Little Deception, Lots of Action
Utawarerumono: ZAN is an interesting little number. A re-telling of a previous game within the franchise, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, ZAN not only gives players a new take on an integral part of the Utawarerumono storyline, but does so while entirely switching game genres. As in, it jumps from being a visual novel/SRPG hybrid into being a full-on Warriors-style action game. That’s kind of impressive if you ask me. Naturally, it’s not the first series to do that (here’s looking at you, Fate/EXTELLA), but there still aren’t too many other franchises out there that can claim a genre jump as big as that. What does seem entirely new to me, however, is how it actually makes this large-scale genre jump.
ZAN, as I’ve already said, doesn’t feature a new story. Rather, it decides to put a new spin on Mask of Deception. But, as I’ve also already said, Mask of Deception is part visual novel. ZAN, however… well, it definitely isn’t. That’s where the game enters into new territory. Rather than acting as an entry point to the Utawarerumono series, as did its source material, ZAN instead acts as a strangely supplementary piece more geared toward those familiar with what’s going on. Now, don’t get me wrong. The game’s fun, and I do think that existing fans will like it. But I’ll tell you right now that, despite what the game may be telling you, this is hardly the place to begin your Utawarerumono journey.
That Which Remains Obscured
Normally, this would be the part of the review where I dissect the game’s story. However, ZAN‘s unusual way of storytelling has made that somewhat difficult. And that’s primarily because that most of the story isn’t actually there. That doesn’t mean that it’s entirely absent, though. It’s still quite obvious that ZAN follows the story of amnesiac Haku who, after being rescued (and subsequently named “Haku”) by a mysterious young woman named Kuon, embarks on a perilous journey with her across the land of Yamato — a journey which, in time, will have them fighting for much more than just themselves.
That’s about where the traditional story-telling stops. The rest of the game? Well, it’s basically nothing but key plot points with an occasional “VN-lite” scene thrown in for good measure. Basically, it’s all spoilers. However, despite how bad that might sound, I’m not entirely on-board with bashing it outright. For those who have played previous titles within the series (which I’m assuming is ZAN‘s core audience), a refresher course like this isn’t all bad. Unfortunately, a setup like this also has the potential to majorly spoil the magic for new players. The game makes no indication that its storytelling is going to be sparse to the point of almost feeling non-sequitur, and for many people that can be pretty disheartening — either because the story is being spoiled, or because you understand so little about the story that you aren’t even aware that it’s being spoiled. Maybe they wanted to focus primarily on the gameplay, and, if they did, I suppose that I can’t totally blame them for that. But, no matter how you slice it, it still seems weird to extract a good 90% of the storytelling from a game that was originally based largely on nothing but reading an abundance of (enjoyable-to-read) text.
A Dance of Fans and Flames (and Swords, and Arrows, and Other Things)
ZAN may be dragging behind on its story, but things fare much better when it comes to actual gameplay. Utilizing the core Warriors elements at its base, ZAN features a decently sized collection of levels for players to slice and dice their way through. Of course, that doesn’t mean that ZAN isn’t its own game. In light of its Warriors-based inspiration, the game hardly feels like it would belong in that series. Rather than capturing bases and hiking it across large maps, ZAN instead favors shorter, mission-based levels. Not surprisingly, most of these missions revolve around killing enemies (after all, you can only deviate so much), they do cause levels to flow in a way that feels unique and novel. And it’s largely thanks to this flow that, when the game does throw in something out of the ordinary — such as an escort mission — they feel like a natural, and fun, part of the game. Unfortunately, this also means that the levels are a bit shorter than I (and I’m assuming many of you out there as well) would have liked, but it’s not a trade-off that I would necessarily scoff at.
ZAN‘s actual hacking and slashing components feel unique as well. Players can, in most cases, take teams of up to four different characters at once into combat. While this may seem like a bit much at first, it won’t take long to realize that, in ZAN, teamwork really does make the dream work. Although the game does sport a relatively small cast of playable characters that barely breaks into the double digits, the lack of quantity is made up by an increase in quality. From straightforward swordsman Ukon to the more technically savvy magic of Uruuru & Saraana (yep, they’re a 2-in-1 deal), each character in ZAN‘s roster feels very different from one another, and it really allows players to customize their party to their liking.
It is worth mentioning that, while ZAN‘s characters feel entirely different from one another, there is something that they all seem to be lacking; extensive combo branches. Instead of presenting players with an array of combos to utilize, ZAN has instead seen fit to downsize on what many consider to be the bread and butter of hack-n’-slash titles such as this one, instead favoring a handful of new move mechanics. While players might find themselves using the same two or three combos over and over, they do have access to Chains — powerful, character-specific moves that can be used to deal damage or heal allies — assists which allow players to call upon party members to perform their chains, and even a handy “Overzeal Mode” — a state that powers up characters, but constantly consumes Zeal (which is normally used for Chain attacks). Additionally, players are also allowed to equip Sigils onto their parties which, once activated, bestow upon characters a variety of different beneficial effects. To be fair, I’m not entirely sure that these skills make up for a lack of combo diversity, but I’d be lying if I said that they weren’t fun to use and didn’t fit into the game well.
ZAN‘s main campaign is great and all, but sometimes you just want to take a break from all of the fighting to… you know… do other kinds of fighting? Alright, that was a pretty bad segue. Fortunately, my segue-writing skills aren’t indicative of the quality of this game’s extra modes. Alongside the main campaign, players can also take on additional levels as well, including story missions with added objectives, and Free Missions. Although the re-hashed story missions play largely in the same way as their campaign counterparts, Free Missions are usually a bit different. Instead of just having players kill enemies, most Free Missions include unique objectives, such as needing to collect items, or survive for certain periods of time, as well. You can, unsurprisingly, expect Free Missions to generally be a little more difficult because of this, but that also means typically better rewards as well! On top of this, players are also able to collect special rewards by completing in-game achievements (or “medals”) and can even use their hard-earned money to buy equipment. …Or at least the chance to win equipment by pouring cash into what essentially boils down to a magical gachapon machine. It’s in-game cash, though, so don’t worry. Yes, really!
An Old Legend, a New Way
Utawarerumono: ZAN probably won’t end up being the crown jewel of the Utawarerumono franchise, but that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be. While I would most certainly have suggested a boost in the game’s ability to tell its own story in a more coherent way, I can’t help but look at it for what it truly is; a way for pre-existing franchise fans to experience an Utawarerumono title in a new and enjoyable way. And, to that extent, I think that the game does quite well for itself.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Tamsoft ; Players: 1, 1 – 4 (Online) ; Released: September 10, 2019 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Utawarerumono: ZAN given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.