Every time I speak of this game, I get odd glances and laughs from people wondering just what exactly I’m talking about. You have to admit, this is a very uniquely titled PSP game, and why shouldn’t it be? The title fits perfectly with both the game itself, and the humor of the development studio behind it at Nippon Ichi. Z.H.P. was developed by the same people who make the Disgaea games, and to that end, it carries the same humor, same graphic stylings and same sense of pristine polish and replayability as NIS’s flagship strategy RPG carries. Let’s delve a bit deeper into this interesting title to see where it works and where it doesn’t.
Z.H.P. tends to not take itself too seriously. Sure, everyone’s enamored with realistic-vibe games like Fallout: New Vegas these days, and we all know that game is serious business. (End sarcasm.) But there is most definitely something to be said for not taking something too seriously, and in both the story, dialog and visual presentation, Z.H.P. excels in this regard.
The story is pretty simple, actually. Darkdeath Evilman has captured the Superbaby. If the Superbaby is killed, the world will end. But, no one is worried because the Unlosing Ranger has things under control. He’s due to show up and defeat Mr. Evilman, thus Saving the Superbaby and the world itself. This entire event seems to be televised, as well, but people are going on about it like it was any normal day, because they have complete and utter faith in the Unlosing Ranger.
Unfortunately, a couple hippy kids driving a van don’t pay much attention to where they’re going, and run over our hero, the Unlosing Ranger. Your character – a whimpy, ordinary boy – just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and witnesses this event. Before the Unlosing Ranger passes into superhero heaven, he bestows upon you the task of defeating Darkdeath Evilman and saving the Superbaby.
So, you eventually show up at this highly publicized final battle, fight Darkdeath Evilman and get the ever living crap beat out of you. No pain, no gain, right? Yes, indeed…that motto will come up later down the line, as well. You may be the lamest hero of all time, and you may have just been defeated by some crazy supervillain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come back to fight another day, now does it? When a hero dies, they go to a weird alternate reality where they can be trained to come back and fight another day. And, herein lies the core of the game – powering yourself up enough that you can truly, once and for all, defeat Darkdeath Evilman.
In this alternate world, you’re given many facilities and various mechanics to help you along your way, but the impetus here is exploring dungeons and leveling your character up. The battles are set up on a grid, and for each one of your moves, the enemy gets a counter-move if they so choose. But, there’s a bit of an agro system going on here, too. There’s a clear “line of sight” band around the enemies, and they won’t see you or advance in your direction until you enter into that area. So, within this grid you can move around how you please, and attack enemies. You can use special abilities, pull enemies away from a group and all sorts of things. Scattered about on the ground are various traps, weapons, food and all manner of questionable items that can either benefit you or cause your untimely demise.
You also have stamina, and the more you attack, move and use your abilities, the more your stamina drops. Once it’s gone, you start losing health even faster. The way you regain your stamina is by eating. You can find food in many different ways, as well. Most commonly, you can pick food up on the ground and eat it (don’t try this at home, kids, it’s way outside the five-second rule!). You can also purchase food at home base or even have it delivered.
And, you’ll need all the help you can get, because this game is very challenging, to say the least. You will die a lot. I’m not kidding with you here. To add insult to injury, when you die you lose everything on your person – your weapons and armor, your food, your healing items, your money as well as all the levels you’ve earned in that particular dungeon. Are you panicking yet? All this really leads you to be careful and play smart, for sure. But actually dying and losing the levels you’ve earned is a good thing. Basically, when you die, you ultimately gain a stat boost based on how many levels you’ve leveled up in that dungeon up to that point. So, in essence, the levels you earn in a dungeon are just a form of experience point gain. And here is where I’ll bring in the phrase “no pain, no gain” once again, because it absolutely applies to this game more so than anything else I’ve played in recent memory.
To explain this a bit more, if you made it to level four in a dungeon before succumbing to the challenges there, you’ll die and gain experience, so the next time you go back, you’re stronger. So, if you hit level four again, you’re stronger than you were the previous time and have a better chance of completing the dungeon without losing everything.
In addition to dying, you can increase your character’s stats through body modification. When you make it all the way through a dungeon, you’ll likely have a lot of items available to turn into chips, and these chips can increase different stats. You can equip these to your character to boost various stats, which also increase and level up upon death.
As much as death is touted as a good thing – and, really, it is in this context – the possibility of losing all the items you’ve gained in that dungeon is a huge turn-off for me. I can see the developers sitting around a table wondering what would piss their fans off the most. “Let’s have them lose everything they own when they die, and then make the dungeons extremely challenging so it happens all the time!” Yeah, no, that’s not working for me. It’s a pretty lame mechanic. On top of it all, you know by now that I’m not big on artificial difficulty, and this is about as bad as it gets. Yes, when you die you can level yourself up in a way, that’s all well and good, but the game seems to punish you more than help in these situations. Just like many games before this, all this artificial difficulty there just for the sake of annoying the crap out of the players doesn’t sit well with me.
Let’s move on, though, because I really did enjoy various aspects of the game, but most don’t include the game mechanics themselves. The graphics are well-drawn sprites, and the dialog scenes are done with your standard anime-style cut-outs. As far as the sprites go, I feel they were very well done – when you equip items on your character, you can see everything, which is a definite plus. The battle animations and visual style of battles in general just screamed “awesome” at me the entire time, even though it did seem awfully power-ranger-ish. The only issue here is that all these awesome sprites and stylistic battle animations are contained within rather drab dungeons that rarely change anything other than the color scheme.
The audio is quirky and fun. The voice acting isn’t the best I’ve heard from NISA, but it does get the job done, and much of the dialog is downright, laugh-out-loud hilarious. I found myself at various points having to stop for a moment and just smile because the story and dialog is just fun. You’ll often hear lines like, “Pitiful mantears of pity!” and “Innocent as the day I was accidentally conceived.” I think the game even pokes fun at Americans, as well, there’s one line of dialog that, after the Unlosing Ranger (you) loses the initial fight, goes something like this: “Since the Unlosing Ranger lost, America, the world’s police and saviors of the known universe, must act now!” I found it hilarious, personally.
Ultimately, this is one of those games that hardcore JRPG fans are going to love, while I fear the road to entry is going to be rather treacherous for those who aren’t. The challenge is definitely there, the control scheme may get in the way, as well. Not to mention the rough and unforgiving artificial difficulty that really doesn’t have to be there. However, the story, characters and downright craziness of everything that the game is built around do tend to make you smile and at the end of the day, that’s what playing a game like this is all about.