NIS is one of the most audacious and creative game makers in the industry. Time after time, they prove that small budget creations can offer countless hours of humorous and addictive gameplay with titles such as Disgaea and What Did I Do To Deserve This?. Now you can add Zettai Hero Project: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman (Z.H.P for short) to the roster because it is one of their best original games in a long time.
By now, gamers should expect NIS to wrap their games in wacky, utterly insane storylines that downright harass the funny bone. Z.H.P. is possibly the best of the bunch in this regard. The story is simple; a Super Baby was born and prophesized to save the world from ultimate destruction. One day the nefarious and subtly titled Darkdeath Evilman captures and holds the Super Baby hostage. The mega hero Unlosing Ranger springs in to action to save the day when… he is hit by a car. That is where the player comes in. With his dying breath, the Unlosing Ranger transfers his suit to the silent protagonist and begs you to confront Darkdeath Evilman on his behalf. The world watches as the battle between Darkdeath Evilman and the new Unlosing Ranger is broadcast live. The first boss battle plays like a class 8-bit era RPG. Controlled by the player, the Unlosing Ranger loses and that’s it, game over.
But wait, there is more! The new Unlosing Ranger (the name does not change even though he lost) is sent to Bizzaro Earth where the real Unlosing Ranger trains him in the art of heroics. The goal is to become strong enough to return to Earth and defeat Darkdeath Evilman. Your public defeat caused many of your supporters to become disheartened but by tackling problems in Bizarro Earth that correspond to events on Earth you can set things right again.
Z.H.P is half action dungeon crawler, half turn-based strategy RPG. At first glance, the presentation and level layout make it look very similar to Disgaea, with a Prinny cameo to boot. While some of the role-playing elements borrow from Disgaea, Z.H.P. has more in common with games like Shiren the Wanderer. Players have direct control of the Unlosing Ranger as they move one step at a time on the grid-based battlefield. At the start of every dungeon, you begin with 100 EN that gradually decreases with each step, attack, and magic spell. When your EN reaches zero you will gradually begin to lose health. The only way to refill your EN is to eat various types of food. Actions like equipping several weapons at once and other attire that boost your stats will drain your EN quicker. This system allows for strategic trade offs between more attack power and preserving your EN. The EN bar seems to deplete quickly no matter what you do, but luckily a ton of EN restoring food is within reach during combat.
The combat system starts out slow with a one button attack command that uses your bare fists or weapons such as a gun and sword. Gradually the fighting grows more engaging as you unlock magic attacks, double wielding, and summoning powers, but combat still felt like one of the weaker points overall. The controls are a bit awkward at first, especially navigating with the D-pad or analog nub. Triangle opens the menu, X is for attacks, and square displays the dungeon grid. You can adjust the camera angle with the shoulder buttons, which you should do often to get a better view of the battlefield and notice features you may have missed.
One of the biggest annoyances in any videogame is dying constantly. But in Z.H.P. it is a core gameplay feature and will happen constantly. Dying sends you back to your home base and forces you to start the dungeon all over again each time. Additionally, any items, currency, or levels you gained during your time in the dungeon are lost. There is an upside to death however. Each death raises your “Total Level”, so as far as stats go death always results in a net gain. The enemy type that caused your death traumatizes the Unlosing Ranger and will be even tougher to defeat during the next encounter. Should you overcome the trauma your reward is an advantage over that same enemy.
There are ways to preserve your item inventory in the event of your untimely demise. Early on, you earn the ability to stow away items in your home and can even convert some items into a permanent stat boost. To do this you must convert the items into chips that you can implant in your body, which is represented by a grid diagram. Strategic placement of the chips will result in a stronger boost and you can even add boosters to already planted chips that bring about extras such as the ability to survive attacks that would kill you otherwise or being able to land more critical hits.
Another gameplay aspect is managing the facilities you have access to in your home base. You have access to these buildings both in and outside of dungeons. Such services include calling on a blacksmith to repair your weapons before they reach their breaking points. As you progress the number of buildings you have access to increases but there is a limit to just how many you can have at your base at once, requiring you to decide wisely which ones to keep.
Z.H.P. offers a strong and humor filled narrative that should connect well with gamers familiar with NIS games of this ilk. Small elements like the characters knowing they are in a videogame, jokes poking fun at anime and other Saturday morning cartoons, and even the graphical upgrades during each encounter with Darkdeath Evilman reflecting different eras in turn-based RPGs all combine for a hilarious and well paced adventure. The story sometimes takes on a more serious and even touching tone that can make the experience a bit uneven. In particular, it is fascinating to see how your actions during training on Bizarro Earth affect the lives of people all over the world, building up to the climactic final boss battle.
Graphically, Z.H.P. is a treat to look at. The color palette is more vibrant than the comparable Disgaea games and the character sprites are sharp and detailed. The 3D renderings found in some boss levels are less than stellar but the hand drawn character art used for the cutscenes is simply beautiful. The sound is good with both English and Japanese voice acting available. You also get a memorable soundtrack highlighted by the “Unlosing Ranger’s Theme”, accompanied by a cacophony of wild and zany sound effects.
It shouldn't take more than fifteen or so hours to beat the game the first time around, depending on how many times you die. The layout of every dungeon is randomized to keep you on your toes and reward exploration. There are strong incentives to play through multiple times, including alternate endings, unlockable costumes, and special hidden dungeons, which require several playthroughs until you are strong enough to consider tackling. The game cost only $30 with the potential for around a hundred hours worth of playtime.
Some games use a punishing difficulty to their advantage but none do so as creatively as Z.H.P. The nearly infinite number of customization options, rapier wit, and intelligent combination of strategy and dungeon crawling gameplay really make it stand out amongst the PSP’s impressive library of RPG hits. I just wish the combat system was more substantial and navigating the dungeons was simpler. NIS has a way of creating memorable games that merge modern sensibilities with a great retro vibe and Z.H.P. is a showcase for this uncanny talent.