Thursday, September 19, 2019

Utawarerumono: Zan (PS4) Review

If you have seen any of my earlier reviews, you may have run across the one I did for Utawarerumono: The Mask of Deception on the Vita.  I liked its mix of strategy RPG and visual novel, even if some parts of the story fell flat.  I was cautiously optimistic about Utawarerumono: Zan, since it takes a game I like, changing it from one genre I enjoy, to another that I also enjoy.  Instead of being an SRPG/visual novel, it's now a hack and slash action RPG.

With such a genre shift, there are plenty of ways to make it work, and just as many to ruin it.  The first issue would be paring down the story.  It's a generalization, but I think a chunk of people that really enjoy action games don't want to sit and watch hours of story.  A lot of the plot is handled with text over a still image, or a brief scene of characters talking.  As much as I like the CG images, it would have been nice to have more scenes acted out between the character models, and made a lot more visually interesting.  I don't think it would be too much of a stretch, since there are already battle models for most of the characters.

The story is definitely missing large chunks from the original.  Most of the basics are covered, but there are still things that I thought were important that were left on the cutting room floor.  A lot of the everyday life sections are gone as well.  On one hand, these sections annoyed me more often than not, as they tended to be "pile crap on Haku".  On the other, it helped flesh out the characters, and gave voice to their uniqueness.  At least Anju is much more tolerable when they cut out 95% of her interactions.

However, I'm still on the fence about is how much of the story is covered.  When the game was first announced, I was hoping it would cover both Utawarerumono: Mask games, as I didn't think there would be enough battles from the first game to handle the genre shift from SRPG to Action RPG.  That would be the second issue.  While most of the battles from the original did make it over, there are a chunk that are wholly original.  Framed as missions given to Haku's group from their employer, they do fit in with the story without feeling tacked-on.  Still, I think it would have been better from a gameplay perspective to have both games, but I understand why that didn't happen.

But, the story isn't likely why you are here.  If you were more interested in that aspect, you should just play the original.  This game is mostly action. Each stage is set in a small location, with enemies that appear.  Square is your normal attack string, while Triangle is a different attack, many times something with range, or some other special property.  Triangle can also be used for a combo ending attack if used in the string, but it's nowhere as complex as something like Dynasty Warriors, despite sounding similar.  To add some unique moves to combat, holding either Square or Triangle will do another attack.  The Square version can be thrown into combos, while the Triangle cannot.  Still, some of the held Triangle moves are very useful.  Haku's with the pierce damage scroll is particularly effective.

If you played the originals, you might be wondering where the chain attacks are.  Well, those are also present.  These are mapped to circle, and require some of your spirit gauge to use.  As you attack foes, the spirit gauge under the health bar begins to fill.  Pressing circle will start a stronger, unique attack.  As the attack proceeds, a ring appears on the screen.  When the glowing ring reaches the edge, pressing the button again is a perfect chain.  Hitting it correctly refunds some of the spirit spent, so it's worth trying for.  Up to two different chains can be equipped, with a shoulder button switching between them.

The combat system is entirely functional, if not super smooth.  Normal combos are pretty good, but lack variety with so few ender options.  The chain attacks are nice, but can't be worked into combos, and can also be hard to aim at your intended target.  Maybe that's just me, though.  In the original game, the chains were ever present in your techniques, where they are used much more sparingly here.  Thus, it's harder to learn the timing, or knowing how many chains there will be before you use the skill.  Useful, but they take way too much practice and luck to be reliable.

There are a few modes offered.  First is story, which, predictably, covers the parts of the story retained from the original.  Some chapters are battles, while others are just story.  Next up is Battle Recollections, which is pretty much the story stages, but with two secondary mission objectives thrown in.  There is an unlockable hard difficulty version of these stages, for more content and challenge.  Next is Free Battles, which recycle the story locations, but with different enemies, objectives and secondary objectives.  These are broken up into five different tiers, each harder than the last.  Higher ranks are gated behind story levels and previous free mission completion.  However, they can reward you with higher tiers of equipment creation, so they are worth doing.  Lastly, there is the Battle Arena, which are individual challenges for each of the characters that reward them a new chain skill.  Some of these modes can also be played in online co-op.  My PS+ has sadly lapsed, so I was unable to try the online.

Gaining experience is fairly straightforward.  You do a mission, defeat some enemies, and get some experience.  Gaining a certain amount will get your character a level.  The stat increases from only gaining character levels are okay, but you really need to acquire bonus points to get the best bonuses.  These points, called BP, are usually only be gained from secondary objectives.  Sadly, completing the objective the first time gets you the biggest bonus, as the amount gained is reduced for any subsequent completions.  Add in that only participating characters gain the BP, and you can see where the grind comes in.  Doing every mission once with the same character (where possible) likely still wouldn't max them out, so you will be doing some missions over and over again.  I don't think it's necessary to max a character, but it's a long grind if you are inclined to do so.

Equipment is handled very much like the original game. Instead of things like armor and weapons, the characters equip skill scrolls.  These tend to increase a stat, like extra attack power, or add something else, like a health regen.  The total number of scrolls that each character can equip is different, and can sometimes be increased by their Specialty stat.  You won't get many scrolls going through the game.  Instead, you need to create them by spending the in-game money.  You pick a tier, and either create one item, or a group of 10 for a discount.  After that, what you get is a random selection from the list.  Gaining a scroll again will increase its level up to 10.  You can also get special elemental tomes and new costumes.  This isn't the only way to get costumes, because there are some in-game achievements that also grant them.  It's worth checking the Military Medals, and work toward completing it for those bonuses.  It's nice that it's not hard to get new and stronger scrolls, but the random aspect can be a pain when you just need that one last item in a tier.

Overall, Utawarerumono: Zan is pretty fun. It's not the best representation of the story, and not the best hack and slash, but it is enjoyable. If you want to experience most of the important parts of the story, but don't want to sit through the visual novel or SRPG battles, then this is the way to go. Even if you prefer the original, it's worth playing for Utawarerumono fans looking for something a little new.

The Good:
Quick and fun fights, get most of the important story bits without spending 40+ hours reading.

The Bad:
Powerful enemies can be cheap, story feels way too cut down.

The SaHD:
Why is any creature bigger than a person ungodly powerful?  How does anything survive in this world?

(Review code for Utawarerumono: Zan was received from the publisher.)

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