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    [PS4] Utawarerumono Zan

    Utwarerumono is a series of three visual novels with a few turn-based strategy missions sprinkled between scenes and is one of Aquaplus biggest franchises. I'm pretty sure that folks at Aquaplus were a bit jealous of what Type Moon was doing with Fate Stay/Night and decided to follow their lead, first announcing a visual novel prequel and then an action spin-off, Utawarerumono Zan.
    Past Utawarerumono games were developed with the help of Sting, makers of the Dept. Heaven series and Baroque; Sting aren't particularly experienced with action games, so Aquaplus shifted to Tamsoft, makers of multiple action games. Now, Tamsoft might be experienced in action games but it's arguable if it's good or bad experience, as the their latest efforts with the Senran Kagura games weren't particularly weel done.

    Anyway, Utawarerumono Zan recreates the storyline and battles seen in Utawarerumono Itsuwari No Kamen (Mask Of Deception in the west; the second in the series) with an action twist. And here lies the first problem: Zan is limited to what was shown in Itsuwari. The story mode lasts for around five hours, after that you're left with multiplayer and a series of challenges and free missions. There are less than 20 chapters in Zan, and not all those chapters have a battle you actually play. Battles that could have been interesting to play, like Munechika against Yamato troops or Oshtoru against the Uzuruusha, are glossed over and shown in cutscenes featuring either illustrations taken straight from the visual novels or 3D models standing around and talking. A few precious moments have been recreated with 3D animations using the in-game models but those are for the last two/three missions, and those are good and they make you wish the whole game was done in that style, instead of 3D models staring directly into your soul. The 3D models are decent and do a good job of reproducing the original characters, but they aren't as pleasing as the original illustrations; and just like the original illustrations they have only a very small number of poses, so if you've already played Itsuwari No Kamen the story here will be doubly boring. Thankfully you can skip cutscenes right away.

    Going through Zan was exactly like going through Itsuwari No Kamen: Aquaplus and Tamsoft were more interested in setting up a system rather than developing a full game, and I'd personally hate to see a sequel to Zan that fully exploits this system, as Futari No Hakuoro did (Mask Of Truth in the west; the third in the series). This is because Itsuwari was a brand new chapter developed 13 or so years after the first, with a completely new cast of characters, new storyline, and technical requirements. Zan apparently uses a graphical engine very similar to Senran Kagura (the terrible camera gives that away), reuses illustrations from the novels, most probably some voiced dialogues as well, terrain for the turn-based strategy mission, and story progression.
    After clearing the last mission in Zan and seeing the credit roll I was thinking "oh well, they want to separate the two halves" but then no, all story missions completed and now I'm left with challenges I don't really care about, a gacha system for extras, and multiplayer that I still have to try out. I was hugely disappointed by this, especially when production values for this part of the game kicked into high gear and I was really hoping to see the same happening for some of the events featured in Futari No Hakuoro.
    But no, Zan only has the events from Itsuwari. I should have understood that when Zan completely ignores characters that didn't had a part in Itsuwari but were vital in Futari. Deeeeep sigh.

    About the action parts...well, they are OK. If you've played any of the 3D Senran Kaguras, Zan will feel almost the same. In fact, it almost sounds the same, the soundtrack is very modern, with synthesized sounds and a fast tempo that really reminds me of other Tamsoft productions.
    There are two attack buttons which do not represent light or heavy attacks, but rather normal and backstep. Hammering the normal button will result in standard combos, with the backstep attack your character will attack the enemy while dashing backward. Stronger attacks are performed by holding down any of those buttons, and this doesn't really sit well for this kind of game...or any kind of action game in fact. A lot of times when you want to do a strong attack the game registers a simple press, so it's much easier to hammer the standard attack button as long as there are no more enemies on the screen or your thumb falls off. There's a combo system, but fighting is so very basic that the system doesn't really make much use of it.
    The number of enemies on screen doesn't really qualify Zan for the musou genre, for a direct comparison there are less hostiles than any of the 3D Senran Kaguras.
    Beating up baddies will fill a meter that at level 24 and below will only bestow a temporary boost, but from level 25 onward a full bar will give access to a special attack.
    Characters can equip items (how many depends on the character and level) and can use BPs (Battle Points) to increase their stats. Unlike the visual novels boostable stats are incredibly expensive and you'll need to grind extra missions to get anything past level 3.
    And for some reason most story missions don't reward BPs, only experience, so character levels, and the game will promote underlevelled characters for the story mission at hand. The only way to get BPs is to play extra missions, and some of those are just the story missions with two extra optional secondary objectives thrown in. Why not having those as part of the story missions instead of recylcing those for a mode that's not really needed as there are only two challenging missions in the whole game, and the biggest challenge is to keep allies away from some obvious attacks by the bosses.

    I haven't touched any other other extra modes yet, including multiplayer, but Utawarerumono Zan is a massive disappotinment, not because it's bad, it's a very shallow action game with no particular faults or good points, but because the groundwork laid here is completely wasted by a criminally short campaign and repetitive game modes.

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