Zettai Hero Project: Unlosing Ranger vs Darkdeath Evilman is a game that I file under the category “Good PSP Games Nobody Played.” If you looked at this game and first thought “typical NIS SRPG game,” you’d be mostly wrong. Actually, I take that back. You’d be completely wrong. NIS ventured outside of their usual strategy formula, going more for a Roguelike system that felt like a breath of fresh air to what I’m used to, no negative there. The amount of customization in this game is huge, and all for the one and only character you’ll ever control in the game. I definitely hope ZHP’s system ends up in future titles down the line.
The story is a hero’s journey that felt like a true hero’s journey story. A prophecy is told that a baby will be born at 6AM on the 6th day of the 6th month with the power to save the world. Said baby is born, and called Super Baby. Darkdeath Evilman (I swear these names just crack me up) kidnaps the child with intent on defeating the little pipsqueak and taking over the world. Enter the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger, a guy who….never loses. There is nothing that can defeat him….
Unless you’re a vehicle with four wheels known as a car. I find it a very odd twist of hilarity that while no villain can defeat this guy, a simple car accident sends him packing while on his way to save the world at that. You’d think the end, right? Now no dying hero isn’t a dying hero unless he’s passing his powers on to someone, in this case a random passerby coming from the store (you). In a not-so-typical manner, the powers of the Unlosing Ranger are passed on to a shrimp who has no idea what he just got himself into,which explains why he got trounced by Evilman. The end, right?
Here’s where the core of the game comes in. You, the Unlosing Ranger who just lost and killed all hope for the world, is beamed up to the World Hero Society on Bizarro Earth, where you are to train and become a hero who can defeat Evilman and save the Super Baby.
Get used to the World Hero Society HQ, because the only places you will be going to are dungeons so you can go from a shrimp to a hero. There are various facilities that are unlocked as you go through the story which will be essential for fine-tuning your abilities. For starters, you have a blacksmith to repair and synthesize equipment, your house for storing items and depositing life savings to increase that storage space, but the most important (and most fun) is the dark clinic, where you can perform modifications directly to your body and power up! You have what is called a Shadowgram, which you place chips on that increase your stats and growth. There’s a large level of strategy involved with this and while it can be lots of fun and the possibilities are endless, a reckless modification may do more harm than good since you’d be limiting your potential and chips are actually the equipment in your inventory so you have to go out into dungeons and grab equipment parts.
If you’ve played through NIS’s games before, you’ll take notice to quite a few changes. First, you are free to move around. There are no turns or movement limitations. You have one attack button, you can pick up and throw items (some cause ailments like sleep and poison), and you can dual-wield any combination of weapons. If I want to have a sword and a gun, I will have my sword and gun. Weapons also have various attack ranges for added strategy. You may also develop and acquire skills based on certain conditions or equipment currently on. It’s a large step in a different direction than the usual Disgaea format that is often visited in iteration throughout most games. Definitely not your usual NIS SRPG game. In fact, it’s not even an SRPG; it’s classified as “Roguelike.”
With all this freedom, there are a few restrictions. You have your HP, and a new mechanic EN. EN is at 100% and lowers every number of steps you take, every time you perform an action, attack, etc. If your EN hits 0%, then the cost will be taken directly from your HP and the cost is greater. It will also restrict certain abilities like spells and skill attacks. You must keep your EN up by getting food items or using health items (health items restore little EN, it’s the food you want). There are ways to make your EN drain slower or in some cases faster. If you run out of HP, you will die and the dungeon run ends. Dying is actually very, very bad in this game as you lose any and all items in your inventory, your currency, and any items you have equipped. You do get an Unlosing Cape, though. However, as bad as that sounds, there’s actually a positive effect to dying which will be covered in the next section. NIS also built a mechanic with resetting the game that makes it so if you reset the game in a dungeon, it counts as dying. This is done to prevent abusing of saving. I am totally okay with this, because a dungeon can get tough if you’re not prepared so you actually have to think about what your strategy will be. Will you fight every enemy? Will you use moves that consume EN? Will you dual-wield, which increases consumption rate of EN?
