It was when my five-year old wandered away from Zheros that I knew something was wrong.
I mean, despite looking rather fetching in a bright, cathartic sort of way, Zheros commits the cardinal beat 'em up sin. A sin that shines like magnesium under flame. Far more egregious than being outright bad is being downright boring. As I thumbed the same simple combo attack to clear the same, simple gang of robots, the engagement level was so slight that I barely needed to keep my eyes on the screen. My ruthlessness in appraising Zheros stems from the sad fact that, with a little effort, this could have been so much more.
Beyond the pedestrian setup that establishes a megalomaniac hellbent on taking over the galaxy via an army of robots, Zheros features little story and even less cohesion behind each level. Nobody looked for Shakespeare in Streets of Rage, but each location and level ambience did paint a picture of progression. Here, I'm left to plod through a series of levels that could have been shuffled and presented in any order. Non-existent ligature and a grab-bag of off-the-shelf level ideas. Factory corridor. Factory corridor with laser fence. Factory corridor with conveyor belt. Elevator. Suspended corridor.
There's technically nothing wrong with any of the aforementioned ideas, but Zheros' lifeless iteration is made more prevalent by extremely low enemy variety. For the first couple of hours, players will encounter a total of five different enemy types. Five would be fine, if the encounters weren't dull. Sadly, these disparate opponents lack any real threat, making progression one of obligation over encouragement. Expansive corridors, furnished with the odd stack of crates to slide-kick through for points and currency, dealing with the same old toothless mobs. The lack of push-back is particularly flagrant given the long history of the beat 'em up, where even the early levels of classic games like Golden Axe and Final Fight posed a hearty challenge.
Admittedly, Zheros made a good first impression. Ten or so minutes worth, where I guided my daughter through Her First Beat 'Em Up. It had the right idea. Bright characters, great animation, lots of flashy feedback that didn't obfuscate or confuse. As I sat there, my daughter's kung-fu space gal throttling bots thither and yon, I recalled my earliest memories with Double Dragon and its particular brand of goon-braining catharsis. This is it, I thought to myself. This is her gateway drug to the glory days of streets in desperate need of sweeping.
But it wasn't. Part of why I'm a bit sad about Zheros is the combat model. It's slick. Featuring a simple upgrade system, the move list expands with every assigned point to melee, shielding and gun mechanics. With a little more massaging, it would have been a perfect entry-level character action game. Dashing, rolling, zoning, deflecting, parrying; Zheros has defined techniques that accommodate a wide spectrum of player skill levels. But it goes to waste on boring mobs in boring levels.
Given the science-fiction aesthetic, Zheros blows endless possibilities by playing it super-safe. Granted, the game looks good in the same way arrowroot biscuits taste nice. But where's the spice? Why are the robo-zugs simply dropped into the levels? And not 'here's a crazy dropship, boosters flaring as it sloughs over the gantry and disgorges a gaggle of interesting robots' drop. They literally drop onto the floor from the top of the screen. Or warp in via pink phase-bubbles, the player gated until they dispense with the dreary arrivals. There are moments of semi-excitement when players are gifted with mech suits -- Zheros' equivalent of the Ride Armors from the Megaman X games -- but while these are fun, their expedience in dealing with the vanilla enemies only helps to highlight just how rote the encounters are. I should be facing mechanically-interesting puzzles when I get a suit. Looming boss-characters, ala Contra. Wily mid-level thugs that demand critical thinking. Instead, we encounter the Saturday morning cartoon facsimile of the Doom 3 Pinky and a minotaur done much better in Disney's Hercules on PSone.
Zheros is competent in the way you'd expect, but served with an extreme lack of imaginative flair. Granted, the beat 'em up genre never really lived on successfully post-16bit, becoming fuel for pedantic discussion and offering a dismal clutch of merely adequate descendants. Zheros continues this track record of also-rans. The biggest shame is, at its core, this game has the mechanical chops to have been a lot better.
Always jumping at the chance to play videogames with dad, I asked my daughter if she wanted to play a little more. No thanks, came the reply. Says it all, really.
Review code supplied by Plan of Attack.