Visual novels are a little intimidating. After all, to play one is to strap yourself in for hours and hours of non-stop narrative with not a piece of action or taxing gameplay in sight. It’s not that I have an issue with doing that much reading – I’ll bust out The Hungry Caterpillar right now if you need me to – but a book and a visual novel occupy different realms. Settling in for a video game that tasks you with forty straight hours of text is daunting.
The Utawarerumono series – colloquially referred to by me and my college roommate as “Underwater Ray Romano” – circumvents these frustrations by mixing turn-based strategy missions in with the 40 hours of visual novel shenanigans. For some, that kind of experience might still prove to be a touch too rote. You would think that Utawarerumono: Zan, a stylish action game adaptation of the series, would be the ultimate entry point for those with a casual interest in the niche series. Unfortunately, it’s hard to recommend this game to anyone but the most dedicated of Underwater Ray Romano fans.
Utawarerumono: Zan sets out to adapt the original Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, which is currently the earliest chronological entry in the series released outside of Japan. Mask of Deception is a massive, slow-paced fantasy epic with a plethora of characters and a more than a few plot twists. Zan takes that massive narrative and chops it down to a brisk 4-hour experience that ends up playing out like a slideshow drawn on scrap paper. The game does nothing to introduce you to the world or our protagonist, the fan-wielding fish out of water Haku, and just four brief sentences explain away massive events and character introductions in a half-hearted attempt to get us into the fighting as quickly as possible.
Even once we’re in the action and proper cutscenes happen, there isn’t much to soak in. Come into this expecting the same level of fluid animation and crisp cinematography as a Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm game, and you will be severely disappointed. Story scenes simply consist of a character model standing around as their dialogue scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Many of these scenes attempt to depict grand battles and sudden action by simply having characters say what they’re doing as they stand there motionless, or cutting to a random 3D model of an enemy doing their death or roar animation.
There’s a lack of effort in every aspect of the story presentation here that only veterans of the Utawarerumono universe will be able to appreciate. Newcomers are likely to just be confused or frustrated by how much stuff gets glossed over.
Fans both old and new are sure to be able to at least enjoy the fast and fluid combat in Utawarerumono Zan, though. While the game plays out like a typical Warriors hack-and-slash, there are a few different systems that add some variety to the army battling affairs. Each mission sees you building a party of four characters that you can swap between at any time, helping to turn the tides against a new type of enemy or simply stringing together attacks in a unique way. Characters can also learn and equip a variety of special moves that you can bust out during battle once you’ve accumulated enough Zeal, or even activate alongside your party members for a massive combination attack.
While the cast of playable characters is paltry at just twelve warriors, each of them plays and moves in totally different ways. On top of that, a lot of them utilize truly unique and sometimes bizarre fighting styles that I haven’t seen in any other game. I loved cutting through enemies with the speedy martial arts-and-bow dual offense of Nosuri, or butt-slamming onto hordes of monsters with Rulutieh’s giant pet bird, Cocopo. A variety of mission types playable outside of the main campaign also provide some new ways to experience the combat without the hassle of waiting through the barebones story mode.
It’s a shame the story doesn’t take advantage of the visuals of the game, because every character model is crisp and gorgeous. They perfectly match their original visual novel designs, and really shine in the heat of battle during special attack animations. Plus, the UI and menus are lovingly based off of the menus from the original Mask of Deception game, which is a touch sure to please fans. As is the remixed soundtrack full of bangers based off of original songs from the series, all complemented by a strong cast of Japanese voice actors.