It’s funny because it’s that thing I’ve heard of.
Publisher: BadLand Games
Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: September 20, 2016
You know, when you think about it, writing a love letter is an incredibly tricky thing to nail. Besides getting the sentiment correct and choosing the right words, you also need to find the right colour pen, have good-looking handwriting, the right kind of paper and, of course, a beautiful looking envelope to deliver it in. Zenith, the first game from new developer, Infinigon, attempts to be a love letter to RPGs of all kinds, with a few pop culture references here and there. At first glance, its envelope looks great, sporting a trailer that takes a more grounded view of a typical RPG – mocking teenagers with spikey haircuts, messing up local politics, and touching all the shiny and obviously dangerous stuff they find in a dungeon. In fact I’d actually say that it was the trailer’s dry wit and disgruntled narration that sold me on the idea of the game.
But after opening up the envelope, it becomes quickly apparent that while Zenith’s love letter to RPGs definitely has the sentiment correct and at least half of the words are romantic, it looks like it’s been written on a roll of toilet paper in Comic Sans with a green crayon, signed with something brown that you pray isn’t what you think it is.
First and foremost, Zenith is a game that’s main selling point is its comedy and writing. Admittedly, Zenith does actually start off pretty strong in that regard, quickly setting up a world with magic, monsters, and tenor singing spiders. Oh and some stupid war between humans and elves, I suppose. These opening hours serve to showcase that Zenith’s comedy shines its brightest when it either elaborates on the aspects of its ridiculous world or poking fun at the general conventions of nearly every RPG. One of my personal favourites comes from the idea that the main character, Argus, is only interested in obtaining health and mana potions because he’d always just save any others potions for really important moments that never came – totally not something I, or any other Skyrim player has done before.
It’s unfortunate then that the majority of Zenith’s humour comes from outright bashing on games with the same subtlety and grace of an elephant being fired out of a glass cannon. It doesn’t exactly help that there isn’t any voice acting that could help in their delivery either. Throughout the game, you’ll come across characters that have been modelled purposefully to look like characters from other video games, just with a letter added or removed from their name in order to avoid some kind of copyright infringement – I mean masterfully parody that character. I mean, where did they come up with the idea to call a guy with spikey blonde hair, a giant sword strapped to his back Claude? Basically, these serve as dumb dialogue dispensers for the main character to roll their eyes at and mock either them or the game they belong to. As a result, this kind of comedy just gives the game an unjustified sense of arrogance against games that are much better than Zenith could ever hope to be. While games being mocked all have their own share of stupid things to make fun of, they at least have something over Zenith: they’re actually fun to play.
Gameplay-wise, Zenith plays like a simple action RPG. You spend most of the game running around linear dungeons fighting monsters and solving rather dull puzzles that require you to find certain items hidden throughout the hidden passages of each dungeon. Combat is simple and easy to master, using only four abilities that have been assigned to the face buttons: an Area of Effect (AOE) attack, a long distance magic attack, a short-range melee attack and a dodge roll. While this setup has the potential for fun and varied combat encounters, Zenith’s enemy AI is sadly rather simplistic in that they basically chase you down, attack when they get close and then chase you again until either you or it dies. This is made especially irritating when none of the game’s enemies have any kind of recoil animation after being hit, let alone give you maybe a second between attack animations to land a hit, essentially making it almost impossible to avoid taking damage during every combat encounter. Honestly, the combat is so poorly implemented that I ended up finishing the last half of the game using the same strategy: run around until the enemies were in a big group, cast an AOE spell, run away and repeat until everything is dead.
Zenith also sports a typical character building system found in most RPGs, allowing you to customise Argus through a skill tree and gear that you can buy or find via loot drops. Unfortunately, anything that you do in this regard doesn’t ever feel like it has any effect on how you play the game. Gear can improve your health, mana, and general elemental magic attack and defence, but thanks to how crappy the combat is, you never get the sense that you’ve become stronger or tougher since your attacks never feel like they have any sort of impact on enemies. And because you’ll always end up taking at least a few hits during combat, you don’t even know if you’re taking less damage than before. The same thing goes for the skill tree, which only has an effect on your elemental attacks and miniscule stat buffs such as quicker health and mana regeneration. The thing even ends up giving you an ability that somehow makes combat exceptionally frustrating, by making your dodge move cost a huge chunk of your mana in order for you to move just a little bit further than you used to. Of course, you wouldn’t know this about the ability as the game refers to the effect as “adds a new effect to your dodge roll”, without actually telling you what it does or letting you turn it off. So once you get it, you’re stuck with it – basically making the dodge roll unusable for the rest of the game.
Overall, despite its decent first impressions, Zenith ends up being an incredibly frustrating and unplayable game that is nowhere near the US$15 asking price on Steam, let alone the ridiculous price of AU$25 on PSN. Its combat is dull, repetitive and infuriating. Its story is essentially a giant fetch quest that ends with a boss fight in which you fight every single one of the game’s enemies all over again. And while it has shining moments of chuckle-worthy comedy that shows love for the RPG genre, these are quickly bogged down and buried by the rather toxic and sarcastic jokes that pollutes what good intentions the game seems to have had. If I didn’t know any better, I’d honestly think that Zenith was just being snarky and bitter at every other game on the market just because they were much better than it could ever hope to be.
Final Score: 1.5/5
Final Recommendation: Don’t Even Bother