Quite frankly, I'm still somewhat shocked that Utawarerumono Zan received an English localization, to begin with. Utawarerumono, as great as the series is, is incredibly niche. The types of people that would be interested in Utawarerumono Zan would've already played both Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception AND Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, all while being interested in revisiting the first of the two game's events as a 3D Brawler -- that can't be a large target audience. Don't get me wrong, it's great that Zan could get translated and brought over to the west at all, it just doesn't make much sense to me that any company would willingly do it. So if nothing else, props to NIS America for giving this game a chance.
As for the game itself, Utawarerumono Zan is a very loose retelling of the event of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, heavily abridged from its VN/TRPG origins to better match the pace of a 3D Arena Brawler. Tamsoft, of Senran Kagura and MegaDimension Neptunia, handled the development of the title. Although Zan does adapt the story of Mask of Deception, you really shouldn't be playing this game as your introduction to either Mask of Deception's plot or Utawarerumono as a whole. Large swaths of the story are swept over in the story mode, and the title is first and foremost designed for existing fans of the series, to the extent that the opening cutscene outright spoils the ending to Mask of Deception. Utawarerumono Zan is clearly not meant to be an entry point for the series.
Zan's gameplay is more than solid and decidedly has more depth than most 3D Brawlers. Players can take control of 12 different characters, each of which plays incredibly differently. While you'll mostly be using the Square and Triangle buttons to string together combos - combat flows really well, and there manages to be a surprising amount of depth to everything, at least for the genre. Holding down square during a combo, for example, will transition your characters attack chain into a separate combo. Similarly, both tapping and holding down Triangle will offer different actions from the same input.
Some characters have counters, such as Jachwaldt, while others can charge up ultra-powerful attacks, such as Maroro. Chains, which are lifted from the original games, is bound to the circle button, and can only be activated when your character has enough Zeal. Much like in the original TRPGs, your goal is to time your attacks to the circles being filled up, which will strengthen the attack while returning some Zeal to your bar. You can equip 2 Chains to a character at a time, which can be unlocked through side objectives in levels, Free Missions, and a character's specific stage in the Battle Arena.
The more you fill your Zeal, the different buffs your character will receive when they enter the aptly named Overzeal. You might have buffed attack power, increased speed, or even have access to a character's unique Final Strike - a flashy cut-in attack that deals a significant amount of damage to any enemy caught in its crosshairs. Each character in your party can only use one Final Strike per battle, but if you can manage to nurture a second or third character's Zeal to a state where they can execute one themselves, there's nothing stopping you.
Quite frankly, I love the battle system. It does a fantastic job of making every character feel unique, while also maintaining a lot of their playstyle from the TRPGs. Despite everything else that I'm about to say regarding the game's faults, Tamsoft deserves commendation for how well they've translated the gameplay of Utawarerumono into a realtime action game, and it's obvious that the developers were fans of the series themselves, as everything remains faithful to the original games. Character models and animations have clearly been tuned to match the original works as much as possible, and remixes of several series' tunes are energetic and fun - it's hard to dislike the game when you can tell that so much passion has gone into a product for fans, developed by fans.
Which is why it pains me to say that the game just isn't worth the full $60 price that it's retailing for. While the game has plenty of optional content - much of it is simply recycled from the incredibly short story mode. If you're not one to touch side content in games you're going to get about 3-4 hours out of Zan, and that's it. Even if you find yourself engaged in the available side activities, while Tamsoft have done their best to make it interesting - there's only so much you can do about content that's lifted straight out of the 3 hours of story, half of which is dialogue and cutscenes, which in itself is heavily abridged from the story in the original games. I played through most of the available extra material myself, but that's because I ended up loving the combat enough that I wanted more reasons to play the game. But even if you exhaust everything the game has to offer, it ends up no longer than 10-12 hours maximum, and there's no getting around that - it's disappointing.
The game does feature co-op for some specific side missions, which I didn't have the chance to test much during the review period. However, I did manage to play a few rounds during my recent visit to NISA. It's not difficult to envision teaming up with 3 other Utawarerumono megafans that know how to play the game to take on some of the harder challenges -- it would probably be a blast, especially with how much team composition ties into strategy at the endgame. But since there's no local co-op and it's all over PSN - finding 3 other people that also bought the game is probably something that only a handful of people will ever get to experience, which is a shame. At least no unlockables are gated behind this mode.
The side content that the game does have is incredibly padded. Story missions feature side objectives, but you won't actually be able to tackle them until your second time through the missions --then the game locks more collectibles around playing through the story a 3rd time on Hard Mode. Free Missions tend to have fun with the challenges they throw you into, but as previously mentioned - you're constantly fighting on the same few maps from the story mode. There's a bit of a party-building metagame where you can spend "Sen" earned in missions towards equipment drops and upgrades that you can attach to characters to boost their stats. Meanwhile, Bonus Points that characters earn from participating in missions can be used to permanently buff certain stats for each character. Characters each have a handful of costumes you can unlock, and almost every side activity will unlock a song for the sound test. The rewards for completing these extras are nice enough, but they still get monotonous quickly.
One of the sticking points about the game's content, for me, has to be the hints to what could've been. The game features some enemies that specifically don't come into play until Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, which is a much longer game that featured many, many more battles to potentially draw from. Further driving this home is Zan's final encounter, which uses an entirely new gameplay system there and ONLY there, that would find much more use in an adaptation of Mask of Truth. Was the original plan to adapt both games? I don't know, but it certainly feels that way, and I think the game would've been much better for it.
Despite everything, I greatly enjoyed my time with Utawrerumono Zan. However, I can't gloss over the title's numerous faults. It's not worth $60, except for the most of ardent of fans. Maybe if a followup title were to happen down the line adapting Mask of Truth as well, it would be worth it. As it stands, even if you're an Utawarerumono fan, it's hard to recommend anything other than to wait for the game's price to drop. It's a solid game at its center, and I'd have no trouble recommending it on a sale, but as a full-price release, it just doesn't make much sense.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4 Pro
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.