The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of games has arrived.
- Developer: Tamsoft
- Publisher: Aquaplus
- Release date: 27th September 2019
- Genre: Visual Novel/Musou
- Platforms: Playstation 4
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Do you ever come across a game where you wonder, just who on earth was this made for, and why? That thought will stick with you throughout the entire game of Utawarerumono Zan, all the way from the start right through to its inglorious finish.
The game is basically a retelling of the visual novel game Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, in what can only be described as a bite-sized, game trailer version – or even just a demo of the story. This is because the story of Mask of Deception in its visual novel form took players on average 57 hours to complete. It is regarded as an incredible journey, full of intriguing characters, with a world class soundtrack and beautiful visuals. In Utawarerumono Zan, the developers, Tamsoft, try to retell that same story in just five hours, including the Samurai Warrior style combat. Remove the combat, and the play-through time is closer to two hours.
Skimming over a 57-hour story in just two will, of course, have dire consequences. It’s incoherent, has absurd pacing issues, and frankly, is just a mess. For example, in one section you’re battling warlords in a civil war, defeating them, and suddenly, following less than one minute of dialogue, you are thrown into an underground lab, fighting zombies and massive slime blobs, and expected to keep up and not question why?! Finish that section and again, in less than a minute’s worth of narrative (I was in fact timing this) you are in a different country, fighting new characters alongside new members of your own team. One single line of narrative, no more explanation of what just happened, and you are forced just to move on. In short, imagine trying to retell the Lord of the Rings films from start to finish in a film that lasts just ten minutes. That is what is happening here in Utawarerumono: ZAN.
So the question begs, why have they done this, and for whom? The ONLY players who would really understand the story element would be players who have already completed the 57-hour version of the story from the visual novel game Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception. New players to the series would complete this game and not really have a clue as to what had just happened, and owing to no chance at anything even approaching game immersion, would have no empathy for the game’s characters, nor feel any sort of investment in the game’s outcome.
So when you’re not being confused to the point of losing interest in the utterly disjointed and incomprehensible glossed-over story, you also have some combat to play through in the musou style of games. Fortunately, this side of the game is actually excellent.
Samurai Warrior fans will feel right at home here, as the combat is extremely fluid, third person, hack and slash, or brawler fun. One of the beauties of this side of things is that the 12 playable characters you soon unlock, each with their own VERY distinctive play styles. Basic combat is nothing more than button presses of square and / or triangle, but the outcomes are by design bespoke to each character and very different to the last. Some have ranged attacks, some very slow yet powerful close-range attacks. Others have swift mid-range ones. In addition, different combinations and sequences of buttons result in different things, and it really was fun experimenting with each style to see what they did.
Adding to the depth of the combat are three types of special, more powerful moves. These have finite uses, but can be built up by hitting enemies in combat. Press the circle button then a blue ring appears, for which you then need to time the next button press to when two circles hit each other, that buffs the players combos. Hitting the touch screen on the controller gives the player another type of temporary strength buff. The more confusing third aspect was called raid. Press L1 and up comes the other three members of your team. Each team member has a special ability, some might be healing, a power buff, defensive buff or special attack. Under each player prompt is another button to press to unleash that players buff to help your situation. It was hard to remember what each of your other players’ buffs were, so it was tempting to just spam all three and hope for the best.
Dash, jumps, and learning each character’s combo list of 7 to 10 button presses was satisfying gameplay. Combat with many enemies on the screen wasn’t much more than spamming, but much more circumspect during boss fights. Hit dash, move, blast, retreat, dash, jump, smash move, it really was like dancing around finding a weak spot to hit, especially as hitting bosses from behind yields higher damage.
The other aspect of combat that was excellent was that the graphics are silky smooth, bright, colorful and exciting. Each player was very responsive, (unless they are intentionally slow-moving heavy hitters), having flamboyant fighting styles. Interesting, stylish graphics appear flashing across your screen during combat when great things happen, so much so that it all felt like a high production anime fight sequence was being played out on-screen in real-time. The audio for these sequences was also excellent and added weight and satisfaction to landing big, heavy blows, accompanied as they were by exciting, crashing sounds.
As well as the story and combat elements to get through, comprising the main story, there are also free missions, and replay sections. Replay sections are self-explanatory, but free missions were actually a lot more fun. These missions were set up to give players more loot to buff their characters in various ways, more so even than the actual story game gives. Spending some time in free missions will certainly make combat during the story mode much easier. Mission structure in Free Mode was also slightly different. Collect items, fight certain enemies then also find sub-missions on top. Much like the main game, there wasn’t really much depth to this part of the game, but they are fun while they last.
Lastly, the game does cater for online co-op modes, where players can search the network for others to join to complete the story or free missions together. However, in my complete playthrough, I never once managed to find another player to join online, so can’t comment on how well this aspect works.
This though, brings it back to the question as to whom would buy this game to play online anyway? Players who like visual novels generally aren’t playing Musou style fighting games, and if they are, there are numerous far better ones to play than this. So if this game was made to introduce a new fan base to the series, it fails because of an utterly incoherent story.
Therefore, the game must have been made for the existing fans who already know the story but want a quick blast of it again, but with a much better combat system. As visual novel games haven’t exactly got a huge following to start with, this narrows the player base down into a tiny niche market of a select few. Strap on a £40 to £45 (around $60) price tag for just a six hour game (10 to 12 if you pad it out as much as you can with the free missions), and you will really be struggling to find anyone interested.
It was hard to not think of this game as a playable trailer of something much bigger. The story is an absolutely hideous retelling of an excellent adventure. The combat sequences most definitely make up for this shortfall, and the game is surprisingly solid in this area, but that alone is not enough to make this game good. It just makes it bearable enough to play through until the end, nothing more.