Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman let's just go with Z.H.P. is the story of a supposedly unbeatable hero who is felled by a passer-by during his mad dash to the final boss fight, and the Average Joe that he deems his replacement. You are that Average Joe; the new Unlosing Ranger, tasked with defeating Darkdeath Evilman before he can defeat the infant prophesied to bring peace to the world, Super Baby. Yes, the game is as odd as it sounds. And yes, things go badly from the start.
You last roughly half a minute before being beaten to death by Darkdeath Evilman. Not one to be deterred, the original Unlosing Ranger takes it upon himself to train you to be the hero that he once was and that the world needs. Your training takes place on Bizarro Earth, a skewed version of our world that lies on the other side of the sun, where monster versions of humans roam the land and heroes are made. Turning a nobody into a somebody isn't easy, though. The transformation will require surviving numerous dungeons and monsters that will test your mettle, and educate you about just what it takes to be a hero. In this world, failure is just important as success. In fact, a key ingredient to becoming a true hero is dying. A lot.
Fortunately, dying isn't the termination of a would-be hero's life but a part of it. Success is as well, but in the beginning, they are nearly the same as both defeat and victory result in your level resetting to zero. Surviving has its perks though, such as being able to keep your loot and money, which are both wiped out when defeated. But there is an upside to the system, and that is that those levels earned go towards permanent stat upgrades (health, attack, etc.). While you reap the short-term benefits of leveling within a dungeon, it's the long-term boosts that really matter. In all, it's a neat system that helps to alleviate some of the more grueling aspects of roguelikes.
In many respects, Z.H.P. is a light roguelike. While there are tough challenges to tackle, dungeons to crawl, and powerful enemies to overcome, many concessions have been made to keep the pace brisk and experience lighthearted. For example, even though the game is turn based, switching out equipment or changing direction does not eat up a turn; and neither do they use up Energy (EN), the game's version of Action Points. Energy is constantly being drained, be it from walking or swinging at thin air, and is primarily replenished through eating. Food is so crucial that managing it properly - how much to bring, where and how to get it, and when to consume it ends up becoming one of the biggest challenges you'll face. But, even with the constant threat of starvation, gamers who cut their teeth on older PC roguelikes like Telengard or even some of the recent offerings, such as Atlus' The Dark Spire, will find the trade-off more than fair.
You have more than a novel leveling system at your disposal, because Bizarro Earth is also home to your very own base. Every hero needs a base, and the new Unlosing Ranger receives his right from the start. While the basics a smith, general store, and home are part of the initial layout, it will take hours before all of the vacant slots are filled. Some of the shops are permanent, such as a Caravan that can meet you at a designated dungeon floor to offer limited base functions and a way out of the dungeon, while others, such as the Church that can lower or raise the base enemy level, are optional and can be switched out. The buildings are also maintained by employees, Earthlings beaten in a special grind-only dungeon and then hired, with their own individual stats and quirks.
Two of my regular stops were the modification shop and home. Both of these exemplify Z.H.P.'s most endearing aspects: its variety and absurdity. The mod shop allows for permanent stat boosts by inserting weapons and armor, represented as tiles, onto a large tiled version of the Unlosing Ranger. Each sacrificed item not only gives a boost but also opens up that area for enhancements, such as the ability to carry more items or increased weapon efficiency. Energy can also be channeled for greater effect, powering the boost implants. The system works well both for those who just want to get rid of busted-up items and those who want to tweak and maximize their hero's abilities. Your home is the opposite of the mod shop, with fun trumping functionality; there's little to do other than talk with a dour daughter and a Prinny wife that wants money for handbags (dood). The upside to providing for your family is increased storage capacity at home as well as a lunch that can be summoned while in a dungeon, where your wife flies in to (lovingly) make a meal that extra EN can be a real lifesaver.
