I’ve played many games that suffer from an identity crisis, but I can still usually feel what they’re going for. It is rare that I get my hands on a game with truly baffling design, but that is what I have here with Utawarerumono: ZAN. This is a game so at odds with itself I’m not sure who it is really for outside of its existing fans. While it’s not all bad, I don’t have many good things to say.
Developed by Tamsoft and published by NIS America, Utawarerumono: ZAN will be released on September 10th in North America for the PlayStation 4.
It’s A Mystery
Like many Japanese games, I expect story first and gameplay second. I don’t necessarily expect that story to be good, but I do anticipate the story to take center stage. In the case of Utawarerumono: ZAN, which I’m just going to call ZAN from here on out, I’m not even sure there was a story at all. I might be exaggerating, but I can’t even begin to tell you what happens in this game.
The story is told through very basic and vague narration combined with very lengthy dialogue sequences. There are entire chapters of this game where no gameplay happens at all. In fact, I would argue in the five or six hours of ZAN about 60% of it is just characters talking at you, and yet I still don’t understand what happened. The problem is that each chapter seems to be narratively separate from the one before it. It’s almost like a series of vignettes that are somehow tied together, but those ties are never explored.
It seems to me this game is heavily relying on the player already being familiar with the world, which is often fine, but the lack of explanation for anything left me exasperated almost immediately. From what I could pick out, however, it doesn’t seem like better storytelling would have mattered. When ZAN opened by informing me our protagonist was an amnesiac I almost laughed. There is nothing more generic than a JRPG (though I use that term lightly) protagonist who can’t remember their past.
Straight Outta 2003
I called ZAN a JRPG but I don’t think that’s really an accurate label. It is mostly a visual novel with occasional bursts of Dynasty Warriors-esque action combat. This is the tip of the iceberg in regards to ZAN’s identity crisis. It spends most of its mercifully brief runtime forcing you to read dialogue that has almost nothing important to say. It tries to break that up with action, beat-’em-up gameplay that tries to pack in more depth than it has any right to.
I do applaud the effort to add a degree of RPG customization to the 12 playable characters in ZAN, but the game forces you to go out of your way to really appreciate it. With a leveling system, customizable abilities, and outfits to unlock, I was interested to see how all of this would affect my experience as I played through the story. What I found, however, was due to ZAN’s brevity, you are asked to do bonus missions separate from the story to even come close to unlocking everything.
After all is said and done, the worst sin ZAN commits is it’s just boring. Lengthy, irrelevant dialogue aside every fight in the game can be solved by simply mashing square until everything is dead. It was incredibly easy and, because of that, gives no reason for its players to bother with all the customization.
The dullest part of ZAN is certainly its presentation. There just isn’t much here to see. Graphically the game looks like a late PS2, early PS3 game. Graphics certainly aren’t the end-all but part of the fun of Japanese games is watching all the crazy effects and cinematics they come up with. Unfortunately, until the last 30 minutes of ZAN, there are no cinematics or cutscenes to speak of.
This caused a handful of moments that had me laughing out loud. Since all dialogue sequences are just a mostly still rendering of the speaking character with a speech box underneath, we never see what’s happening in a scene. Often the characters appear to be standing there describing events to the player, which is frankly silly. I could understand this for a budget title, but this is a full retail release with the price tag to match. I normally don’t like to factor price into my critiques, but I just couldn’t ignore it here.
Who Is It For?
I really don’t know who this game is for, aside from already devoted fans of the franchise. I’m sure there are plenty of Utawarerumono fans out there, but this game didn’t seem to make any attempt at pulling in new ones. Existing fans may enjoy this, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m trashing something they like, but I really can’t see any newcomers finding entertainment here.
Review copy provided by NIS America for PS4. Screenshots provided by reviewer.