Usually when a game comes in under the radar it's a bad omen. Zack Zero was so under the radar I didn't even know it existed until after it released. Trailers for the game show off a Ratchet and Clank aesthetic, but with a far less interesting protagonist. So is Zack Zero the poor product its stealthy release seems to hint at, or a pleasant surprise in a slow month of gaming?
That somewhat dull protagonist alluded to is the titular Zack Zero. He kind of looks like Duck Dodgers, with his spandex suit and a presumably self-referential Z plastered across his uniform. Zack is on a quest to save his girlfriend and partner in heroism, Marlene, from the evil clutches of his arch nemesis, Zulrog. Zulrog has quite the grudge against Zack because Zack and Marlene foiled his plan to take over Zack's homeworld. Just to make matters worse, Zulrog's brother died in the process. So now Zulrog is on a quest, not only exact his revenge, but also to obtain the materials he needs to power up his time machine and prevent his brother's demise.
It's a silly story with slightly too many “Z” names, but it gets the job done and leaves things open for an eventual sequel whilst still providing a reasonable amount of closure to the main storyline. Story segments consist of comic book style 2D scenes (which features a narrator), and text from your assistant that pops up while you're out and about platforming. I don't mind that the narrator is the only voiceover in the cutscenes but Zack's assistant definitely needed to be voiced. Most of the time she's just making passing comments and not offering meaningful hints, nonetheless I still missed quite a few messages during difficult, time-dependent platforming segments that demanded my attention.
By now you've probably figured out that Zack Zero is a platformer, and for the most part that's what you'll be doing, but Zack has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. His suit allows him to take on one of three different super powered forms: rock, fire, or ice. Ice allows you to slow down time, fire lets you float after a double jump, rock lets you break through certain barriers, and all three have attack moves that can help in a pinch. Fire and ice are extremely useful and I found myself switching to them all the time for both their puzzle applications and their firepower (pun intended), but the stone form was only ever useful for breaking barriers; you move so slowly in rock form that it's tough to use for attacking.
Zack is at his best when you're exploring the alien landscape and negotiating platforming challenges with your multiple forms. The level design is great, thanks to interesting and varied obstacles, and plenty of hideaways that store collectables which grant you extra abilities (or, to be precise, give you back the abilities you lost, Metroid style). It's not all jumping and timing though, as Zack finds himself in quite a bit of combat as well. You'll often come across a room that doesn't let you carry on until you've defeated everything inside, but unfortunately the combat is on the slow side. It's fun when you're quickly switching to one form or another to throw out a huge blast and help out with some crowd control, but that eats up suit power so you can't do it constantly. Zack's go-to weapon is a Tron-type discus that he throws and then retrieves, but it's just not as fun as the combat in games that are better designed for it, like Metal Slug. If the combat isn't going to be sped up then the sequel could do with fewer enemies and more obstacles to maneuver through.
That isn't to say that the combat is a bust. There are a few boss fights, as well as repeating mini-boss enemies that are good old-fashioned pattern recognition fun, although there are a few unfortunate bugs. One thing I like about Zack Zero is that there are plenty of checkpoints throughout, so when you inevitably die you won't have to re-tread too much territory. This is particularly welcome for the lengthy boss fights, although there's a bug whereby the boss's actions won't entirely reset, so sometimes I'd come back to find the last half of the barrage that took me out was still coming for me. I also happened upon a bug with the final boss where I defeated him (after quite a bit of heartache, by the way), only to find that his corpse had fallen in exactly the right place for me to be stuck between the robot's legs and his body, with no way to jump or move left or right. Once I restarted the fight I was able to beat him without further issue, but I was decidedly unhappy.
While Zack isn't the most unique looking character in the world the settings he traverses are rife with color and alien fauna/flora. The gameplay is entirely two dimensional, but the visuals are decidedly 3D, with beautiful vistas often passing by in the background as you journey from left to right. When you get close up to the models you start to notice the pixelation and sub-HD shadows, but from a purely aesthetic sense Zack Zero is quite a success. One minor blemish is that for some reason the subtitles are often out of sync, to the point that the audio will be on another sentence altogether before the subtitles change.
All this can be yours for just $13, which is pretty good, although it did only take me 4 hours and 15 minutes to complete. Unfortunately there's no reason to go back to it after that first playthrough, outside of high-score hunting. Zack Zero does update you frequently on your ranking and who the top player for each level is, so it's well designed for high-score hunters at least.
Zack Zero isn't quite a diamond in the rough, but it's still a pleasant surprise. If the obviously-imminent sequel shores up a few bugs and works on improving the combat, I think it could be the perfect platforming distraction for those who don't really mind a somewhat clichéd storyline. As it is, Zack's an unexpected hero that PS3 owners should give a chance, and I congratulate Crocodile Games on a successful PSN debut.
This review is based on a digital copy of Zack Zero, purchased via PSN.