Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
"...what the hell is this?" isn't my typical gut reaction when I'm handed a game to review. Katamari Damacy could have pulled it off, but most game titles relay a slight hint of the content therein. In this regard, and many others, Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman clearly wasn't concerned with standing in the same line as everyone else. For the last few years this has pretty much been NIS' modus operandi; disregard the norm and publish an increasingly ridiculous series of budget-minded, off the wall titles. Disgaea, Prinny: Can I Really Be The Hero?, and Cladun: This is an RPG have exemplified this school of thought for strategy RPGs, 2D platformers, and 16-bit dungeon hacks respectively, and ZHP looks to do the same for (perhaps) the most love/hate RPG sub-genre ever, roguelikes.
As one might expect from the Disgaea team, the game runs by screaming and throws a giant pie in your face before getting down the business. ZHP opens with tragedy; Darkdeath Evilman has kidnapped the world's savior, a baby named Super Baby, and is holding him hostage for no purpose other than to lure the Unlosing Ranger into battle. Unlosing Ranger's mother, however, didn't wake him up on time, which puts him in quite a rush to get to the battle. You know how you forget things sometimes when you're in a hurry? Unlosing Ranger forgot to look out for a car, which runs him over. Dying at your feet, the Unlosing Ranger begs you to don his outfit and engage Darkdeath Evilman in battle. The game then drops into an 8-bit RPG battle screen and you're swiftly obliterated.
Thanks to the World Hero Society, you then respawn at Bizarro Earth, and at that point ZHP kind of settles down. You're introduced to Etranger, who shows you the ropes of coming through Bizarro Earth's landscapes. This, primarily, is where the roguelike allusions come into play. While not adhering completely to its chosen genre's trappings, Z.H.P. is most definitely a member of its repertoire.
Dungeon crawling is where you'll spend most of your active playtime. Randomly generated with multiple floors, your ultimate goal is to clear every floor to find the exit, sometimes under the guise of rescuing someone you accidently murdered on Earth-proper. Movement over the gridded layout is governed by your EN gauge, which measures your fullness and restores your HP as you walk. For every step you take you become less full and, if your EN completely empties, your HP begins to deplete. HP also depletes, obviously, when you engage in battle with an enemy. Enemy movement and actions are also tied to your movement, meaning they only move and act in accordance with each step you take. Enemies also have a limited viewing range, meaning they won't be able to see you if you stay out of it. While combat is a quick way to level up, you usually (especially early on) just don't have the EN or items necessary to fight everyone.
Leveling up is also rather unconventional. If you complete a dungeon, your level is immediately reset back to one before the next dungeon begins. Before you get your pitchforks ready, know that your Total Level, which is tied to your base stats, gets a boost upon dungeon completion. You even get a boost to your stats if you die and get kicked out of the dungeon, which lessens the corresponding penalty of losing all your items and money, as well as developing a "fear" against whatever killed you. Other factors, like swappable body parts and customizable chips inside those body parts, also add to your Total Level. Leveling doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and, even after playing for a dozen hours, it still isn’t all that clear, but it sort of works itself out. It’s like when you’re a kid and you have no idea what’s going on but your mom or dad just says, “look, don’t worry about it.” Anyway, the all consuming goal here is to power up enough to return to Earth, soundly defeat Darkdeath Evilman in battle, and allow the Super Baby to save the universe.
Items act as a means to augment the dungeon crawling experience. Food can be collected and eaten to replenish EN along with normal healing items for HP. Equipment's all over the place, either arriving as a spontaneous award or found on the field. An items condition worsens with use, up until the point where it breaks. Broken items can be thrown or kept and repaired at the blacksmith back at Bizarro Earth hub. Other items, such as tank treads to help you cross spikes, can be equipped to their respective body parts, allowing you to overcome dungeon specific challenges in a manner that makes zero actual sense. Facility perks, an in-dungeon option that grants you a blacksmith or your life with a well timed lunch box, is also a nice option.
Despite already burning several hundred words attempting to describe ZHP, much of its charm and depth still lies firmly beneath the surface. The game never really stops adding layer upon layer to its systems, offering a wealth of customization on top of its randomized nature. It's a game perfect for people who crave depth on the scale of Disgaea on endless minutia to plumb and exploit to their utmost desire, but it all comes at the cost of accessibility. Though it offers plenty of tutorials and explanation ZHP is not a friendly experience to genre outsiders. It tries, but its content, by its very nature, is incredibly esoteric and highly specialized. The immense penalties inflicted by the failure to complete risks can be incredibly demoralizing, and, personally, isn't an experience I found gratifying, even with success. I understand that roguelikes are a niche title with a built in audience, but I learned above all else that I am not that audience. I recognize said audience exists, and ZHP might be perfect for the dedicated few, but in general the depth of its mechanics severely limit its broad appeal (or lack thereof).
ZHP does to its best to increase its accessibility through its delightful presentation. If it's not yet abundantly clear, ZHP broadcasts a relentlessly whimsical humor through every outlet. Your main character’s default name is Main Character. Some of the dialogue options include are wildly self referential, while others break down the fourth wall with a giant sledgehammer. Characters are also delightfully absurd, from the wacky Bizarro Earth citizens you need to rescue to our "wife" at your house (a Prinny!). Low-res sprites are kind of disappointing, but vibrant environments, inspired locals, and good writing ease the blow of an otherwise budget-conscious presentation.
Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
For me, Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman was a lot like going to see the Nutcracker. It's not my thing, and I probably won't be going back, but I can see how and why others might be enchanted by its wild absurdity. The nature of rougelikes limits their appeal to an incredibly small niche, and said patrons will have no trouble gravitating toward a game as confident in its systems as ZHP. It packs in a metric ton of content on top of immense customization options so far down the rabbit hole you might never make it back. In other words, everything we expected from the Disgaea team.