons, an RC car appears, and you can drive it around the dungeon to scout ahead without putting yourself in danger. There are only a few of these items, and you can certainly live without them, but they were definitely perplexing when I came across them.
ZHP is a great example of the cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Its clear NIS-ness made me think that I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started playing. Despite some similarities, this is not a Disgaea game, nor is it Phantom Brave. It is a unique beast and a great one. The mature storyline featuring well-written character arcs, the deep and engaging gameplay, and the overall high quality in every aspect are all reasons that I can easily recommend this game to any gamer interested in turn-based PSP fun.