Zengeon, an anime-infused roguelike from 2P Games and PQube, hits you right away with slick, stylish art and brightly colored, frenetic action. It certainly looks like a fun time, and it might be for about half an hour. But beneath the surface, Zengeon is tedious, stripped down, and missing most of the elements that make the usually addictive roguelike formula work.
Battle for the Blessed Land
Zengeon opens with some backstory about the Blessed Land and a broken seal releasing a demon king, but between the stilted translation and a solitary expository cutscene, you’ll probably neither know nor care what it’s about. And that’s fine. While Hades showed roguelikes can have great storytelling, a minimal story works if the action slaps. Unfortunately, in Zengeon’s case, it doesn’t.
After choosing from five characters (some of whom must be unlocked), Zengeon drops you onto an isometric map to smack some baddies around. Each character has four moves: a basic attack, a movement ability, a spread attack, and a guardian spirit ultimate attack. All are available from the start, and other than the basic attack, all have cooldowns. It’s the same standard setup that games like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance have used to good effect.
You’ll immediately notice your character handles like they tripped and fell into a vat of molasses. Movement is slow, direction changes are sluggish, and all your attacks have massive input delay. You do get to watch nice windup animations I suppose, but it makes combat a chore. Enemies attack faster than you, so if you don’t want to take damage, you’ll spend most of your time opening up enough space to fire off your glacial abilities without getting hit first. Rinse, repeat, and you can kite in relative safety. This is incredibly tedious though. And you have to constantly reset. Your basic attack combo is so slow that enemies can simply hit you in between attacks. This especially sucks for the melee characters.
Despite the tedium, Zengeon isn’t very difficult. It only took me 3 runs to get a win on the standard difficulty, and more followed from there. Hit and run tactics are slow but safe. Alternatively, you can tank a lot of damage once you find the right items. Many items have effects along the lines of “small % chance to do some elemental effect when you attack.” Another class of items have the effect “heal small % of hp when you do X type of elemental damage.” Find a smattering of each, and you’ll have enough healing to offset most incoming damage so long as you’re attacking into a crowd. You can also hold two active-use items. You start with a healing potion, and you can find a variety of offensive and defensive options, from reflective armor to a gun turret summon.
You’ll face three bosses across your run, and they’re a welcome change from the hordes of generic foes. None of the mechanics will surprise you, and the standard dodge until an opening reveals itself strategy is all you need, but I thought the bosses were decent. After taking down the final boss, you’re treated to a brief dialogue about the demon king. The ending resolves nothing and shows your character preparing to head out on another quest. Perhaps a sequel is planned, though I have a hard time imagining the number of people who want more Zengeon will be large enough to warrant one.
Running in Place
Zengeon is a roguelike rather than a roguelite, meaning there is minimal metaprogression. Each character has 5 story items they can find as random drops, and these provide small passive bonuses in future runs. Otherwise, each run is a self-contained affair. The problem is there’s no sense of progression within the run either. You level up, but that only means more health and damage, never new abilities. You can upgrade your abilities with spirit stones, but again this is just bigger numbers on your attacks. As a result, you’ll be doing the same things in the endgame stages that you were in the first stage, and largely against reskinned foes to boot. Really, once you’ve played each character for a few minutes, you’ve seen most of what Zengeon has to offer.
Items are the other piece of your progression. You’ll find quite a few, either as drops or for sale in stores. Item choice is minimal though. Stores offer you a choice of two items that you don’t see until after you’ve parted with your coins, and rarely you’ll find a statue where you can pay to exchange one of your items for another from an offering of five. The items themselves usually have small passive effects, and you can stack multiple of the same item to improve the effect, but with diminishing returns. In fact, I found it more effective to pursue quantity over quality, and none of Zengeon’s progression ever made me feel I had the agency to pursue meaningfully different builds.
Art, Sounds, and Extras
To its credit, Zengeon is pretty. The anime-style menus and character portraits give off a comic book vibe, and the action is colorful with explosive visual effects that make it at least look exciting. Sadly, every other aspect of the production is barebones. Each of the 3 areas has a single looping track that’s so repetitive you’ll be tired of it after 30 seconds. Menus are clunky and must be navigated with the dpad. Though the game’s mechanics aren’t that complicated, Zengeon throws you into the action without explaining anything. A brief tutorial or more explanation of how items and upgrades work would have been welcome.
While Zengeon’s main attraction is story mode, there’s also a guardian mode that sees you defend a crystal from increasing waves of foes. You can play the game on hard mode if you want to, but in my opinion, it simply makes things even more tedious. There’s online co-op, and having a friend along for the ride likely helps with the monotony, that is if you can convince your friends to buy Zengeon.
The Switch version of Zengeon has some technical issues. You’ll encounter occasional stutters at the best of times, and when the screen fills with enemies and effects, it starts to chug quite noticeably. I encountered a couple of hard crashes that sent me back to the home screen too, though I couldn’t tell what exactly triggered them. Zengeon isn’t unplayable, but shaky performance is yet another reason you might want to give this one a pass.
Zengeon catches the eye with stylish art but offers little else. Combat is a sluggish chore, progression feels meaningless, and what little variety comes from the different characters is quickly exhausted. Add in a clunky interface and shaky performance, and there’s not much to recommend Zengeon. If you and a friend have cash to burn, you might be able to eke out a few hours of amusement, but I’d say this is one you’re better off leaving on the shelves.
ZENGEON IS NOT RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to PQube for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.