All of the help is needed, too. While Z.H.P. might be more relaxed than other roguelikes, it is by no means a cakewalk. Progression is largely broken up by battles with Darkdeath Evilman, with each inevitable defeat sending Unlosing Ranger back to Bizarro Earth in order to train some more in a new themed dungeon. A nice aside is that each confrontation's visuals parallel the encounter count, so the first bout is with an 8-bit Darkdeath Evilman with a first-person view circa 1980. Each new dungeon is accompanied by a lesson, story bit about one of the numerous side characters, and a boss. The lessons can get a bit tedious, with the original Unlosing Ranger always super excited about justice and kindness while Etranger, another trainer, berates you as worthless and weak over and over (and over). Actually, the original Unlosing Ranger's talks wouldn't be bad for younger players to hear inner strength is as important as physical strength, bullying is toxic, etc. but I'm not too sure how many younger players will get their hands on this, nor how many older players need to hear it. It's really Etranger whose shtick really gets old. But she's also the one who unlocks new dungeons, so you do what you have to.
The bosses tend to feature a puzzle in addition to a horde of bodyguards. What makes the puzzles possible is that the battlefields are laid out in grids and the action is done by turns, with one turn equaling one attack or one grid's worth of movement, which allows for traps, enemy zones of awareness, and flanking maneuvers. The emphasis on throwing also plays a part, no doubt borrowed from Disgaea, where any type of item used, unwanted, or unable to carry can be hurled at the enemy, in addition to items designed specifically for throwing and other enemies. Throwing uses EN, but the sacrifice is worth it as throwing not only helps in getting some use out of poor loot but to also make some room whenever things get crowded; a tossed enemy not only has to work their way back, but they also damage enemies they land on before coming to a stop. When all of this is put together, it allows for some interesting situations. An example would be tank treads used for legs in order to avoid traps, then using the left arm's hookshot pull yourself towards an enemy, then using the right arm's longsword to attack before shifting position and attacking a nearby enemy from behind for extra damage, of course. Oh, yes, dual wielding is most definitely allowed. At the expense of EN, but its allowed. And then there are the armor types that allow you to see enemy weaknesses, create blocks to form hazard zones, and handguns to
shoot stuff. Low-level enemies are easy enough, acting as mere experience fodder, but tougher enemies will require careful consideration because if you aren't careful, you will gain a phobia of them and find future encounters more difficult.
Getting to the bosses takes some grinding, but fortunately the dungeons help to stave off monotony by being both randomly generated and full of traps, trick rooms, and themes. The traps can get a little frustrating, especially since they can be so devastating at the worst possible times, but the levity of seeing the Unlosing Ranger get smacked across the screen by a giant log or fall through a black hole helps to balance things out. The trick rooms impose restrictions in most instances, such as limiting the use of special items, but they can also bring something more dangerous environmental hazards like a flood of lava. Rarely, though, they lead to something very, very welcomed: the treasure room. Randomly running across a room with nothing to do but stock up on loot, sometimes rare items, is great. There are also rooms designated as the enemy's headquarters, which can be a veritable buffet of experience for those strong enough. The themes can be quite odd, with one level requiring you to shoot yourself out of cannons onto random floating platforms while another requires you to float with a balloon, slowly making your way around the different objects on the various platforms until you're high enough to reach the exit. While there's a lot going on, it never actually feels that way, with the fast action being the primary focus and everything else easy to tackle once it comes along.
Z.H.P. ends up occupying an interesting, if precarious, niche. It has the very real chance of being too easy and lighthearted for the hardcore and too difficult and repetitive for the curious. It's best to approach Z.H.P. as an introduction to the roguelike, or for the experienced, as a leisure adventure in a wacky world. It has a few irksome quirks some of the graphics have a noticeable outline, the scarcity of food can break up the pace too much, and the dialog can drone on (from some pretty unlikable characters at that) but it also has a fast, addictive combat system and a lot of charm. Thumbs up.
Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is a candy-coated roguelike that might make veterans wince but makes for a great introduction to the (sub) genre. Its relaxed pace, aides, and numerous opportunities to customize your Unlosing Ranger makes for an inviting and addictive adventure. It might not be perfect, but at $29.99, it's hard to turn down the hero's call.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)