So how do you get stronger? Training, of course. No, I don’t mean train your backside to that couch and your eyes to the television. As you navigate dungeons, you’ll run into enemies. Defeating these enemies will give you experience and allow you to level up. Upon exiting a dungeon via completion or dying, your stats increase and your levels are put into a Total Level pool, where you’ll get even more bonuses when you increase the total level past certain points. Your level is reset to 1 and you have to train some more. You’re basically resetting yourself, but your base stats are higher each time you reset. I wouldn’t call it a pure grind fest; it’s more of a steady progression that becomes more apparent the stronger you are. In games like Disgaea, the increase in your power doesn’t end up too noticeable until you hit the 1000′s. With ZHP, I started 1-hit KO-ing enemies soon as I accumulated about 120 total levels. Even with weapons that have wear and tear, I could still tear enemies apart. Speaking of that, equipment parts have condition percentages that wear down as you take actions or take damage. Once they hit 0%, they become less effective though they generally don’t break. To make use out of equipment you don’t want to use or repair, you can toss them at enemies and deal damage, which becomes a great tactic early in the game.
So, after getting stronger and saving whoever on Earth has some sort of issue on Bizzaro Earth (since they are linked), you are ready to take on Evilman again. You are sent back to Earth to again get trounced on and sent packing back to WHS HQ. This is how every chapter ends. As you get stronger, and earn the recognition and hope of the people, there’s one little thing that changes and that’s the interface of the battle against Evilman, which I thought was rather cool. It starts off all Nintendo 8-bit and goes into a full-blown modernization by the end. Congrats, you are now a hero who is worthy of the title Absolute Victory.
But the journey does not end there. There are secret dungeons that have a large amount of floors, and you can also acquire costumes to transform yourself into various characters, including Dengeki and anime characters. Costumes also have elemental affinities so they are more than just dress-up parts. I had unlocked Disgaea costumes at the beginning of the game, and ran around as the love-obsessed angel Flonne, which was probably one of the big reasons I cannot take the game seriously. Every time I attack, she either yells out “CRACKERS!” or “FISHCAKES!” and I can’t seem to go through a dungeon without laughing at it. I’m surprised most of those collaborations made it into the overseas release. Some games actually had to cut some of that content (Phantasy Star Portable 2 comes to mind).
This game only really suffers from the same thing most NIS games will suffer from, being a game you’d have to commit hardcore to get the most out of it. Most who will casually play this game, as well as other games, will end up missing out on the full experience because they just don’t have it in them to commit so much time to the game, which is understandable. The focus on a single character also narrows the reach of the title, but the core of the game being built around just the main character works. After a while, I found myself putting it down and picking it up again. I think this game could have been better on the PlayStation 3, which is funny because the game was being considered for a PS3 HD iteration when it was being localized for overseas release, but that fell through. That’s a shame as well, because every time I imagine the game with Disgaea 4′s HD visuals, I get this feeling that ZHP should have been that way from the start. I still stand by my conviction that this is a good PSP game that nobody really played, which is unfortunate.
Xelnia’s Verdict: With the PlayStation Vita right around the corner for overseas release, more attention is being shifted in that direction. However, it doesn’t necessarily equate to reduced value in PSP titles. The PSVita is compatible with digital PSP titles although the scope of that backwards compatibility varies with region since Japan’s PSP lineup much larger than in North America. Zettai Hero Project is a game I’d continue to play even after I get a PSVita. Its single-character focus is perfect for a change of pace and definitely appropriate for a title that can be picked up easily and you can take a break from it without hassle. You only have to worry about the main character rather than having an entire party of characters to manage. The level of customization makes up for the single-character focus and I have to commend NIS for taking a different approach with this title, something they’ve been doing quite a bit of lately. You could say the game is a bit restricting, but it really comes down to how you’re managing your resources. If you’re still picking up PSP titles, I’d recommend you go grab this one. Xelnia’s Stamp of Approval and Recommendation get.