Replay Value: 8.8
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Number Of Players: 1
Yes, the full name of this game is “Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman,” but it’s just so much easier to type “ZHP.” Besides, the latter doesn’t give our database fits. Anyway, we continue the Nippon Ichi tradition of charming, self-deprecating stories and environments combined with amazingly deep gameplay and character advancement systems. That being said, we also have similar reservations due to the emphasis on grinding and a lack of plot refinement. In other words, if you’re at all familiar with NIS productions, you won’t be surprised in the slightest when you check out ZHP. However, the developers were smart enough to keep things fresh by implementing a few significant alternations to the standard SRPG formula, which keeps the “been there done that” feeling at bay. I mean, you’re looking at a strategy/RPG that actually doesn’t rely on in-game menus much…and that’s all sorts of fresh.
But before we get to that, the visuals: again, NIS fans – and indeed, fans of the genre in question – won’t be too surprised. They consist of bright colors and crazy character designs, and decent special effects during battles bolster the overall presentation. There’s nothing especially eye-popping about any of it, but it’s a clean, pleasing, mostly accomplished palette, especially for a handheld title. Plus, one of the cosmetic twists centers on the bizarre body parts characters can equip; they can range widely from various animal heads to tank treads on legs. This alone widens the scope and variety of the graphics; it infuses a wee bit of spice into the expected. I’m really not the biggest fan of some of the environments, though, as they felt a little too bland at times, and I wanted more in the way of freaky enemies. But I have to remember the cutesy nature of the game (and it’s not a bad thing), so I won’t harp on a subjective drawback.
As for the sound, you can probably guess. Melodramatic yet still lighthearted voiceovers, loopy sounds mixed in with the more serious and jarring impact battle effects, and a fitting soundtrack. The latter doesn’t come to the forefront nearly enough in my opinion and as usual, a few of the voices irked me, but these are hardly major concerns. I still think NIS could’ve done more with some of the bigger, crowd-pleasing character skills in terms of “oomph,” but perhaps it’s more of a portable production limitation. In the end, the effects, music and voices are all rolled up into a cohesive bundle, one that fans are sure to recognize and enjoy. You really can’t help but smile from the start, as the news commentary concerning the “Unlosing Ranger” introduces you to the strange quest. …and I’ll use that to transition to the gameplay.
So here’s the deal- Darkdeath Evilman has kidnapped the Super Baby, and only the Unlosing Ranger can stop him. To elaborate – ‘cuz you need the explanation – Darkdeath Evilman is some big monster from the netherworld who wants to destroy everything, the Super Baby is special for some reason, and the Unlosing Ranger is a random dude in a superhero suit. While on his way to thwart Darkdeath Evilman, the Unlosing Ranger is struck by a car and as he lies on the side of the road, he gives his cape to a passerby. That passerby is you, and now you must go face the ultimate terror of the universe. Think you have a chance…? Of course not. After a brief encounter, Darkdeath kills you and you end up on Bizarro Earth. See, Bizarro Earth sits directly behind the moon, so we don’t know it’s there. And that’s where you’ll start your training.
If you know NIS, you know this is actually standard fare. Sure, it’s silly and designed to make you smile and laugh but beneath that simplistic, even childish, surface is a gameplay mechanic that demands your attention. Basically, ZHP is a dungeon crawler that consists of various missions, a central hub to repair and purchase equipment, and a relatively unique battle setup. The game is turn-based but here’s where we hit the biggest twist: you and your chosen foe will move at the same time, but only if you’ve been noticed by that enemy (and other enemies). You’ve got your standard board-like setup for an SRPG, and you move one space at a time but you can keep moving and acting, provided you have the energy to do so. Each enemy has what looks like a radar ring around it; if you break that ring, the enemy will come after you, at which point, it’ll move whenever you move. If anyone is old enough and wants to think back, this is similar to Vandal Hearts II.
All you really need to do is keep an eye on your energy level, where your allies and enemies are, and the state of your equipment, which will deteriorate over time. This means that if your armor is sort of busted up, you’ll take more damage; if your weapon is blunt or on the verge of breaking, you won’t inflict as much damage. When you first start a particular battle, you’ll want to form a plan of strategy in your head and when the game gets tougher – the difficulty kicks up after a few hours – you’ll have to start teaming up with allies to take down annoying foes. Also, don’t forget that you have to satisfy multiple criteria when setting out to execute a special ability: you need the requisite amount of energy, the target needs to be in range, and you have to have room to “finish.” In other words, if you have a special dash move, your character will end up two spaces beyond the enemy; if those two spaces don’t exist, you can’t execute the attack.
Dungeons are randomly generated and you’ll stumble across all sorts of new weapons and equipment. Oh, and anything you pick up while running around during combat can be equipped, used and/or thrown. This adds another dimension to the depth, because you’re looking around to see if you should make a dash for a particularly powerful weapon, or if such a dash would be suicidal. It’s all quite intricate, which is to be expected. Outside of battle, you prepare as you normally would in other SRPGs but this time, there’s the equipping of alternate body parts I alluded to earlier. It’s not just about making your character look cooler; many of them have uses on the battlefield and because the dungeons are randomly generated, you just never know which ones you might need… I actually found that a little frustrating, to be honest. I sort of like to know what I’m getting myself into, you know?
But anyway, as you can see, there’s just so much to think about. "Oh look, I can dual wield…oh wait…wow, that drains a lot more energy.” You’ll be learning new tricks for quite some time, and that’s probably the game’s biggest downfall; the learning curve is pretty steep. Also, that difficulty kind of spikes really soon and if you’re not ready for it, you’ll feel somewhat overwhelmed. Then there’s the constant grinding that I usually don’t mind but in the case of ZHP, it often felt like more of a chore, despite the new gameplay tweaks and alterations. As for the story, I never really got into it but then again, that’s the downfall of implementing such a crazy deep gameplay mechanic; you’re almost guaranteed to lose interest in the plot and characters, as you spend most of your time gaining power. In this way, the game suffers from many of the same flaws other SRPGs suffer from, which may or may not be an issue.
I say “may or may not” because once again, they’re going after the niche SRPG fan crowd; that small demographic that really appreciates such productions. They love the grinding; they love the kooky nature; they love the charming appeal; they love the insane depth; they love the strategy and micromanagement, and they love the length. There’s no doubt you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck with this one, but again, it has to be your cup of tea. If you’re one of those people who Transmigrated a bunch of times in Disgaea and are perfectly willing to drop 100 hours into any SRPG, you should be all over this one. If not…well, what can I say? If there’s one thing NIS does extremely well, it understands its fans and their desires, and they show little or zero interest in widening their net. …and you know, the fans who adore them hope it stays that way.
The Good: Nice twists on the standard SRPG formula. Pleasant, often comical presentation. Huge amount of gameplay and replayability. Multiple dimensions of strategy offered by insane depth. NIS’ appreciation for loyal followers shines through.
The Bad: Grinding gets more tedious than usual. Difficulty spikes too early. Story sort of fades out over time (due to need for constant grinding).
The Ugly: If you’re not into this sort of thing, there’s almost no chance you’ll enjoy it.