Indie developers deserve all their credit they’ve got coming their way. In a time where gaming is becoming about making money and churning out annual entries in mega franchises, smaller developers remember why we all started gaming in the first place and are still making games for the sheer joy of it. I’ve got a lot of time for Indie games at the moment considering they bring more to the table than most mainstream titles.
So the question I’m asking today is this; whose benefit were developers, Crocodile, looking out for when they made their first title Zack Zero?
Established in 2008, Crocodile recently released their debut title in Zack Zero available exclusively for download from the Playstation Network. Right from the bat, the game set’s itself up to be a flash from the past, an old school platformer. Gameplay takes place within a two dimensional plane with the majority of the game’s depth coming from its platforming puzzles and its combat.
So, what is this game about I heard you ask? Well, its initial premise starts off rather basic, our hero Zack, obviously, must rescue his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by some evil big and bad. So, it’s your standard ‘rescue the princes’ lark then. Unfortunately for said evil kidnappers, Zack happens to be some kind of superhero, possessing a suit which gives him power over the elements of Fire, Ice and Stone. That really is about as much context as you get in the early sections of the game.
Zack Zero actually reveals very little to the player to begin with it just drops you into a stage with most of your abilities and a very chatty mission control lady. As the game progresses, after completion of each stage, there are comic book style cut scenes that piece together the game’s back-story as well as the motivations of the game’s villain.
These parts of the game cast my mind back to years ago when I would get up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons, because that’s what this game feel like to me, like I was playing a Ben 10 game or something. This is reinforced in these cut scenes by the narrator’s style of delivery, he sounds like the 20-something guy who has been forced against his will to read a story to his young nephew, and all the enthusiasm that goes with it. He’s telling the story, but that’s all. It’s like he is relaying some information and he’s not being paid for anything else.
But this is an indie game trying to remind us of the retro platformers of the days of the Playstation 1, and since when did they have deep storylines or character motivations?
So, if the game carries itself with its gameplay, how does that work for it then? Not brilliantly I’m afraid. The game starts of you with the majority of your elemental powers intact. You have four different forms you can switch between at will, a regular form, a fire, an ice and a stone form too. Each of these forms has a range of abilities that are useful both in and outside of combat.
Fire allows you to move faster and glide, ice allows you to slow down time and stone is used for all the lever pulling and block pushing platformy stuff. Each can only be used in brief bursts as they drain a power bar. The bar drains so quickly though that in combat you’ll end up using the regular form most of the time, I suppose it promotes a strategy of switching forms quickly and popping off an attack before turning back, but that requires some level of coordination that you’re not going to have within the first hour or so of gameplay.
The fact that you start with most of your powers, only to lose them and have to re-attain them through levelling up seems a bit unnecessary in this situation I think. Instead of finding some contrived reason to depower the player, the game should have simply started player with next to no powers and say that the suit was brand new tech or something and needed to be explored through use.
The thing is, you don’t seem really overpowered in the first section, the game would have made for a more compelling experience if part of the story was about learning to use the suit and getting more powerful as you go, rather than being knocked from a pedestal at the very beginning. But I’m not the developer; I’m use the asshole that criticises them.
But back to the gameplay, while the premise and array of abilities are all fine, the game falls flat on its face multiple times in no small part due to its gameplay. In the game’s early stages the simple act of platforming is a frustrating mess. You know how in most 2D platformers there are platforms you can jump up onto from underneath, but you can’t get back down the same way? This game tried not to do that, and as a result it comes with an incredibly infuriating mechanic that will have you scratching your head as to whether something is actually a platform or a part of the background.
To jump up onto a platform, you need to jump up to it, but you have to hold the up on the analog stick too so that Zack will move towards the back of the screen and actually land on the platform rather than go through it. However, because often this is being done in conjunction with a diagonal jump, the controls don’t like the fact you’re trying to use the analog stick to do two things at once and just throws you through the stone platform to the bottom of the stage. Once you get to the interior levels, this becomes less of a problem, although it doesn’t go away completely.
This brings me to my next issue, when you fall, you lose life. I’m sorry, but taking fall damage in a platformer? Can you imagine that in any other platformer of this kind? I can understand the reasoning behind the developers making this choice, they wanted to include the ability to create platforming challenges while doing downwards without players just letting gravity aid them in bypassing all the puzzles, but there are plenty of games out there that manage to include descending platforming without killing you if you’re knees bend a little too much.
