While Nippon Ichi Software has published quite a few games, it's best known for its Disgaea franchise. Disgaea isn't technically the first SRPG they've published, and it certainly isn't the last, but games like Makai Kingdom just don't have the same staying power.
Z.H.P: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is an odd game in that, like Makai Kingdom, it's a spin-off of many mechanics that Disgaea popularized. Instead of being a strategy RPG, though, Unlosing Ranger is a roguelike, much like Shiren the Wanderer. At the same time, it embodies a lot of the gameplay elements and personality that made Disgaea so addictive and popular. It may not be Disgaea 4, but fans of the franchise will want to check out this game.
The Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger is the strongest superhero the world has to offer. It seems that he is the world's only hope when villainous Darkdeath Evilman kidnaps the Super Baby, a legendary infant who has the power to save the world. This is why it is such a disaster when the Unlosing Ranger is hit by a car on his way to rescue Super Baby from Darkdeath's clutches. With his dying breath, Unlosing Ranger passes his title to an unlucky bystander and tells him to save Super Baby.
As you would expect, the new Unlosing Ranger promptly … well, loses, dooming the world to destruction. Rather than letting Earth and the Super Baby be destroyed, the new Unlosing Ranger is offered a chance to visit "Bizzaro Earth," a special copy of Earth made by a global superhero training organization in order to power up. Bizzaro Earth is a copy of Earth populated by terrible monsters, but each monster has a human counterpart on Earth. If the new Unlosing Ranger can solve the problems of Bizzaro Earth, he'll fix the disasters caused by his loss on Earth, and he'll gain new powers in the process. Nothing will be quite as easy as it sounds, especially with mysterious forces who want to prevent the new Unlosing Ranger from achieving his true title as the Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger.
Unlosing Ranger is a parody of a very specific kind of Japanese media, in particular the tokusatsu genre. It tends to revolve around live-action film and drama with superheroics and special effects. To us Westerners, it would be easiest to reference things like Ultraman and Power Rangers in connection with these shows. The game is filled to the brim with references to popular tokusatsu shows, both popular and obscure, as well as a healthy dose of in-jokes related to popular Japanese animation shows like Mobile Suit Gundam.
This is a mixed blessing, as the game's translation is incredibly faithful. There are a lot of in-jokes and references that only the small tokusatsu fan base in America will get. For example, the most basic enemy is a reference to "Shocker," the villains of the Kamen Rider television show, and most of the humor of these characters comes from references to a show that most Americans couldn't even identify. Fortunately, there is still plenty of NIS' trademark video game parody and humor, and the translation is well done and adds a lot of life and personality to the proceedings. A number of the jokes are broad enough that even if you don't get the specific reference, you can still be amused by the zany feel of it. Be warned that this is a game made to parody, so some jokes will probably fly over most gamers' heads.
Your only player is the titular Unlosing Ranger, and you explore randomly generated dungeons and attempt to defeat the boss lurking at the bottom of each dungeon. The game is turn-based. Every character in the dungeon takes an action at the same time, so enemies won't move or react until you do. If you're not careful, every action you take has the potential to be your last. Simply attacking a foe can end badly if that foe has a hidden ability that you didn't take into account. You have a limited pool of items and equipment, but almost everything you get is useful in some way.
Unlosing Ranger has some interesting mechanics that separate it from other roguelikes. For instance, equipment plays a very big role. Your character has five equipment slots — head, left arm, legs, right arm and expansion — and each piece of equipment you find can be assigned to one of those slots. In addition to making your character look more heroic (or more silly), each piece of equipment grants abilities. Most equipment will alter your basic stats, usually boosting them by a certain percentage.
In addition, most pieces of equipment have a special passive ability. The wolf mask allows you to eat any organic object, and the drill weapon causes enemies to be more likely to drop items when you defeat them. These items can even be fused to form new and more powerful versions of the weapons with multiple attributes. In addition, most weapons also have a powerful special ability that can hit multiple enemies at once. The attacks are also elemental, so if you hit an enemy's weak point, he'll lose a turn. Be warned that it costs a turn to "prepare" a spell before you can use it, so you have to plan it out in advance.
Why not just use special abilities until the cows come home? Every item also has a durability meter, so when you use a weapon, it loses durability. When the durability reaches zero, the weapon or armor is instantly worthless. This durability loss can be quite fast, and it even occurs if you use a special ability.
