Badland Games' "Zenith" is a self-aware, and self-loathing RPG which incorporates not only older JRPG elements, but also includes comedic rip offs of said JRPG material as well as hilarious mockery of some of the 80's to early 90's greatest cult film classics. While it does bare it's own story centered around a foul mouthed mage known as Argus Windall, and his unfortunate dealings with an ancient scepter for the sake of the empire he serves under it continuously displays all sorts of cliches with tons of fourth wall breaking moments meant to stir a reaction from the gamer who is intently playing through the oddly orchestrated adventure. Nothing in the game is overly complicated, and after having played through it myself I realized the main focus was mostly about the developers' underlying message to gamers. Their personal opinion regarding the various cliches, and tropes found within most of, if not all RPGs. It's a proper adult comedy that gamers who grew up playing RPGs can appreciate, and enjoy ... to a certain point. Unfortunately the game does have it's issues, and those issues tend to break the immersion that should have been more smoothly delivered.
From start to finish you will follow in the footsteps of Argus Windall, as Argus Windall. A mage whose sarcasm knows no bounds. As Argus does the bidding of the Emperor, his empire, and the religious sect known as the Criterion early on in his misadventure he unknowingly unleashes a demonic presence into the world. A threat which forgoes the threat of the Elvish homogeny who had them seeking such extreme measures in the first place. This leads to an all out war which is later disclosed through interactive flashbacks, and current in-game predicaments revolving around a new band of hero's attempt to secure the same scepter of judgment for purposes not readily revealed. Through further misfortune Argus finds himself in league with these RPG wannabes, and pursues them in order to keep what was buried, buried. Of course that too fails, and Argus is left once again to mop up the mess of those who got involved in his business.
At base level the gameplay in 'Zenith' is centered around two core elements. Those elements being environmental navigation/interaction, and combat. When it comes to the game's environment, and map navigation you'll find that it operates a lot like the older Final Fantasy games. There's town exploration, dungeon exploration, and over world map traveling complete with avatar triggered battles. When you are not hacking away at enemies in these given areas you will be interacting with highlighted persons, creatures, or objects of interest as you forward the plot, and navigate your way to the end of the game. There's tons of witty dialogue driven captions to read through, and tons of purposeful cliches to take note of as you talk with the characters that are vital to story progression. As far as combat goes it is a simple system with elemental upgrades, and equipment that doubles as special abilities. The assigned abilities include the use of a main weapon (gauntlet, sword, hammer ...), projectile spells, area spells, and an evasive roll. All of which is governed by Argus' health, and mana or the lack thereof. In the case of upgrades as you defeat bosses, and do your deeds of selfless heroism (*cough* *cough*) you will earn points that can be applied to the Earth, Fire, and Ice/Wind tree diagrams. These upgrades increase damage, add combo extensions, and enhance defenses among other things. Some upgrades can be upgraded multiple times ultimately stacking the effect.
When it comes to Argus' equipment he has two equipment sections, or block displays. In the main equipment block found within the 'OPTIONS' menu you can equip a main weapon, an elemental gem for added elemental effect, and a scroll which will allow Argus to cast an area effect spell. Each of these things are tied to the 'SQUARE (gem)', 'TRIANGLE (spell)', and 'X (weapon)' buttons, respectively. Aside from that the boots from the six clothing articles (hat, vest, gloves, boots, necklace, bracelet) adds a rolling ability which is tied to the remaining 'CIRCLE' button. Since it is a sort of hack 'n slash style action RPG experience you can also block using both mana meter, and 'R2' on the controller. As with the used gem projectiles, and the scroll AOE spell the block mechanic will deplete mana meter as it is used. The only way to counter this is to use stocked, and assigned (DPad) mana potions. Just as equipment, and abilities are assigned to the four face buttons so too are the potions to the four DPad directions. By that I mean you'll be assigning potions or non-reusable items to the DPad's cardinal directions for ease-of-access. This will come in handy when dealing with numerous creature threats, or bosses.
Graphically 'Zenith' is a decent looking game. While it's not exactly "Triple A" in presentation it looks polished enough to be just above the indie mark. Following the work of Argus, his comrades, and those he intermingles with offers varying perspectives of this artsy fantasy realm which takes inspiration from games like Baldur's Gate, or even the earlier Final Fantasy games. You can tell in each section of gameplay (which is divided by annoying 3 minute loading screens) which level design is paying homage to which older RPG. The same goes for the environmental, and dialogue specific Easter eggs which also hint at gaming, and film pop-culture references. Some of it may be lost to the newer generation of gamers, but a lot of it can be picked up by today's gaming youth. Not that I'd recommend this to any less than "Mature" gamers as Argus tends to swear, and spell out the F-Bomb quite frequently. As far as the soundtrack goes it to seems to be a virtual patchwork quilt made up of music inspired by older RPGs, and films. If you listen close enough you might be able to figure out what the music came from down to a specific scene or in-game event.
All in all 'Zenith' isn't a game that takes itself too seriously. The protagonist Argus, for example has a sort of Ash of the Evil Dead personality about him which is reflected continuously through his no f**ks given responses to danger, peril, and impending doom. Like the inclusion of Argus himself the game is clever with it's pop-culture bastardization, and has it's "shining moments" in regards to said bastardization. It, however falls short of being anything else, but an interactive adult comedy. Don't expect a proper in-depth RPG experience where mechanics are complicated, are of the utmost importance, or are necessary in regards to enjoying the story's narrative. It's a collage of laughable material with an RPG facade. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Verdict ...
When I first began my playthrough of 'Zenith' I was met with horrible framerate issues. Lag to the extreme. I also encountered at the first boss some issues with the use of assigned potions which would not even work after their cool down period was over. A fellow gaming journalist who also got the game for review echoed similar yet more severe issues with the game's assignment options. There was definitely enough to complain about, and enough to warrant as a reason to skip the game entirely. The truth is the trailers I watched prior to requesting the game seemed to show an entirely different sort of gameplay experience. It was more polished than what I played through, for sure. That having been said this game did have it's shining moments though, and in those moments some potential.
These shining moments, as I like to refer to them included all the things I loved from the 80's film, and RPG culture, and bastardized it all in a way that was hilarious. I actually laughed out loud a few times. I know I shared with you on twitter the mock Final Fantasy crew, but it gets much more deep than that. Without spoiling the Easter eggs you'll find references to the TMNT, The Neverending Story, The Godfather, The Hobbit, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and plenty others. For what it's worth I loved those moments. I absolutely loved them. Was it not for the action having been frequently cut up by 3-5 minute loading screens (WHY!?), and the game being buggy from the start I'd have recommended this game to all of you easily.
As a guy who has been covering games as long as I have I do think the bugs are fixable. In fact the developer might already be working on them as today's playthrough felt a lot smoother than when I first started. Unless these things do get corrected for certain though the game won't be worth it's retail value. I really do hate to say that since I loved the nods to pop-culture, but it's a fact. For now I'll say you might want to hold off on a purchase until it is made clear as to whether or not the gameplay experience has been fixed. I'll try my best to keep you updated on that ...