This actually goes hand in hand with the games rather sporadic difficultly. While the player has a life bar, there seems to be no rhyme of reason to how much damage you take from enemies. Health consists of 5 hearts, but if you take damage from an enemy projectile you lose two hearts as well as four fifths of another one. There might as well have been no hearts and simply have a bar that empties after two hits, because that’s all it takes sometimes. This is at its worst when enemies show up in mass.
Combat is very reminiscent of the PS1 days actually, there being no dodge or block ability, all you have is the ability hop around and avoid any damage, while mashing the attack button as quickly as you can. Most enemies can be dispatched by button bashing, bosses being the only enemies that require some constraint and strategy. Mobs seem to result in many a cheap death in combat, sending more projectiles your way than you can reasonably deal with. Boss fights are well done though, although they do often boil down to a hit and run tactic.
While it can be frustrating, combat does bring back memories of years gone by, and it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be depending on how much use you get out of the different elemental attacks.
It doesn’t matter if you get killed a dozen or so times though as the game will always plonk you right back to moments before you died, meaning the only sign of your failure is your own frustration/boredom. If anything death is too casual in this game, you see there are a lot of floaty collectables in this game, just waiting for you to, well, collect them. However, if you were to jump across a chasm and then die as you collect the artefact, the game doesn’t force you to go back and do it properly, it just counts the thing and you don’t have to try it again. When killing yourself is a preferable alternative to climbing back to top of a pit, something has gone wrong.
I’m giving Zack Zero a hard time though, because it’s not actually all bad. While my rampant negativity might have scared some of you already, those of you still with me, here is what I did like about the game. The graphics are brilliant, the game is in HD and you can really tell. Background and environments are rendered incredibly smoothly and make for a very pretty game to look at. There is a depth to the backgrounds that might sometimes fool you into thinking it’s in 3D.
The game also supports a constantly updating online leader board that pops up at the top of your screen giving you a heads up to such fun facts like the global leader, your global ranking, as well as how you compare to your friends who also play the game. Its interesting little quirk that some might find irritating, but those with a competitive nature will probably find themselves with a new drive in playing the game to be these anonymous people’s scores.
On top of that, the gameplay is responsive and slick when you get it to work properly for you. Other than the platforming problem, it would go down as having excellent controls. It’s a shame about the bugs.
Bugs, oh yes there are bugs. I’m not talking about the fact that you become invincible when you’re hanging from a ledge, oh no, I’m talking about game breakers. I ran into this reoccurring dousey the second time I tried loading the game. I put the game in, tried to continue… and nothing. The game just froze and there was nothing I could do other than switch my PS3 off at the source, sometimes I would get a few seconds into gameplay before it would freeze, but happen every time, without fail.
This left me in a precarious situation, how was I supposed to write a scathing review without even playing the game? thankfully, I found a work around in where if you start the game signed out of the PSN and then sign back in when prompted, the problem doesn’t occur. This is all good and fine, but if this game was bought for a child or by someone who didn’t think to look for a solution online, this would pretty much be a game ending problem, and it could happened as early as the first level the second time it was loaded.
So, I’ve gone on long enough, conclusions. The game is choppy, very hand holdy and can be incredibly frustrating in its most simple mechanics with the cheapness of combat and platforming issues. However, the game looks very good, and once you make your way around that learning curve, it’s actually a pretty fun game. Being the developer’s debut game, it could be ALOT worse, and crocodile’s next game should be something to look out for.
It does give memories of a Saturday morning cartoon series like I mentioned earlier and gives a real sense of nostalgia for us people who watched a lot of cartoons and played a lot of platformers like this back in the day. If you have the patience to give the game a chance and get used to particular brand of jumpy, shooty gameplay then you’re in for a treat. If you’ve been spoiled by indie games and demand only perfection from them, then this probably isn’t for you.
It’s like a Werther’s Original you found in the street, it’s got a lot of crap and grit clung to it, and it’s probably been inside someone else’s mouth, but it’s a Werther’s Original, and Werther’s Originals are good.
The game is available to download from Playstation Network.
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