Zheros PC Review
Side-scrolling beat ’em ups might look simple in design, but crafting a great one takes a good understanding of the genre and building mechanics and aesthetics that can keep people entertaining for more than one playthrough. Look at all the staples of the genre, from the lovely Dragon’s Crown on PS3 that took the elements of the genre and mixed it with a level system and loot, to the classic Turtles in Time on the SNES, which features cool stages, a variety of enemies and a fun combat system with additional moves that included the ability to grab footsoldiers and throw them into your face, filling up the TV screen. These games need a hook and great gameplay to keep you attached, otherwise it just becomes a monotonous experience with the chance to succumb to repetitiveness. Zheros, from Rimlight Studios, is a good example when a studio creates a throwback to the glory days of scrolling beat ’em ups and brings them into the current times, but doesn’t get the gameplay right to rise it up from its mundane 3D scrolling action.
The universe is in peril, as Dr. Vendetta has a plan to send an army, then send more army (you’ll understand if you have seen the game’s intro), to turn everyone into mindless minions for his dictatorship. Story is contained into an opening and ending, but this is a brawler, so that isn’t exactly an important feature. From watching the animated introduction and seeing the exaggerated evil design of Dr. Vendetta, there is instantly a recognizable art style that screams Pixar’s The Incredibles. It’s the same when starting a campaign and picking a character, as these two heroes could easily fit in Pixar’s superhero film. Visuals are undoubtedly the game’s strongest point, looking sharp and well animated, with bright colours that present a futuristic, clean world completely soaking the game in its computer generated look. Sadly, the music isn’t as well done – don’t expect no Go Straight (Streets of Rage 2) or Sewer Surfing (Turtles in Time) here – it sounds like one song is on repeat throughout the game, although, it’s not powering on the senses with it’s techno-tune, so what could become grating is drowned out by the sound effects of smashing metal and explosion.
Disappointingly only two characters are available to use – Mike the big muscle man and Captain Dorian, the quick, lightning legs combatant, which means no more than two player local cooperative action. In honest, adding more characters would only be to enable more players, because adding more would not offer much apart from different looks, as even though one uses fists and one uses legs, unlike say Streets of Rage 2, where each of the fighters feel different to use, in Zheros, you are performing very similar combos, so these two characters don’t feel all that different to play.
Each hero can attack with light or heavy attacks, mixing up the button inputs to create a variation of a combo string. A very limited amount are available at the start, but more unlock by gaining skill points from hitting gem targets in each stage, maximum of two per stage. Heroes can also jump, use a roll as an evasive move, guard and shoot a gun. I do like how the developers try to mix up the combat by being able to twist melee with gun finishers for showy combos. The shield can also act as a reflector for enemy gun lasers or parry melee attacks to block damage and count with a combo. This gave me a feeling that the developers were mixing in fighting game concepts into a side-scrolling brawler, and that sounds cool on paper, but in reality, you never feel the need to use these stylish moves, as you can mostly get away tapping light attacks until the enemy explodes, bar the shielded soldiers, as these need a charge move to break their shields, or the annoying robots that can only be beat by reflecting their bullets.
Fighting is fluent and speedy, but combos are locked to animations, meaning a button chain will perform the action, even if the enemy has died, which can leave you open to taking damage. The only way to get out of this is to hit the block button, which cancels any current animation, unless in the air. In that case, you will have to play it out, but not many enemies can get you while giving a beat down off the ground. Using the gun will deplete the energy metre (also used for blocking). This is easily refilled by finding creates filled with energy. Fighting mechanics don’t particular go anywhere apart from the fists or feet you are first introduced with. There are no weapons to pick up, the only accessory is a giant mech that can be jumped into in some levels – awesome power ensures smashing through waves of killer machines with ease, but these are limited to specific sections of the stage, so crossing a point where the developers don’t want it used will disable the fun killing machine.
Enemy types range from cute little white robots with guns, bombers, shielded mechs, mechanical dogs with wheels, giant bulls in space gear and mini UFOs that come charging across the area with electric saws spinning around their little flying pods. Initially, I was getting a little bored fighting the same tiny robots, but the game does slowly introduce a new enemy type within enough time before I was getting tiresome with fighting the same thing. I must state again that the enemies look lovely in this art style, and their animations are done wonderfully, but that was never one of the game’s problems.
Zheros’ issues starts with the level design. There are two worlds, the first set in a what looks like an industrial space city (10 stages), while the second level is called the wilderness (8 stages), set in a gassy, molten area that also includes some of the same tile-sets from the first world for its indoor building sections. Nothing exciting happens within these stages, and the limited environment selection brings a sense of repetitive design that blends them into one big world. I guess this does make sense when the developer names them worlds, but I would have liked to see more distinctive features between them, because what is here looks great, and adding more uniqueness would have being so much more appealing.
Rimlight do try to break up the straightforward level design with dangerous traps, such as electric floors, jumping sections and heat source that slowly drain health unless blocked by the blast shields. The issue here is that Zheros doesn’t use a life system, so each character has just their health bar, and if that is depleted then the player is sent back to either the last checkpoint or the start of the stage. This often isn’t a problem when fighting enemies, but falling down a gap instantly kills you. Controls for jumping aren’t precise, and the camera doesn’t help much when trying to cross some of the trickier moving platforms, so a simple mistake can cost you a frustrating restart.
There are occasions where some scenarios within the latter parts of the game come with a difficulty spike, the change in its pace can certainly be felt, especially trying to time the roll to dodge, which doesn’t always seem to work well on the bigger enemies, such as the Space Bull. He probably gave me to most annoying time when him and the dogs come together to bring the pain. These sections I managed to cheap my way through by abusing the running heavy attack combo and then rolling away, rinse and repeat, and if lucky, won’t get hit by the Bull’s three hit stun combo. As with most games, bringing a friend into co-op spices Zheros up. It’s not like the game isn’t fun, there is certainly fun here when playing on your own, but with a friend, some of the frustrations I mentioned above with the game design is removed, as a team mate can revive the other player when they are down.
It bums me out that Zheros isn’t a better game. It begins with such a promising start with its beautiful visuals and art, but trips up where it matters with scrolling beat ’em ups – the gameplay. There isn’t enough variety in its level design and themed environments, the difference between characters isn’t enough and awkwardly implemented traps cause frustration. I would be fine with Rimlight trying to achieve greatness with what they have here, as improvements can be made to their visually appealing Pixar-esque brawler. As it stands, Zheros is a serviceable beat ’em up for people who enjoy those games, but never rises up to the challenge in being a staple of the genre, instead, it’s another return to the classic genre that doesn’t bring the potential or grab the essence of what made them so great.