By Jenni . October 19, 2010 . 3:07am
Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is a first for Nippon Ichi – it’s a roguelike dungeon crawler done in the style of Disgaea. Players help level up a newbie hero who’s suddenly been forced into the shoes of the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger.
Z.H.P. begins as the world is about to end. There is this adorable little baby with blond cowlick and giant gold clock necklace known as Super Baby. She’s destined to save the world, but Darkdeath Evilman stole her. The only one who’s able to stand up to the "final boss" is the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger. Or he would have been able to, if two reckless teens hadn’t run him over with a car and killed him.
As the real Unlosing Ranger is dying, he sees some random guy on the street and passes a morphing belt to him. He says he can see this stranger has a heart of justice and can be a hero. The world watches as the new Unlosing Ranger steps up to face Darkdeath Evilman and save Super Baby in an epic, retro battle like Dragon Quest… but he fails… miserably. The Unlosing Ranger wakes up on Bizarro Earth, the place where heroes train. A strange girl named Etranger, with blond hair and a bunny hat, says she’s going to whip him into shape. Pirohiko, the original Unlosing Ranger, shows up as well, to act as a guardian spirit mentor.
So, the first battle in Z.H.P. is technically "the last battle". You’ll challenge Darkdeath Evilman multiple times, with better graphics as the game progresses, before you finally reach a point where the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger is strong enough to be a threat. After each defeat, Darkdeath Evilman whacks the Unlosing Ranger back into outer space to Bizarro Earth, where he’ll train some more with Etranger and Pirohiko while the Super Baby keeps Darkdeath Evilman distracted on Earth.
Since Bizarro Earth and regular Earth are connected, the Unlosing Ranger’s training solves the problems of people watching the Unlosing Ranger/Darkdeath Evilman battle on TV in Earth. NIS America designed lots of funny adventures with Bizarro characters, which have a hint of morality in them.
Once the new Unlosing Ranger gets into a dungeon, it’s a standard roguelike. The Unlosing Ranger works (trains) alone. Walking around decreases hunger and slowly regenerates health. Getting into battles wears out equipment. Enemies wander everywhere and move when you do. Traps are hidden where you least expect them. You even occasionally run into a Rosenqueen shop branch in dungeons. To help the Unlosing Ranger survive his training you can set a caravan with backup waiting on a certain floor, call a blacksmith to repair equipment or your Prinny wife to bring an energy restoring home made lunch. (You automatically get a Prinny wife and daughter at the start of the game.)
A grids is always visible underneath the Unlosing Ranger and enemies. The enemy grid is there for a specific reason, as it shows you when the enemy will detect you. If you walk into their grid, the enemy will then hunt the Unlosing Ranger down. Enemies also let out a battle cry when they die. If the defeated enemy’s grid overlaps with another enemy’s, the other enemy will hear the cry and hunt you down for revenge. So, you have to be quite careful when attacking to keep track of opponents’ ranges. It really adds an extra challenge to Z.H.P..
Enemies have another trick up their sleeves. They can crush the Unlosing Ranger’s confidence and make him afraid. If an enemy succeeds in killing the Unlosing Ranger, and believe me it will happen, trauma will be inflicted on the Unlosing Ranger before he dies. For example, he could have a Harpy or Petite Dragon phobia. Which means that he will take more damage than usual from those creatures until the fear wears off. I loved this, because it really made you think, but will admit that I sometimes forgot about trauma and saw my hero die a few times because of it.
I also loved the hot-key controls. You don’t have to bring up the main menu to equip items, use items or unleash special abilities. You just press the analog stick up or down for item management, and press it up and down while holding the square button to prepare and unleash special attacks. It almost felt like taking the time to actually bring up the menu while dungeon crawling would disturb the flow of gameplay, so having these options kept things flowing smoothly. Plus, you’re able to see equipment’s condition right below the Unlosing Ranger’s health and hunger bars. Everything’s managed perfectly.
I was a little disappointed initially that the Unlosing Ranger was a silent hero, but it suits him and Z.H.P. well. The original Unlosing Ranger (Pirohiko) and Etranger provide most of the personality, after all, and the new Unlosing Ranger is supposed to be (initially) a bit of a pushover and weakling. The two of them do all the talking for him and even the other characters seem to realize that even though he’s the star, he’s not really meant to be.
This also means you get a blank slate. Which is great for a game like Z.H.P. where customization is such a huge aspect. Every piece of equipment changes how the Unlosing Ranger works after he equips it. You can equip leg, head, back and arm parts, all of which change the Unlosing Ranger’s appearance, add additional abilities and effect stats.
You also boost the Unlosing Ranger’s stats with body modification. Old equipment can be converted into chips, which you place onto a grid that represents the Unlosing Ranger’s body. You can also place mods to boost the overall power of certain chips (like arm or leg parts) or direct Hero energy to enhance mods. You can even modify the amount of item storage space you have in dungeons and place mods which let you bring back one object even if you die in a dungeon.
Even though constant dungeon crawling is the way to improve the new Unlosing Ranger, The Unlosing Ranger enters each dungeon at level one. Clearing dungeons boosts his overall level, which makes his base stats higher each time he enters a dungeon. So he’ll always be at level one, but each time he’ll be a stronger level one.
While it may sound difficult, your base level will jump without even realizing it. Even completing one of the first few randomly generated dungeons will cause your level to increase by at least three. And even if you die, you’ll lose all items and money, but still level up. I managed to hit a base level of 100 before I even beat the third episode without grinding.
Aside from having the best names ever for a hero and villain, Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath has everything a PSP owner could possibly want in a dungeon crawler. The script is fantastic, the characters are likeable, and you can spend endless hours playing to create the strongest hero. Plus, Z.H.P. has that special kind of challenge where you feel like you have to beat certain levels, just to prove to yourself (and the game) that you can. It’s just another example of a strong and wonderful NIS America game. When I played Z.H.P., I had that same sense of joy as when I played the original Disgaea for the first time. It’s fresh yet familiar at the same time.
Food for Thought