Utawarerumono gets a new Warriors-like version of Mask of Deception. How does it fare?
Type: Single-player, Online Coop
Genre: Action, Musou
Publisher: NIS America
Release date: 10 Sept, 2019
Utawarerumono: Zan, the latest entry in the Utawarerumono series, is a Musou style game that uses combat similar to Dynasty Warriors while incorporating some of the original visual novel presentation of the story along with a newly animated section solely for this version of the game.
In my opinion, it is one of those games that fans of the series will undoubtedly want to wishlist because it is Utawarerumono after all and if you love the story series, you’ll likely jump at the chance to try a more action-oriented style of play just to see what it feels like compared to the TRPG.
That said, I really think this game is best for those who have already played and enjoyed the Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth games, or at least watched the anime series. I say this because in Utawarerumono: Zan, the story is summarized a great deal compared to the epic visual novel series.
Zan essentially retells the original Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception story, but condenses everything to roughly 12-15 hours in comparison to the 40-50 hours it takes to finish the visual novel TRPG version. For reference, I got to chapter 3 of Zan in a little over an hour compared to a save file at twelve hours from Mask of Deception at the same place in the story. So, you are going to be missing large chunks of the plotline, there is no way around it.
Those unfamiliar with Utawarerumono who just want to play a Warriors-like will likely just barely grasp what is going on and feel like they walked in halfway through a movie…except over and over again with each chapter. These chapters generally begin with a quickly narrated summary and then cut to a choice scene from the visual novel with slightly more animated movement from the characters. This is then followed by some Musou action and then back to another chosen visual novel story section. As you progress closer to the end, there is a newly animated section that is rather well done along with some seriously tougher combat. Overall, it was an okay experience compared to the visual novel but since Mask of Deception is so incredibly long it just really pales in comparison storywise. Get Zan to experience the game from an action standpoint and not much else. You’ll be disappointed if you go in entirely for the story. The story experience from Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is just massively better and highly recommended if you enjoy visual novels or anime in general. They could not even fit all of the visual novel in the anime Utawarerumono: The False Faces, let alone Zan. The story is simply too long. That said, the newly animated scene was surprisingly engaging and heartfelt. That alone was a wonderful experience for any Utawarerumono fan. If you are curious about the game, there is a free demo available as well.
On to the bit that is likely on your mind. How does the gameplay of Utawarerumono: Zan stack up against other Warriors or Musou style games? Well, it does an okay job, and frankly could be a lot worse, but it is not in the same league as a Warriors game. Yet, it is not terrible either. I’d rank it somewhere in the middle, with well thought out combos, stat building, buffs, and level-ups along with sections of the game where the bosses are not beatable until you’ve put in an extra 30-60 minutes of grinding here and there in the Free Missions. Yet, this is undermined by a lack of more strategic gameplay during the missions because the maps are simply too small. It is a shame for a former TRPG as even the boss fights generally felt too easy for the first half of the game. However, it does get harder by chapter 9.
You play with up to four other characters at a time, but some chapters prevent you from doing this so that you learn the controls better and hopefully get more adept at the gameplay using just 1-2 characters. As you play, you level up with XP as well as earn Bonus Points, which can be used to increase stats, and money called Sen for Equipment Upgrades. The main chapters don’t give you a ton of these, but you can get a lot more from the Free Missions that are basically repetitive challenge missions using the assets from the regular chapter missions.
The combo attacks are fairly basic. There are your standard regular attack, strong attack, and special attack for each member with combos for chains and a power meter to buff your attacks when filled up during battle. The attacks do vary from member to member, and you can cycle through them until you find one that suits your play style. Yet, it was rather button-mashy until I got to chapter 9 where there were straight-up boss fights and not much else. Right here, at least for me, I realized button mashing wouldn’t work and I had to do something about it. I looked closer at my options and played with a few things.
First, Sigils are important. These are your basic Fire/Water/Earth/Wind motifs and this party power-meter can affect your party stats. I switched my default Fire Sigil from the attack buff to the Earth Sigil for a defense buff and that helped immensely. Next, there are individual scroll buffs which are very similar to the ones from Mask of Deception. These can affect member stats like HP, Defense, Attack, or even incorporate things like Stealth or becoming a Hit Magnet. Using Stealth on certain party members to avoid detection and Defense on healers really makes the difference between a hard win and a closely lost battle. I didn’t find upgrading the equipment helped much at all. Instead, I found it better to unlock all the Free Missions in a section in order to get a giant amount of the bonus points for stat upgrades. With that, I was able to really bump up the stats on certain members however I liked.
