Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman Review

Though it is far from perfect, I love the PSN Store. Once a week updates, sparse PSP and PS1 Legacy titles, high prices, incomplete PSP Go support, etc.; I've got all the complaints with Sony that you probably do. But the one thing the PSN Store does right is it exposes gamers to titles we may never have given a second look otherwise. Case in point, Z.H.P: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman. I never would have put this game on my shopping list were it not so readily available by download through Sony's storefront. My impulse buying, in this case, unearthed a gem of a roguelike dungeon crawler, a dungeon crawler I urge both the hardcore and not so hardcore RPG fan to try out.

Z.H.P.'s setup is about as unconventional as it gets. A giant lion-like monster, Darkdeath Evilman, has kidnapped the Super Baby and the world's hero, the Unlosing Ranger, is called in to stop the planet's destruction. The Unlosing Ranger subsequently loses the fight, and you, a new hero, must pick up the slack and fight the monster. And guess what? You lose as well. This transports you and the Unlosing Ranger to Bizarro Earth, a kind of afterlife hidden behind the moon, where you must train and get strong enough to combat the supervillain. During your training, you'll defeat bosses that represent the emotions (kind of) of people on Earth, thus solving their problems. To say this is a weird game might be the understatement of the year, but somehow it all works and draws you right into the story.

As weird as the story might be, the gameplay is about as old-school RPG traditional as it comes. Z.H.P. is a roguelike dungeon crawler, which means you move your character around a grid in real time, fighting enemies, obtaining items and gaining levels. This game design is also notoriously difficult, with your character losing all progress and equipment if he or she is felled in battle. Z.H.P. sidesteps the frustration with an ingenious system: You keep upgraded base stats and special augmentations when you die, making even death a constructive part of the character building process. And since the game's plot revolves around you dying, training, dying and training some more, being struck down never feels like a failure on your part.

The dungeons you'll be clearing make Z.H.P. even more compelling than its wacky upgrade system. They are randomly generated, meaning multiple runs through the same levels will never be quite the same, and contain all sorts of little tidbits to keep you diving back in. Each dungeon contains traps, for example, that will often hurt your character, but sometimes help as well. Swinging log traps will hurl you to previously unreachable areas of some dungeons, while others just hit you with arrows or poison you. Even more so than the traps, the items will keep you playing this one for hours on end. Items can be thrown at enemies, consumed or equipped to make your character more powerful, and each option holds its own rewards. Finding new armor or weapons is always fun, as watching your character don a zombie hat or pair of tank legs is often hilarious and always a huge help in overcoming your foes. Yes, you'll lose equipment upon death and equipped items constantly degrade in power and usefulness, but it all weaves together to ensure no dungeon is the same as any other, and that next powerful tool is always just around the next corner. And being a handheld game, Z.H.P. can be played in short bursts or long sessions, though the latter is more likely if you let yourself get hooked.

My only complaints with Z.H.P. are the near-instant upswing in difficulty and somewhat vague explanations of what you are supposed to be doing. After the tutorials are over and done with, you'll only get about one “rookie” dungeon before you are tossed into a brutal boss fight with tons of enemies that easily outclass your character. I could see this turning some players off right away. To make matters worse, the methods for getting tougher aren't always as well laid out as they could have been. It took a few deaths for me to figure out my base stats were actually going up, and I was confused for quite a bit longer than that as to why I only seemed to get stronger in about half the instances I expected to.

Those two beefs aside, if you stick with Z.H.P. through its warts, you'll find a brilliant handheld RPG with TONS of content, a clever and bizarre story and best of all, more gameplay than you can shake a stick at. Other roguelike dungeon crawlers have left me cold in the past (the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games jump to mind), but Z.H.P. has sucked up more of my time than I'd like to admit to. So, PSN Store, even though I might constantly complain about you, the ease with which you bring games into my house helped me discover this gem. So thanks, but once a week updates still aren't acceptable.

Final Rating: 83%.

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