Being a Zhero must be one hell of a chore. You get up out of your Zbed, pull on your tight Zsuit, and spend the rest of the day cracking various robotic and cybernetic skulls. It doesn’t matter if you’re punching faces as musclebound Mike or landing kicks as Captain Dorian – everything you see is a mechanical target waiting to be destroyed. This is our Zheros review.
Onward and upward
Developed by Sicily-based Rimlight Studios, Zheroes is a platformer-slash-beat-em-up set in a sci-fi universe where narrative exposition has been sent on holiday, and only the thinnest of reasons is given to get the action moving. An unnamed nemesis has set his sights on a planet, sending his minions to invade. But, after being pushed back by our galactic heroes, the would-be emperor reaches for the ‘Send More Armies’ button.
As it turns out, that initial cut-scene is a good metaphor for what it feels like playing Zheroes, with repetitive combat bordering on tedium. Regardless of which Zhero you choose to play, the tools of your Ztrade are largely similar. A blaster provides some temporary range support until it runs out of ammo, and a small shield allows you to parry whichever enemy you’re facing, or even reflect their attack if you have newt-like reflexes.
If anything, Zheroes has a bit of an identity crisis. It clearly wants to be a side-on platformer, with cleanly laid out levels that use 3D to good effect, as Dorian or Mike move away or towards the camera. It also encourages continual flow of combat, with a hit counter keeping score as you land combos of punches or kicks, and cheering you on with comments of ‘EXPLOSIVE’ or ‘BRUTAL’ when you hit a milestone.
There’s also a hint of dungeon crawler, with wave after wave of robots spawning in. But the significant moves list has more in common with a complex beat-em-up than a button masher, and feels out of place when your main abilities are good enough against the hard-to-pull-off special moves.
Levels are strewn with orange barrels that contain health packs, and blue crates that replenish your blaster ammo. There are also orange crates that drop gold starts, which can be traded for up to 2 skill points per level. There seems little point in this, however, as the points only unlock new skill abilities, and don’t really offer any character progression. You don’t become more powerful, you just get more finger junk to try and memorize.
It’s possible to make up for bland combat with interesting enemies, but even in this regard Zheroes disappoints. The basic Screenman robot makes a regular appearance throughout the game – even the Forbodden Kingdom DLC – although he’s joined by other cannon fodder in later levels. Level bosses also sometimes make an appearance, like a cyber-dog with wheels for back legs, or a confusing cyber-cow-bull-man that spews what you hope is radioactive milk from his crotch. However, these also get recycled time and again to throw in an additional challenge at later points, rather than being single-shot set pieces.
There are some nice touches, like being able to kick a dropped bomb into a pack of enemies, but most of the time it feels like you’re trying to use perfect timing while trying to escape Best Buy against a crowd of menacing Black Friday shoppers. Force-fields that spring up whenever a trash pack land in your path means that there’s no momentum to carry you through the levels. It’s just move, fight, move, fight, like a loud smog-belching commute through rush hour, driven by a soulless misery devoid of purpose.
Difficulty isn’t so much a curve as a bed of spikes, with wild examples such as throwing an arbitrary time limit with a bunch of other new challenges, or moving laser barriers that are impossible to dodge, draining your health just before a boss battle. It’s as if every rage-inducing mechanic from the last ten years was catalogued and repurposed to create a ludo-masochistic tedium-fest.
With narrative context in short supply, there’s little motivation to push through the pain in the hopes of some satisfying reward at the end. Even the level select screen does a poor job of putting the world in context, sharing a bunch of anonymous zones with different layouts but the same rough scenery. Even Mario plumbed in more variety than that, and that game’s old enough to have grandkids.
Yes, couch co-op is supported, just in case you want to share those nuanced feelings of despair, frustration and disappointment with someone you’d like to know a little less well.
The DLC content – Forbidden Kingdom – adds a new location and a new Zhero, but the combat abilities and content are still much the same. A repetitive but palatable beat track is replaced with a repetitive but palatable East Asian track, and some new non-robot enemies put in an appearance, but it’s largely the same thing.
Technically, Zheroes runs smoothly on the regular PS4, although I did experience the occasional crash, either when loading a level, or when exiting the game. Other than that, performance is as you’d expect.
In the end, it feels as though Zheroes is a game that can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be. It pulls elements from side-scrolling platformers, deep beat-em-ups, and button-mashing dungeon crawlers, but fails to bring them together. With a stronger vision, clearer direction, and more meaningful narrative, it could have been the sci-fi romp we were hoping for. As it is, this is one for niche die-hards only.