A New Style of Play
Utawarerumono, while full of letters and very difficult to say, is a series of longstanding name typically appreciated by its loyal fan base. Previous entries have seen the series’ protagonists venture through various perils in a turn-based strategy RPG with a visual novel storytelling aspect. It’s a combination that, while never particularly groundbreaking, is proven. Utawarerumono Zan, the fourth entrance into the series, makes significant adjustments to vital pieces of gameplay, essentially delivering an entirely different game than its predecessors.
In Utawarerumono Zan, you follow the continuation of Haku’s story. Having lost his memories, Haku is assigned to a secret squad (which doubles as the caretakers of an inn) under the command of the Mikado. While the opening of the adventure is rather pedestrian, once you hit chapter ten and on, the plot picks up. In fact, there’s a heavy tonal shift around chapter 12 that I, at least – a series first-timer, admittedly – didn’t see coming. What felt like a traditional fantasy game adopted interesting sci-fi tendencies to create an intriguing plot – even if the entire dub was in Japanese.
For a strategy RPG, non-English dubs are perhaps the most accessible. All you need is the ability to read, and there isn’t a concern for missing anything important. In those cases, I like to turn down the voices and transport myself back into the late 90’s, early 00’s and read the dialogue. What makes the dub an issue in Utawarerumono Zan is that the gameplay is entirely different than previous entries. Gone is the tactical combat, with hack-and-slash, Warriors-esque gameplay in its stead.
With that said – and complaints about the dub aside – Utawarerumono Zan delivers a hack-and-slash title that is both familiar and somewhat fresh. The game mostly reminds me of a Dynasty Warriors title, with its fast gameplay, numerous enemies, and style of combat. It differs, however, in its approach to ‘officer’ type enemies and map setup. Each mission has multiple objectives for the player to complete, and as the player completes these objectives, more open up in various locations on the map. For example, at the beginning of a battle, the first objective may be to eliminate 50 enemy soldiers. Once that is completed, the next mission may be 100 yards to the north in a new segment of the map. For this, the player may have to eliminate three officer type enemies before making way for the next objective. Most missions resulted in a boss battle, with the occasional sigh of relief when the level flipped without one (or, at least, without a traditional one).
Visually, Utawarerumono Zan is relatively average. The character models have that anime, cel shaded look that is popular with these types of niche games. Maps are small but pleasant, and the hand drawn still images are nice to look at. The soundtrack, too, works well and features a traditional Japanese style. Overall, Utawarerumono Zan knows what it wants to accomplish and does that well. Fans of the series should, at least, enjoy the presentation.
That, however, is where things may get rough for fans and newcomers alike. As a newbie myself, I found the plot filled with gaping holes. Perhaps prior narrative knowledge would have made my experience a bit more cohesive, but I believe the story, as it was laid out, was skeleton bare. Sometimes the game was narrated by Haku, others by the game’s narrator. Either way, it felt like huge chunks were glossed over, ignored, or forgotten about. The game felt like it skipped from place to place and decided to forego the important character and plot building aspects in place for more hack-and-slash combat.
Combat in Utawarerumono Zan is a button masher at heart. Smashing the square button launches your characters into frenzies of attacks, while smashing the triangle button provides you with a heavier attack. Some attacks can be charged to yield different results. While some of this game grew stale very quickly, the player is provided with a wide array of playable characters, each replete with fresh sets of skills – meaning the player isn’t required to continuously use any one given character,
Overall, fans of the Utawarerumono series will find a lot to love about Zan – if they weren’t looking for another SRPG. The hack-and-slash elements can grow stale quickly, but the game allows for enough differentiation between playable characters that the longevity of the game is that much more. RPG fans can find much to enjoy here, too, with many classic RPG elements littering the menus. Fans of visual novels might enjoy this, too, especially if they come in with prior experience with the Utawarerumono series to hopefully fill in some of the massive blanks.