Hades has ruined me. Zengeon is a perfectly competent roguelike action game, but it’s not the kind of genre-transformative experience that Hades is, and that leaves it feeling a (very) distant second in 2021.
The first issue is the narrative itself. Zengeon has a perfectly adequate (albeit brief) narrative that explains why you’re wandering around slashing your way through hordes of demons. You’re thrust into the role of one of a number of “Celestial Academy” students that has been tasked with dealing with seals being broken and mystic happenings. The game’s actually from a Chinese developer and has Chinese mythological elements to it, not dissimilar to what Hades itself did with Greek mythology, but Hades did so much more with it. When you talk to people about Hades, the narrative, character performances, and so on are absolutely going to come up, and that’s just not the case with Zengeon. The lack of context for mythology that many players will be less-than-familiar with is a significant missed opportunity.
What players won’t miss is how visually attractive the game is, and that is one of Zengeon’s great highlights. From the exquisite and varied environments, to the quality enemy design (the bosses are particularly impressive), and the stylish cel-shaded art, Zengeon is a rich explosion of colour and energy at all times. There is the rare moment where it becomes too much and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on (particularly when you play on the Switch in handheld mode), but that was rarely a game-breaking issue. That being said, when it did have consequences, the perma-death that comes with it being a roguelike could ruin upwards of an hour of progress, and that wasn’t cool.
While Zengeon isn’t the most difficult game out there – roguelike fans will find even Hard Mode a little forgiving – it is, structurally, hardcore. There are no save points mid-game (which is an issue if your primary use of the Nintendo Switch is for quick burst play while on the commute or whatever), and other roguelikes have much better progression systems between “runs.” You’re really only playing for new costumes in this game, and since those new costumes don’t seem to include swimwear (or at least I haven’t unlocked those yet), then there’s not much joy in that. It’s only going to take you an hour or two for a single “run,” and the big problem with this structure is that once you’ve figured out its tricks, it’s all too easy to repeat them. At that point, the story mode becomes quite rote.
The secondary mode is neat though – it swaps out assault for defence and, instead of moving through randomly-generated dungeons, you need to defend an area from encroaching hordes of enemies. With leaderboards and the like, there’s a compelling challenge and gameplay loop that is very moreish. The limited range of moves available to each character – three standard attacks on cooldown and a dodge button – actually help here by forcing you to be strategic and methodical about how you tackle the ever-escalating challenge.
The other big selling feature for Zengeon is the multiplayer, and as with just about every action thing out there, playing with friends is the superior experience. Each character has their own special abilities and utility, and so there are some rudimentary tactics baked into the experience as well. Unfortunately, the difficulty balancing isn’t really adjusted in multiplayer, and what that means is that an already too-easy roguelike becomes positive mundane when collaborating with friends.
More than anything else, though, Zengeon just lacks the refinement of the upper echelons of its genre. The range of procedural rooms and corridors are limited, even by the genre, so Zengeon is less a case of “endless combinations of levels” than it is “generic dungeons slightly reshuffled each time.” It looks great, but in comparison to something like Hades (or Katana Kami, which remains the standard-bearer for level design in roguelikes), there isn’t the same atmosphere or sense that the levels themselves are part of the game. Each character might feel different in combat, but the weighty, dynamic and fluid combat of Hades has been replaced with something stiff and overly mechanical. The lack of meaningful rewards and progress leaves the overall experience feeling a little cheap, as well.
I was hoping for more from Zengeon. “Chinese Diablo” or “Hades but Asian” are keywords that should have translated into one of my favourite games of the year. Unfortunately, while the effort on the part of the developers is clear for all to see, and the aesthetics are there, Zengeon otherwise struggles to meet the highs of its peers. It is a perfectly workable game, and I could easily see a better-resourced sequel from this team delivering, but as it stands, this is a touch too shallow and mundane for its own good.
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