Being funny is a tricky business. Zenith, from indie studio Infinigon and publisher Badland Indie, is pitched as an old-school RPG adventure with a modern-day twist – which roughly translates as classic isometric dungeon-crawling with a few jokes thrown in.
There’s something very 90’s about the writing in Zenith – i.e. it’s all very post-modern and achingly self-aware, glibly referencing and riffing on the fantasy genre in the same way movies like Scream poked fun of horror movies. It reminded us of Fable, without as much charm, but with a few more swear words (pearl-clutching prudes, this isn’t the game for you).
So you take on the role of wizard Argus Windell, a retired arcanologyst just looking for peace and quiet after a lifetime adventuring through dungeons and battling demons and doing whatever else it is that RPG heroes generally do (looting recently slain corpses, mostly). Then it all goes oh-so-very wrong, and Argus is tasked with preventing the end of the world courtesy of demonic forces.
But however ace that set-up sounds, there’s a real problem here. Because the story’s running on jokes, it never quite hits the gravity that some of those ultra-long dialogue sections would imply. Skyrim this ain’t. In fact, a fairer – if somewhat inaccurate – comparison would be to the Monkey Island series, featuring a smart alec protagonist with a good run on sarcasm. His stats, in fact, specifically state that his sarcasm is +999. It’s that sort of game.
Consider the amount of reading you’ll go through, we felt the story should either be far more engaging, or far funnier. A good rule of thumb in comedy writing is that every third line should be a gag of some sort; here, it’s around every seventh line. Might not sound like much of a difference, but man, it sure feels it when you’re reading and reading and reading and laughing and reading and… Actually, laughing is a bit much – you’re more likely to offer a wry smile or a dirty snigger than an Earth-shattering chuckle.
That being said, however cheap or lazy a lot of the jokes are, some definitely hit: Early on in the game you’ll meet a potionist who protests that actually he makes a lot more than just health and magic potions. ‘Yeah,’ Argus replies, ‘But people just save them for special occasions that never arrive.’ And any fan of fantasy RPGs knows just how true that is.
OK, we don’t want to be too harsh – after a slow and wordy opening, Zenith does pick up the pace, with the forced jokes and constant chatter disappearing in favour of allowing gamers to actually, you know, play. Another strange thing happens here too – the jokes start to become…better, funnier, as if the developers’ nervousness wore off and they started to really run with the world they’ve created.
Combat is deliciously simple and smooth. Engage your foes using scrolls, magic gems and standard swordplay and fisticuffs – each of these are themed around on a particular element (earth, air and fire, Captain Planet-style). Oh, and you can dodge, too, and use a shield when the going gets tough. Enemies are par for the course – trolls, demons, mechanical odd-bods and the like. But because that combat is so damn effortlessly fun, you’ll happily overlook the repetitive nature and take what you can from their lifeless bodies.
As you’d expect from an RPG, you’ll pick up everything from magic scrolls to belts imbued with affinity or resistance to certain elements. It’s all fairly shallow, but still just interesting enough to keep you hunting out that next armour upgrade or a better weaponry. Not finding what you want? Pop into the local tavern and just buy it from a buxom bodice-wearing barmaid. Because hey, that sort of mechanic is in every other fantasy RPG, so why not here too?
In terms of gameplay, there’s one niggle that we always struggle with in games: No camera controls. It’s not the end of the world, but it can be frustrating as you want to angle the cam to see what lies ahead, rather than running headlong into danger. But that could be, in part, a throwback to the golden age of RPG games with their fixed cameras, so we’ll forgive it – especially since we got used to it after a short while. Continuing with that old-school theme, gamers are presented with an overworld – you know, the Final Fantasy sort, where you’re as big as the towns themselves (elsewhere in the game there’s another funny reference to Final Fantasy VII, but we won’t spoil it for you). The overworld here is super-annoying, for the same reasons that it’s annoying in just about every other game: It breaks the flow and means long load times when you engage in chance battles with trolls. We can’t fault the game’s scope, particularly since it’s an indie title, but this overworld, complete with choppy frame-rates, doesn’t help maintain momentum.
But if you’re looking for a silly piece of escapist RPG, you could do a lot worse than Zenith. Its heart’s in the right place, even if some of the jokes feel forced. And that fast-flowing combat is near faultless – it’s just a case of pushing through the opening act until the gameplay starts to speak for itself. That’s when the fun really begins.
Zenith is available from the Xbox Store, priced £15.99
A fun, and mostly funny, old-school RPG fantasy fans will love.
Pros: Flashes of clever humour, with subtle (and not so subtle) parody. Big scope from a small studio. Some of the most fluid and fantastic combat we’ve played in this genre.
Cons: Flashes of not-very-clever humour. Unreliable overworld frame-rates could annoy in an already annoying mechanic. Fixed cameras make life difficult.