Title (JP): Utawarerumono Zan (うたわれるもの斬)
Publisher: Aquaplus, NISA (NA)
Release date: 27 September 2018, fall 2019 (NA)
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
Originally released as a novel game with strategy elements for the PC in 2002, the first Utawarerumono was later ported to the PS2 and PSP, and was also adapted as an anime and OVA. An HD remake was released for the PS4 on April 26 2018. Its sequel, released in two parts on the Vita and PS4 as Mask of Deception (which also got an anime series, The False Faces) and Mask of Truth in 2015 and 2016 respectively, with worldwide English releases in 2017. The series takes place in a world roughly equivalent to 15-16th century Japan in technology and culture, with strong Ainu influences, that is constantly threatened by war.
Utawarerumono Zan is the latest instalment in this series, the first to be a full-sized action game, based on the story of the first part of the sequel, Itsuwari no Kamen (translated to “Mask of Deception” for the video game version and “The False Faces” for the anime series).
While the game’s story is based on Mask of Deception’s, it is not in anyway a substitute for it: The original’s thirty hour long story is reduced to a mere five in Zan, and is summarised in unnatural ways- Skipping important plot points, character introductions or characters entirely, and glancing over details with vague voiceovers- Meaning that a new player would find it impossible to keep up. Worse, the story sequences make almost no use of the improved graphics and are for the most part extremely cheap, with characters simply standing there and talking with battles being nothing more than the screen fading to black or white with effects on the screen, even in cases where the original version actually had the characters models doing things; The result is that despite being a new game for the PS4, it looks worse than a Vita game from three years ago. It should be noted that the final sequences of the game, which were also shown in a trailer, look nothing like the rest of the game, and are in fact extremely impressive; Unfortunately this portion of the game shining also has the effect of making the rest of it dull. The new soundtrack is also extremely underwhelming compared to the original’s, comprised mostly of bad remixes, but tracks from the original can be unlocked and played in battle to alleviate this.
The gameplay is thankfully not at all bad: It is very simple even when compared to most musou-style games, but combos feel satisfying and some of the bosses actually pose challenges that require thought and strategy. The graphics and animations also shine here, with gorgeous fields and elaborate special moves. In single player mode, the player is given full control over a party of four characters that remain on the field fighting alongside each other at all times, and can be switched between instantly at any time with the D-pad, which is quite enjoyable. Many of the characters also have very interesting moves compared to most musou-style games’ hack-and-slashing, such as Kuon’s martial arts, Nosuri’s acrobatic melee with a bow, and despite there being few variations on combos these remain perpetually fun to use. While the game does feature some character customisation and RPG elements- Levelling up, raising stats, and equipment- Aside from a few clearly broken items (for example one which fixes all damage dealt by the character at 35, which can be abused with attacks that hit extremely fast but for 1-2 damage each time) this is mostly negligible.
Unfortunately, many of the peripheral parts of the gameplay are disappointing as well. The most perplexing inclusion is that of a gacha system for obtaining equipment: While it uses only in-game currency and not microtransactions so the player does not have to spend real money on getting random items, the player still has to spend an exorbitant amount of time on the gacha, doing it over and over trying to get rare items. Furthermore, the gacha animations are slow to skip, and the cursor defaults to doing one instead of ten, meaning that it takes far longer than it should. The game also includes a mobile game style mission/bingo system which has the player perform specific tasks to obtain rewards and fill out a bingo card which yields additional rewards when lines are completed, but this is unobtrusive and unproblematic.
Utawarerumono Zan is without mistake a game for fans: The player is expected to be familiar with the story and characters, as this game makes zero effort to convey them. Unfortunately, there is precious little content to enjoy, even for the most diehard of fans, with the story being a badly-done rehash of Itsuwari no Kamen, and the improved graphics barely being put to good use. Non-fans attempting to play the game would find themselves lost in a story with no context, details, or even ending (like Itsuwari no Kamen, the game ends on a cliffhanger, to be concluded in Futari no Hakuoro/Mask of Truth). The action gameplay is somewhat satisfying, but is simply not good enough to hold up an entire game on its own. The game ultimately feels fatally incomplete. It is also abhorrent that despite this, a 4000 yen ($35 USD) DLC season pass is available from day one.
The Good: The Utawarerumono series’ first real foray into action is surprisingly good.
The Bad: A terrible adaptation of what was a very good story, and an overwhelming overall lack of content.
Conclusion: While it does shine in some areas, there is just simply not enough of good content- Or content at all- For this to be called a good game. It is best thought of as a novelty item for series fans.