Have you ever had a great day ruined by somebody else's selfish actions? That's exactly how Zack Zero, a futuristic Buck Rogers-style hero, feels after saving the universe by slaying the evil Zulrog's brother. Here's a guy just looking to celebrate his triumphant victory, but the world around him thwarts him every step of the way. First his girlfriend, Marlene, gets kidnapped and then his special elemental suit gets damaged in a fall. It looks like Zack is going to have to complete this mission the hard way.
And so starts the new 2.5D action game from Crocodile Entertainment. With its paper-thin story and generic hero, Zack Zero may not be the most exciting game of 2012. However, the lengthy quest, amazing graphics and puzzle solving is a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours ... assuming you can get past the game's many imperfections, that is.
As Zack makes his way through the game's numerous levels, he will be fighting enemies and upgrading his special power suit. Although broken, the suit allows our hero to transform into three different elements -- earth, fire and ice. As you might expect from the set-up, Zack will need to use his various powers to solve puzzles allowing him to advance. For example, he'll use his earth form to break down walls and push heavy boulders into place. On the other hand, the ice form allows you to slow down time and the fire form gives Mr. Zero the ability to float on air for a short time.
All of these different forms are extremely important if you want to get through the game, but are used a lot more sparingly than you might think. Sadly, there are only a couple of moves for each element, making them all but unnecessary for most of the game. I found myself spending huge chunks of the game as the regular old hero, the guy who throws a disc and has a sword for short range attacks. Although limited in what he can do, the regular form is able to double jump, grab on to ledges and most everything else you need while traversing the stages.
The stages themselves are unique, though you've seen a lot of them before in other side-scrolling action games. You'll fight through an underground cavern, through a lava pit, over moving platforms and past a robot factory. Most of the time you're simply running left to right (or, in some special occasions, right to left) hacking and slashing your way to victory, however there is the occasional fetch quest and platforming puzzle to break up the repetition. As I mentioned earlier, there are also a bunch of paths you can only open with your elemental powers, though they aren't as complicated as I would have preferred.
While the level designs improve towards the end of the game, I found the early stages boring and uninspired. They are beautiful to look at, but they lack the depth of the 16-bit games Zack Zero is clearly inspired by. As simple as many of those classic platformers from the 1990s were, they featured incredibly deep level designs to toy around with. Sadly that's lacking in this game. Here we have a lot of stages that are not much more than walking in one direction and fighting, almost like an old school brawler. Worse yet, too many of the puzzles are repeated from one stage to the next. How many crate pushing puzzles does one game need?
From time to time there are hints of something deeper. For example, some stages seem to have layers of platforms. That is, by pushing up or down while jumping you may reach a path that appears to be in the background. This is the sort of thing that was done expertly in Sony's LittleBigPlanet franchise. Here you're left hoping that Zack will land on one of these ledges, something that isn't very consistent throughout the course of the game.
Thankfully there's one thing that is consistent -- the gorgeous graphics. Zack Zero is an unbelievably good looking game. It's not that the characters are especially original or interesting, but rather the way the camera focuses on objects. The foreground is detailed to the point that it almost looks like stop-motion animation, and I love the way they use soft focus to give off the depth of field. What's more, the bad guys have a tendency of walking into Zack's path from the background. It really feels like these characters live in that world, which is not something you can say about a lot of the games that influenced this action title.
The audio isn't nearly as lucky. The music is often forgettable and the voice acting is some of the worst I've heard on the PlayStation 3. It's not for lack of trying, but the actor they hired to narrate the game is definitely not up for the task. Lines are delivered as if this is rehearsal, usually lacking any emotion or impact. You're better off muting the game and listening to your own tunes.
The bosses are also impressive, each one taking up most of the screen. There's a mechanical spider towards the end of the game that is scarier than any arachnid I've seen in Resident Evil. These boss battles are multi-part fights, which means that they'll have three or more completely unique attacks based on how much damage you've inflicted. On the other hand, these battles are made easier thanks to the checkpoint system. You rarely have to worry about your health depleting when you know that you'll be able to continue right where you left off, this time with full health.
It's worth noting that for the first two months of the game's release, Zack Zero suffered from a number of game-breaking glitches. Some were minor inconveniences, while others would literally freeze your console for simply loading a save. Thanks to a 450 MB patch, many of these problems have been resolved. You'll definitely want to grab that title update before diving in, otherwise you'll loathe the day you downloaded Zack Zero.
Unfortunately, one thing that wasn't addressed in the patch was the game's loose control mechanics. Perhaps this is a product of using the analog stick to move Zack around (2D action games are historically better when played with a D-pad) or maybe our hero is just a little too fidgety for his own good, but either way I had a lot of trouble sticking to ledges and making accurate jumps. This is the kind of thing platformers have been getting right for a quarter century, it's a shame the developers couldn't tighten up the gameplay before uploading it to Sony's server.
This isn't a bad first attempt by Crocodile Entertainment. Zack Zero has a few good ideas and incredible graphics. Sadly the gameplay feels a bit loose and the level designs are an uninspired mess. The biggest disappointment is the use (or lack thereof) of the elemental powers. Considering this is the game's gimmick, I expected more from the power suit. A lot of the puzzles feel tacked on, only there to keep you from beating the game in a quick 90 minutes. Zack Zero does have its moments, but they are few and far between.