With the Free Missions I not only got more Bonus Points, but I gained a better knowledge of how to time my attacks and use my Special attacks depending on the character. That was very helpful down the line, as on certain bosses during the last half of the game you will need to know exactly how to attack, use your chain “circles”, or know when you are outmatched and do something like spam Atuy’s Lightning Attack as a last-ditch attempt to prevent immediate death. There are also sub-missions in the Free Missions, often available after completing a primary mission. Just make sure you look for them because they are not on the mini-map at all. You’ll get substantially more bonus points that way.
The last story chapters of the game became more challenging and required grinding for bonus points in the Free Missions, but honestly, it was just a bit of grinding, nothing beyond 30-60 minutes. As a reward, you received a motherload of bonus points to get your stats better to even out the odds. As I said, the experience was fairly decent throughout, just not in the caliber of a Warriors game. Those looking for a good Warriors experience should look elsewhere, this is more or less best suited for current fans of the series.
There is also an online co-op section where you can host or search for hosts, even with color-coded rooms by the number of people involved. However, I was unable to test any of those areas since I could not find any online rooms at the time of this review.
Graphics and Sound
The newest thing to be seen here is that the visual novel presentation involves lightly animated characters compared to the static images of the original game. I say lightly because the animations are mostly limited to slight facial expressions and a sort of body to and fro movement. Frankly, I was a little disappointed with the way the characters looked. It was spot on, don’t get me wrong, but the original visual novel static images were gorgeously rendered with more shading and detail. You can’t get that from the animated versions of the characters as much.
For the action graphics, it felt a bit like a game from the beginning of the PS4 life cycle, so don’t expect God of War graphics here. Yet, it was a big upgrade from the original game graphics, which looked more PS-Vita-ish if that makes sense. There is some good detail in the environment with trees and grass and the buildings looked well done. The downside is that the maps were so tiny that there wasn’t much to enjoy in these missions, after a few minutes you’ve seen the whole map.
During combat, I had no issues whatsoever with seeing what was on the screen or following the action and I thought the action animations were great. It was seriously busy, but I didn’t get lost in the fighting at all. Some characters had a good feel to the depth and power of their punches, like Haku, while others were a little more bland with their attacks than I would have liked, but overall it felt reasonably tight with an action to graphics ratio that conveyed the combat action from the screen to the player well. I did think the characters static movements were a little too much, though, as after a win it almost looked like the characters were in a dancing rhythm game because of the back and forth movement when standing still.
While I loved the newly animated intro of the game and the orchestral title music with singing, the in-game music is standard fare game-EDM that is overly upbeat. The background music was just nowhere near the sound of what I’d think of for an action soundtrack on an Utawarerumono game. I almost turned the music off, but my son does this really silly dance when I am playing the game so I left it on just for that.
I think this is a game you can Save for Later on your wishlist when it is on sale, but I feel any fan of Utawarerumono will want to experience this game at some point unless that person has an aversion to Musou style gameplay. Since it is a retelling of Mask of Deception, there will likely be another game to finish the series too. Keep that in mind as you won’t see the true end of the series in this one game.
While the story is incredibly summarized from the base content, I don’t think it is going to bother anyone who has played Mask of Deception or at least watched the anime. You can even skip the scenes by pressing the Options button if you like and just get right to the fighting, which is useful if it is a scene you’ve already seen before. Still, I did like the scene choices and there are some classics involved like when Haku and Ukon share sake under the moonlight. You’ll still get some of the raw emotion of the storyline in Zan, just not all of it. And, to be honest, I don’t see how they could have included the whole story in the first place as it is just too long for this type of game. Also, this is rated T for Teen instead of M like before, so you’ll find some of the more mature scenes have been removed or edited.
The combat gets challenging by the halfway mark, and there are some rather tough bosses toward the end. You won’t find the depth of a Warriors game here, but it could be much worse. It is just a few notches lower combat-wise and just when I thought it was getting to be a button mashfest, I eventually hit a chapter that required a wee bit of thinking and planning. There are 17 chapters in all and a Final Chapter, though the last few are sort of rolled into one.
I suggest waiting for a good sale, but wishlist this if you are an Utawarerumono fan because it is still a fun addition to any Utawarerumono collection. I don’t see myself replaying it, but the one new animated scene nearly made the whole game worth it for me. Also, just being able to attack as Haku or Kuon is a joy all by itself. If you don’t have Mask of Deception or Mask of Truth, get those first though. I found them to be some of the best characters and memorable drama in a visual novel TRPG in years.