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Magic shmagic, what I need is a good flyswatter...
By: Steven Bellotti
My first impressions of Zanzarah weren't all that good. I generally don't like criticizing games as being derivative, because there's no concept so old and tired that it can't still seem unique if well executed. But there are some games which imitate past successes so transparently, so utterly without subtlety, that you can't avoid the comparison. In this spirit, Zanzarah is best described as "Pokemon with fairies". Just by browsing the manual, you get the impression of a very thin attempt to re-market the Poke-formula for preteen girls. You roam the world with a quintet of fairies by your side, who engage in battles with passing wild fairies. Weakening wild fairies allows you to make them your own, capturing them in Magic Spheres. Occasionally, you fight other fairy collectors, including the vicious Shadow Elves.
My opinion of the game wasn't the greatest at first. The included readme says that multiplayer is not implemented at this time. This isn't a big thing since Zanzarah isn't billed as a multiplayer game in the first place. But the menu options for multiplayer are still there, which makes the developer look sloppy and amateurish. Once you get past the intro screens, you run into trouble with the interface. For the most part, things are pretty intuitive, but mouselook is handled *very* poorly. Zanzarah was supposedly meant to be a PC/Xbox hybrid, and boy does it show. With a gamepad, these controls might work, but with a mouse, forget it. With the default settings, horizontal scrolling is too fast, and if you turn them down, vertical scrolling is too slow. This is more then just annoying. Battles require a full 360 degree range of view, which you just can't get with a mouse. I had to constantly pick up the mouse and move it to the other side of the pad just so I could finish turning around!
The story is another stumbling block. Zanzarah is a German game, and the translation looks pretty good, but the plot is a non-starter. It's a generic children's book- young girl with a love of escapism finds portal to fantasy realm, has to save it from destruction. It has the narrative feel more of a Zelda game then a story- you give the player a large world for exploration, but block off most of the areas by means of boulders, prickly bushes, crevices, and other such obstacles. Then you throw down a plot, the main purpose of which is to guide the player first to a way to remove the bushes, then the boulders, and so on, until finally the entire world is within reach. The difference is, _Zelda_ supplements this with great level design and characters you can care about. No so with Zanzarah. Level design is decent, but the heroine is a cipher whom we learn absolutely nothing about over the course of the game, the supporting cast is just as zero-dimensional, and the villain is absent until the very end. There's also a couple of "because the writer says so" plot twists, some unremarkable dialogue, and an ending that doesn't provide much in the way of conclusion. I can't say I don't like exploring and treasure hunting, but I have to say that the lack of plot, and the uselessness of the various powers you acquire for purposes other than removing barriers, really drains a lot of the enjoyment out of it.
Once I got into Zanzarah, however, I couldn't stop playing. The first thing you notice is the graphics. The poly count is a trifle low, but even so, Zanzarah looks absolutely *beautiful*- richly detailed landscapes, lush and vivid environments, elves and dwarves out of the best fairy-tale art books... and COLOR! Too often have I ho-hummed at "realistic" RPGs sporting so much grey stone, brown dirt, foggy atmosphere, and sickly green grass. Zanzarah is not afraid to be bright and lively. The greens are verdant, the sky brilliant blue, and the sun bright and shiny. (Well, okay, they get a little carried away with the lens flares...). Sound isn't so special, but not bad either, with some soothing Celtic BGM. There are voice samples, but only Amy's is in English (with a slightly annoying London accent). The rest of the samples seem to be a fictional dialect with either French or German accents, depending on the character. The fairies also have victory cries and moans from injury, but these are trivial.
Combat is simple in concept, but surprisingly deep strategically, requiring reflexes, timing, and careful planning. When you meet a wild fairy or hostile collector, your fairies are teleported to an arena, where they fly around and fire energy blasts at each other. And when I say fly, I mean FLY. You don't just jump around platforms- you soar through the air, transcending gravity. There are 12 different classes of fairies, with vulnerabilities set up in the usual rock-paper-scissors fashion. Mastering this aspect is critical- a well trained "rock" fairy can easily trounce a "scissor" fairy three times its level. Fortunately, the help screens (which the manual fails to mention- press F1 at any time) provide a chart of what beats what. All fairies have two strategies, each of which contains an active spell which functions as your attack, and a passive spell which gives you an edge- status effects, better critical hits, protection, etc.. Spells are treated like weapons- you can equip and unequip them, and they're keyed to specific elemental types. Knowing the spells is important- a wild fairy with damage reflection can really ruin your day. With everything taken into account, battles can be quite challenging. My only complaint, other then the aforementioned mouselook problem, is that switching from one fairy to another leaves them both vulnerable for a moment.
The only thing that really stops me from recommending Zanzarah strongly is the price. It's a very short game; I blew through it in about fifteen hours and missed very little. I had a great time, yes, but I'm not quite sure I'd want to go through it a second time. If multiplayer ever gets implemented, that will extend the game's life tremendously, but right now I'm not sure this game is worth the $45 price tag. Rent it first, or wait a few months and grab it in the bargain bin.
But do play it, if you get the chance. I was skeptical of Zanzarah at first, but it was surprisingly enjoyable once I got into it. Those who can look past the borrowed concept and nonexistent plot will find an entertaining game of exploration and tactical combat, with astonishing visuals. Zanzarah is a rare jewel on the back shelf, very short, but great fun while it lasts.
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