What happens when you give the developers of SENRAN KAGURA a chance to play with the characters from one of AQUAPLUS’ most beloved visual novels? You get the frantic four-player action of Utawarerumono ZAN, that’s what!
It’s not every day that a classic visual novel sees new life. However, Utawarerumono is one of those rare examples. Its recent release in the West seems to have sparked AQUAPLUS’ interest in developing a new title. Though, Utawarerumono ZAN being a new project in this franchise isn’t the only exceptional thing here.
What makes this doubly interesting is the shift from VN to a 3D beat ‘em up. Add in the fact that SENRAN KAGURA developer Tamsoft are the ones behind this effort and Utawarerumono ZAN has the potential to be a very unique experience. Does it take advantage of that potential, however? At NIS America’s invitation, I stopped by their offices to find out. Though, let’s begin with going over a bit of Utawarerumono’s history.
“The One of Whom Legends Are Sung”
Utawarerumono was originally an 18+ visual novel/strategy RPG developed under AQUAPLUS’ Leaf brand and released in Japan in 2002. The game then received an all-ages port (meaning the 18+ elements were removed or reworked) for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Fast-forward about ten years where two new games, Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth were released on the PS Vita, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Of course, this was all happening in Japan. In the West, people knew of Utawarerumono only through a fan-translation of the first game. At least until 2017.
In April of 2017, Atlus localized and released Mask of Deception for the PS Vita and PlayStation 4. The PlayStation 3 version wasn’t localized due to it being a legacy system by this point in the West. Later that year in September, Mask of Truth was released for the same systems. Not a bad turn-around all things considered. And critically the games seemed to have been well-received. Certainly, enough for NIS America to notice.
Enter NIS America; Cultivator of Niche Games
Now, NIS America has always been known for developing properties. You can look at things like the Neptunia, Atelier, or Danganronpa franchises for examples of series that got their start in the West there. However, during the last few years, NIS America has been bringing established franchises into their portfolio and Utawarerumono is one such franchise. Particularly with two games coming out.
There is, of course, Utawarerumono ZAN which we’ll be delving into and the upcoming Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen. This is a remake of the 2006 Utawarerumono all-ages port that was made for the PlayStation 2. So, as of next year, the entire franchise (games-wise) will have been localized for Western audiences; which is a good thing. Sure, it only took 18-years but at least we finally have the entire Utawarerumono tale. Though, what exactly is that tale? Let’s talk about that next.
A Story All About How Haku’s Life Got Flipped and Turned Upside-Down
The overall story of Utawarerumono centers around a man named Haku. Haku is found outside a village with life-threatening injuries and is nursed back to health by the village herbalist. Haku though has two problems. One is that he has no memories of his life before the village. The second is that he’s stuck wearing a mask that he cannot remove. However, Haku is thankful to the villagers and seems to adjust to his new life. …Then bad things start happening.
When his peaceful life and the safety of those who cared for him are threatened, Haku decides not to take this sitting down. And it’s here where we can start to talk about Utawarerumono ZAN itself.
Utawarerumono ZAN is an abridged retelling of Mask of Deception’s plot. On one hand, people who know Mask of Deception’s story will probably get the most out of this. However, it could also be used as a jumping-on point to get people interested in the franchise. If you want the full story, then you can go play Mask of Deception or pick up Prelude to the Fallen. The biggest change though is that we go from a strategy RPG to an action game. So, let’s delve into how the game works next.
The Hyper-Battle of Bursting… Birds?
As I mentioned, Utawarerumono ZAN is being developed by Tamsoft. Tamsoft is best known as the developer of SENRAN KAGURA, but they’ve also worked on MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune VS Zombies. And ZAN is best described as a fusion of these two games. The combat feels more akin to SENRAN KAGURA and the few stages I played flowed very much like those games. On the Blanc side, there is an option for 4-player co-operative gameplay; which we’ll cover in a bit. For now, let’s focus on the single-player affair.
Each mission will give you a few characters to use. The two stages I played gave me four characters to start, but there was a section where I was limited to just two for storyline purposes. You’ll be able to switch between your available characters freely and they’ll all be on the map at the same time. Anyone you’re not controlling is handled by the CPU, which means they’ll lend a hand. Each character also has a distinct style of combat.
Uruuru and Saraana are a pair of twin priestesses that fight as one character for example. While they can’t really take a hit, their magic is ranged and quite powerful. In fact, it almost looks like the two are dancing with each other as they fight. It’s really neat. Another great example is Rulutieh who rides around on Kokopo who is a giant Hororon bird. Yes, you get to assault your enemies with something that looks like a giant flightless sparrow and it is glorious! But, if single player is a blast, surely co-op is even better, right? Let’s delve into that next.
With a Little Help From Some (Online) Friends
Co-op in Utawarerumono ZAN is one of those features that will be hit-or-miss for each person. On the plus side, the game is pretty much already made with co-op in mind considering each chapter of the story gives you several characters to play as. However, co-op isn’t used in this fashion. Instead, it’s online co-op and really could be considered post-game content more than anything.
The co-op missions that I played at NIS America were fun. It was neat to be able to sit in a room and coordinate with others as we tried to tackle some rather difficult missions. And they were certainly difficult. These missions seem to be designed for high-level characters to complete. So, best to finish the game first. However, co-op is only online; there’s no local co-op.
This means you’ll need three other friends who are picking up the game. Certainly not an impossibility in this day and age. So, if you can find some friends to play with, I can see you getting some good bang-for-your-buck with this one. That said, is Utawarerumono ZAN worth the investment then? Well, you have to ask yourself a few questions to answer that.
A New Experience for Veterans of This Masked Saga
I do think Utawarerumono ZAN is going to be a good game. SENRAN KAGURA is a great example of what Tamsoft can do gameplay-wise. While I’m not the biggest fan of Blanc, I still can’t call it a bad game; just not to my liking. ZAN, however, does seem closer to SENRAN in terms of gameplay and mission structure so I think we’re good there. That leaves us with two different camps to deal with. Those who are Utawarerumono fans and those who are new to the franchise.
If you’ve played Mask of Deception and just want to hang out with these characters again, then I think you’ll be fine. Yes, this will be an abridged version of that story, but many of your favorite action scenes should be represented. That and who doesn’t like using a giant bird to destroy their enemies. Just don’t expect the same in-depth story the VN will allow. Taper your expectations according. As for newcomers?
A Chance to Experience an Abridged Tale
This isn’t a bad spot to jump into the Utawarerumono franchise. I don’t subscribe to the concept that you must play a franchise from the beginning. Each game should be its own self-contained experience that builds off the previous ones. Plus, if you like the game you just played, you’ll be more interested in going back to see the that franchise’s roots. And ZAN does seem geared to bring a new audience into the Utawarerumono fold.
If you do want to start from the beginning, then wait for Prelude to the Fallen which will be out next year. Otherwise, feel free to get your feet wet with ZAN; then circle back and play either Prelude or Mask of Deception. Either approach is valid I feel. It just depends on your own personal preference.
Utawarerumono ZAN will release on September 10 for the PlayStation 4. In the meantime, be sure to check out our hands-on pieces for both Trails of Cold Steel III and Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers. Two other NIS America titles. Otherwise, you can check out our reviews for both Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth if you’re curious about those titles.