It's been a good while since I last played a side-scrolling beat 'em up. I used to love them back in the day, and here I am in ZHEROS, trudging along a psuedo-3D platform environment mashing the fire button as fast as I can to deliver a series of combo-blows to a bunch of robots that are attacking me. Am I happy? I was for a while, but now I'm a little bored and a tad frustrated.
My issue with Rimlight Studios' ZHEROS is that it has all the elements required to make a great throwback game: A classic side-scrolling beat 'em up that could have been a huge amount of fun. The problem is that it simply doesn't realize its considerable potential – and let me count the ways.
Things start out promisingly enough. There are two heroes to choose from: Lantern-jawed Mike, whose huge muscular bulk means he's the slower of the pair, but he can punch his weight accordingly, and Dorian, a slender female character who's faster and more agile than Mike, but takes a little more time to incapacitate the enemy. Ultimately, both play similarly: ZHEROS uses a button-mashing combo system that sees you stringing together a series of moves by pressing light and heavy attacks in the right order to execute special moves.
As you progress through the game, you can add more combos to your arsenal by smashing crates and picking up the gems contained therein to earn upgrades, which you can then select between levels, assuming you've collected sufficient gems to do so. Each hero can also jump and dodge, and fire a special weapon if their weapon bar is charged up. It's a quite comprehensive movement system that works well: Kicking, punching, and air-juggling enemies is surprisingly easy and fun.
Why are you doing this? Well, that's part of the mystery. ZHEROS doesn't have much in the way of a back-story, apart from a short cutscene that introduces its villain, Dr. Vendetta, and reveals that he's sending an army of robots to invade a planet, which you need to defend. Beyond that, there's not much in the way of further exposition.
Regardless, what transpires is a one- or two-player couch co-op journey through a series of levels that are not exactly packed, but more moderately populated with a bunch of murderous robots. The proceedings start easy, and the mechanoids appear in small groups that are fairly easily dispatched by hammering the controller's fire buttons for all they're worth. The combo system works largely on autopilot during the early levels, and assuming you're canny enough to press the d-pad to ensure your hero is facing in the correct direction to deliver his or her particular brand of justice, you can smash your way through robotic foes with ease. It's even fun at first.
But after a while, it begins to get a little repetitive. The problem is that there aren't many different enemy types in the early stages of the game, so you end up fighting the same kinds of robots repeatedly. Fortunately, before things get too dull, new enemies are introduced, and this helps mix up the fighting somewhat, especially when you need to take on groups of differing enemies. It's here that you need to start thinking beyond just mashing the buttons, and try to block and evade enemies as well as using your combos to destroy all and sundry. The level of challenge does increase, but it's still pretty straightforward action.
What did trip me up, however, were the game's landscape hazards. In some areas there are things like laser beams to avoid and electrified floors to dodge. I navigated past them, but not without usually hitting them due to the rather fiddly jumping and rolling mechanics. Neither is very precise or predictable, making them frustrating to use. There are also certain sections of the game where you need to jump from platform to platform, and it's again really finicky. The game's slightly skewed perspective makes jumping tricky, and the actual act of jumping is awkward because the hero doesn't follow a predictable arc, but instead leaps up and forward in a really odd fashion. As a consequence, it makes it easy to misjudge a jump and fall off a platform – especially if you're not running correctly – and this results in you having to restart the level again. Frustrating to say the least.
ZHEROS also has some rather mean difficulty spikes. My first session went really well, and I made good progress into the game's first of two worlds without incident, until I hit a pair of enemies that took me too long to figure out how to kill. And each time I got nailed by them, I had to restart the level again. If you're going to spike the difficulty level, at least put a checkpoint just before it, so you don't have to keep repeatedly playing through the same pieces of the game time after time. Forcing the player to do that is just not particularly friendly design.
This wasn't the only place I encountered issues like this. There are a few other spots in the game where the level of difficulty suddenly increases and you hit a wall – and it's just not much fun. Fortunately, these incidents aren't too common, but it's enough to make the game frustrating to play. The game also gets pretty challenging later on, and I get the feeling its latter stages were balanced more for co-op play than for a single-player. I really felt like I had to work hard to make progress on my own.
It's a shame ZHEROS is let down by its design, as, like I already said, it does have many of the right ingredients to be a pretty sweet game. Its graphics are nicely rendered, with a blurred effect giving an excellent feeling of depth. The animation of the robots and heroes is solid, and the whole game holds together very well, visually. The combo system is also pretty good fun to use, especially once you start developing your character.
Unfortunately, though, the gameplay is just a little too repetitive, and the difficulty spikes just too frustrating for the game to be worth recommending to anyone other than ardent beat 'em up fans who are looking for a challenge. Hats off to Rimlight Studios for trying to bring back the classic side-scrolling beat 'em up, but sadly it's just not polished and varied enough to hold your attention for more than a few sessions.
Extremely simple menus and basic presentation.
The game packs a challenge, but its difficulty spikes and sometimes awkward controls can make the going frustrating.
Very repetitive soundtracks that are short and play on endless loops. The sound effects are weak too.
Pretty solid: The enemies are nicely rendered and animated, and the backdrops are colorful and lively.
ZHEROS is fun to play for a while. Its combo system is entertaining to use, and its graphics look good. However, flaws in its design include frustrating difficulty spikes, some punishing later levels, and occasionally awkward controls, which results in a game that falls short of its potential.