Review: Utawarerumono Zan is a complementary beat-’em-up

When it comes to visual novels, there’s a specific complaint that often comes up. People unfamiliar with the genre can sometimes be quick to point out how little "gameplay" there is in such affairs. It was a criticism volleyed at both Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth, two visual novels that didn’t offer players much agency, in terms of choices, and only occasionally broke up the narrative with a battle or two during appropriate events. Utawarerumono: Zan feels like a direct response to such this kind of grievance, but it might go too far when trying to rectify those gripes.

Utawarerumono Zan

Utawarerumono: Zan follows a number of familiar story archetypes. An amnesiac hero appears and, despite being totally unfamiliar with the world, ends up becoming a leader. This person has power thrust upon them, eventually gaining the sort of strength that could make an incredible difference. Haku is the only human-looking person in a world filled with people who have animalistic attributes, like fluffy ears and tails. He becomes a trusted ally of one of Yamato’s Royal Generals and becomes close to the heir to the throne, Princess Anju. Starting with the events of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, Utawarerumono: Zan

Did you ever play any Utawarerumono game before Utawarerumono: Zan? I hope the answer is yes, because this spin-off is not here to tell you a story.

Did you ever play any Utawarerumono game before Utawarerumono: Zan? I hope the answer is yes, because this spin-off is not here to tell you a story. Most Musou games offer some exposition before sending players off into the field to fight. Characters might be established. Certainly, you’ll be provided some sort of reason explaining why you’re fighting. In Utawarerumono: Zan, you’re often dropped into a scenario with little or no explanation. Who are Haku and Kuon? Utawarerumono: Zan aren’t going to tell you. You should have known that already.

Utawarerumono Zan

But, the weird thing is, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. While the two main characters of Utawarerumono: Zan receive absolutely no introduction, sometimes minor characters do! When Atuy and Kiwru are introduced, they each received Story Chapters that only consist of kinetic visual novel segments establishing who they are and why they might matter. It’s baffling. (Especially when someone like Ukon, a much more prominent character, has his major secret revealed earlier in throwaway text.) Utawarerumono: Zan picks and chooses which information it deems important enough to get expository chapters of their own, and the criteria used to determine what matters seems to be based on characters Aquaplus and Tamsoft like best.

As for the the actual fighting, Utawarerumono: Zan features a number of elements and modes folks would expect from a Musou-like. The Hakuou Arena is the area people will spend the most time in, as it consists of the Story’s Chapters, Battle Recollections Missions and Free Battle segments that let you go through past missions with any of the 12 unlocked characters. Network Co-op and Party elements provide opportunities to fight alongside friends. Characters can be improved by using them to level them up, enhancing them by putting points into stats that matter for them and spending the Sen you have earned from playing on better equipment. Most maps have a number of different areas to get through, with main and sub objectives to complete. (These tend to require people to defeat certain characters or numbers of opponents to clear them.) Very rarely, you will come across a “travel” mission that involves getting characters safely from point A to point B. It doesn’t have the wealth of characters or locations that you might expect from an Omega Force game, but it does offer more variety than some past Tamsoft beat’em ups.

Utawarerumono Zan

The thing about Utawarerumono: Zan is that it wants to be a more strategic sort of Musou-like. Its 12 playable characters fall into certain types, for example. Nekone is a mage with abilities that can heal and buff, but her standard magic attacks aren’t great at hitting lots of enemies at once. Rulutieh is a tank with a skill that naturally restores her and Cocopo’s health, though some of her attacks feel incredibly inaccurate and the final hit of her combo is difficult to aim. Nosuri is quick with arrows that can hit enemies at a distance. But, while this kind of definition can help with survivability and in theory provide some interesting assistance, it isn’t the biggest help when playing solo. When you’re going it alone, characters like Haku and Atuy, who have standard combos that hit multiple enemies with every attack, outclass others every time. Even if you are playing with friends, having characters who hit hard, fast and precisely are always beneficial. Especially since trying to time and hit the circle button for Chain Attacks’ True Chain hidden power assaults is near impossible.

The thing about Utawarerumono: Zan is that it wants to be a more strategic sort of Musou-like.

Other attempts to be more strategic can feel slightly more successful. The Sigil system is one that works rather well. The different elemental Sigils each boost different attributes of the party, offering even further benefits when the Overzeal level increases as you fight. The Fire Sigil is set up at the outset to increase everyone’s attack. If you equip the Wind Sigil, attacks have a piercing effect and characters become a bit faster. Being able to choose which sub objectives you activate during a mission is helpful too, as it means you aren’t flooded with notifications that aren’t applicable to what you are doing and there isn’t this fear that you’re unintentionally making major mistakes by not being somewhere at a certain time. The idea of brawniness works well, as it makes fights against bosses actually feel more critical due to breaking through defenses. However, the rear attack bonus, which is supposed provide a damage boost for attacking an enemy from behind, is often too hard to purposely pull off, due to the number of foes around.

Utawarerumono Zan

Utawarerumono: Zan is a companion piece. This is a game for people who already know they enjoy Utawarerumono. Did you play either one of Haku’s main games? Great! This might be for you! If you didn’t, then this won’t be a good fit. It also won’t be a great fit for people who normally pick up every Musou game, due to its execution and pacing, but it does show Tamsoft is making some improvements on its beat’em ups after Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed and Senran Kagura: Estival Versus. It isn’t the best Musou-like out there, but it does have and will find an audience.

Score: 6/10
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: September 10, 2019
Developer: Aquaplus and Tamsoft
Platform(s): PS4
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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