Love and Loathing in Las Zenonia.
Zenonia 5, Gamevil’s latest installment in the Zenonia series, is a fantasy action RPG for Droid. Players enter an engaging fantasy world, with charming characters, oddly adorable monsters to fight, an epic destiny, and all the other J-RPG standards, but a frequent need to spend premium currency to progress, and storyline events that require familiarity with previous Zenonia make this delightful world very hard to access.
Players can choose between four playable characters, each of a different class. Abel is a Berserker, Neal’s a Wizard, Ryan’s a Paladin, and Evan is a Mechanic. A Mechanic has a ranged attack and steampunkery accessories. You’re also able to customize your character’s hair and looks, although I couldn’t find a way to change the name or gender, and changes to the character art don’t carry over to the larger images of your character associated with dialogue, which is occasionally disorienting.
The story opens with a confusing argument between a king, a girl in a bikini, someone who seems to have killed a witch, and a dude who is becoming the devil because the wealthy have oppressed the poor. Then they battle! For folks unfamiliar with the previous Zenonia mythos, this is all pretty obscure, but in a moment, it seems that this sequence was all a dream! Your character is just as confused as you are! Phew! Your first action as a player is to have your crazy dream interpreted.
Fortunately, after the opening cinematic, players don’t need to be terribly familiar with previous Zenonia games to enjoy Zenonia 5. Players take on the role of a world-saving hero with huge weapons and anti-gravity hair, and use cute little power-up items to battle the strangely adorable monster enemies. The overall tale of a young boy with an epic destiny to save the land is pretty easy to follow. The game mythos is broken up into enough smaller story arcs, with generic objectives like fighting this enemy, helping this character, delivering this item, that it is quite accessible to players who aren’t familiar with Zenonia.
The game begins with a character-driven objective, and no player tutorial, which is usually my favorite way to jump in and play. After a little experimentation, and reminding yourself to use the controls and not try to click the screen, movement becomes clear and easy. Players use the green movement stick on the left to navigate, and an activation button on the right to talk, pick up, attack, and otherwise interact with the game world.
As your new hero gains strength and skills, you can add commonly-used attacks to the radial menu on the right-hand activation button for easier access. After a few battles, improved combat strategies emerge. Still, I thought it was annoying to be asked to navigate and battle without any explanation of the controls, and then be charged a decay penalty or premium currency when I died.
See, a lot of things in Zenonia 5 require Zen, the game’s premium currency. It seemed that I needed Zen to get Origin of Life to get a respawn. It was annoying at first — I felt punished for not knowing the combat controls instantly — and it became annoying again at higher levels, where I needed a respawn (or two) to defeat dangerous enemies. Many scenarios that were difficult, time-consuming and basically impossible to complete without Zen. Devoted fans of the game might say that this is just my newbie problem or that a skilled player could get further without premium upgrades. It’s definitely possible to die fewer times, and require less Zen, but I don’t think optimizing one’s play to avoiding being charged premium currency is a particularly appealing or admirable game goal.
I found the free-to-play label unpleasantly misleading. I believe that entertainment has value, that dev teams should be paid for their work, and that money I spend on my gaming hobby is not wasted. I’ve cheerfully purchased games and cheerfully paid for premium currency that adds value to an existing game. But in Zenonia, I felt constantly tricked by discovering how often I needed to use Zen and Elixir of Life in order to engage the game or get anything out of it.
Between the confusing opening story, lack of UI instructions, and the immediate need to pay premium currency, there’s a fairly high barrier to entry for players. But once inside, Zenonia 5 is a solid Asian action RPG. Non-player characters have style and charm, enemies are strangely adorable monsters, and the fantasy locales are escapist and delightful. Graphics are charming overall. Zenonia 5 is only compatible with my Android phone, and not my Kindle Fire, and although RPG gaming on an ereader is probably a fairly small segment, it seems a shame to have those cute and scary creatures in fantasy environments trapped on an itty-bitty screen.
Fans of the strategy-action combination have a lot to enjoy here. Developing a workable combat strategy is not hard, and after that, there’s a lot of room to tweak and experiment to find the optimal combat strategy for each character.
Zenonia offers players a massive world that just begs to be explored and enjoyed, so it’s easy to wander off into difficult fights, and death is punished with decay or a premium price. Actual out-of-game concerns over in-game damages breaks the magic circle of delightful exploration and experimentation most of us love in RPGs, and it’s a real disservice to such a charming fantasy world.