Nippon Ichi Software's president Souhei Niikawa himself has touted Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman - now there's a game title for you - as the "spiritual successor" to the Disgaea series, which to this day has garnered quite the cult following. The dungeon crawler was released earlier this year in Japan on the PlayStation Portable with NIS America finally announcing a western localization at the NISA Press Event back in July. Z.H.P. offers an interesting new take on the strategy RPG genre, introducing fresh ideas and mechanics that will hopefully keep people coming back for more.
The premise of Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman itself is gut-wrenchingly hilarious. There's a frighteningly powerful Last Boss who is wreaking terror and havoc in his wake. Obviously it's up to the Unlosing Ranger to save the day, but just as he rushes out from oversleeping, he gets run over by a car and dies.
Don't fret, it's not a spoiler. That happens within the first five minutes of the game. In fact, it's a comic device used to set up the rest of the story. Just before he breathes his last breath, the Unlosing Ranger passes on his legacy to an innocent passerby: you. Of course, you are promptly defeated by Darkdeath Evilman and knocked out of the atmosphere into another dimension called Bizarro Earth.
Bizarro Earth basically acts as the game's hub where you are able to develop and train your character in addition to being introduced to the rest of the characters. From here, you are able to train and grind through randomly generated dungeons as well as repair or synthesize any item and weapon. Facilities such as your "home", the black smith and Dark Clinic serve various purposes like storing items, repairing equipment and "modding" your character. More facilities open up the further you progress through the game.
At first glance, Z.H.P. looks nigh identical to Disgaea. It's certainly a strategy role-playing game, but that's where most of the similarities end. It has a rather unique take on the genre in addition to an interesting emphasis on losing, which is ironic considering the title and character, but it does add to the slapstick humour that is consistent throughout the game. Whenever players lose in dungeons, their levels will be reset to level one and all items lost. However, that's not to say it was all in vain as players will maintain whatever stat progression that was gained in the level prior to defeat. In fact, it's noticeable that the more you die, the more you gain.In a dungeon, you will be able to move about with a surprising amount of freedom with the only restriction being the level's grid and a stamina gauge which slowly depletes as actions are executed. It's important to note that the health gauge will begin to deplete as well should your stamina hit zero. While movement is done in real-time, offensive and defensive actions are turn-based with enemies taking turns to exchange hits with you. It's a mix of both real-time and turn-based systems that works surprisingly well, making battles both fast paced and strategic at the same time.
Speaking of battles, enemies won't immediately be aware of your presence in a level. You'll have to physically step into their range before they notice you. Each enemy type has their own specific range and will begin to pursue you the moment they're alerted. Should an enemy die whilst within the range of another, that unit will be alerted as well. Depending on the situation, it's sometimes better to get through a level without engaging anyone. It's also worth mentioning that the ability to pick up and throw enemy units comes in rather handy when cornered and the need to make a hasty retreat arises.
There's plenty more to be said about how the game plays, but what's important is that with all its depth, it's still relatively easy to grasp. The blend of real-time and turn-based battle creates an addicting and fluid game of cat and mouse. This is complimented by the fact that not one single level is ever the same. Each dungeon is randomly generated on the fly, creating a unique experience every time.
Unfortunately, the visuals of the game seem quite inconsistent. You won't notice the bland textures in the environment and pixelized sprites until several cutscenes in when the camera actually starts to zoom in on characters. On the other hand, the character artworks look great and Darkdeath Evilman's sprite is quite epic. A nice inclusion to the game are throwbacks to various classic RPG presentation styles as seen in each battle with Darkdeath Evilman (At one point, the fight is styled a la classic Final Fantasy games). Z.H.P. also offers both the original Japanese language with English subs and English dubs. The music is quite exciting - the main theme is one of those tracks that will most certainly get stuck in your head - to listen to at first but can get rather repetitive after a while.
Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman certainly keeps things fresh with randomly generated dungeons for, I kid you not, infinite replay value. The core mechanics are an interesting blend of both real-time and turn-based systems, but still remains very easy to pick up even for newcomers to the genre. The story alone ought to pry out a couple of chuckles with its slapstick humour on RPG and Japanese stereotypes. It's not much of a stretch to say there are some important life lessons masked behind the humour as well, like never giving up and respecting others. The visuals and soundtrack can't exactly be called groundbreaking, but it doesn't deter from the experience either. There is definitely one very unique thing that it brings to the table: losing has never before been so fun. All in all, Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman is certainly another quality title from Nippon Ichi Software.