Far more dangerous is the effect special abilities have on your Energy (or EN). It's akin to the hunger mechanic in Shiren or other roguelikes. You begin with 100 EN. As you walk around the dungeon and fight foes, you lose EN, which can only be recovered by eating food. If your EN reaches zero, you lose HP at a dramatic rate until you die. Your special abilities also take EN — usually a small amount, about 5-8 EN per attack. When you only have a little EN, though, that can be a lot to waste. EN also drains quicker when you have a spell prepared or you're equipping two weapons at once. If you manage EN wisely, you can make your life a lot easier, but if you spend it poorly, your hero will starve to death long before he can overcome Darkdeath Evilman.
The most interesting and intimidating aspect of Unlosing Ranger is that every action you make in a dungeon uses up some kind of resource. Managing your resources is the key to success in Unlosing Ranger, but it can be overwhelming. In Shiren, attacking an enemy is relatively straightforward. You determine if you can defeat the enemy, if you have an effective weapon against the foe, if the foe has special defenses, and then you beat them up. In Unlosing Ranger, you need to make more choices. Is it worth taking on the enemy? How much armor durability will you lose? Should you equip an extra weapon and take the extra hunger loss? What about using a magic spell? Will it be worth sacrificing hunger to conserve weapon durability or hit multiple foes? Do you have another weapon with a special attribute that can make things easier? While this is indeed intimidating, it's also really fun. Knowing that your sword is a temporary benefit keeps you on your toes.
Like many games in the roguelike subgenre, Unlosing Ranger has standard rules to follow. Perhaps the most intimidating for a casual player is the fact that death is a harsh punishment. When you die, you lose everything — levels, items and progress in the dungeon — but there are a lot of ways to temper that harsh blow. Death in Unlosing Ranger isn't as bad as it sounds. Since the game is inspired by Disgaea, death is a new beginning. When you die or finish a dungeon, the levels you earned are added to your total level, which is sort of the accumulated sum of your power, and it influences basic stats.
You always start at level 1 in the dungeon, but your default stats are raised by your total level, not unlike reincarnation in Disgaea. Every time you fail a dungeon, you are slightly more powerful next time. It's not a tremendous boost, but it can add up. The downside is that whatever killed you will cause trauma and inflict more damage the next time you face him. On the other hand, if you survive this challenge (or have your trauma replaced by something else) and overcome the monster that killed you enough times, you'll surpass your trauma and gain a bonus against that monster.
Total levels are not your character's only way to power up. Taking a cue from certain evil organizations, your character can also have his body modified into a cyborg. Body modification is an odd feature. You are shown a giant diagram of your character's body, divided into grids. When you find items in a dungeon, you can convert those items into chips, which are placed in the grid and give your character a small stat boost. The more chips you add, the more powerful you become. Once you have enough chips equipped, you can equip special booster parts on top of those chips. Boosters allow you to do things like increase your inventory, earn extra experience, keep certain items when you die, or even survive a fatal blow.
You can also use special Hero Energy generators to further amplify these boosters by guiding "heroic energy" toward them. There are Hero Energy generators located throughout the body diagram, and careful positioning of your chips allows you to dramatically increase your power. The body diagram, also known as the "shadowgram," is limited by your current total level; the higher your total level, the more of the diagram is unlocked.
You can modify your home base to grant benefits between fights. You begin the game with a few basic buildings, such as a blacksmith and your home. These buildings grant benefits both in and out of dungeons. For example, your home includes your wife (a guest-starring Prinny from the Disgaea series), who will ask for money for expenses. Giving her cash will lead to increased storage space. You can summon your "wife" once per dungeon to bring you a homemade lunch, which is a great boost if you're low on EN. As the game progresses, you'll unlock more locations. You can find an insurance company that will give you coverage in the dungeons, a delivery company that will take items out of the dungeon for you, and even an all-powerful satellite cannon that can be summoned to blow up a room of foes. Your space for these buildings is limited, so you have to decide which ones are most useful.
There is a lot to do in Unlosing Ranger. Not only do you have the main story, but you also have bonus dungeons, hidden levels and a ridiculous amount of character customization. While the gameplay is significantly different, Unlosing Ranger borrows a lot from Disgaea when it comes to having tons of crazy mechanics, hidden secrets and things to discover. It's possible to play through the game using only the most basic and obvious mechanics and without touching anything but the main story. It stands perfectly well on its own. For gamers who love to power-game and super-optimize their characters, Unlosing Ranger has a lot for you. The random dungeons and bonus features only make things more fun, as they add a nearly infinite amount of replay value.
Z.H.P: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman may not be a strategy RPG, but it captures the feel of the Disgaea games wonderfully. The odd combination of anime-inspired humor, simple-but-deep gameplay mechanics, and charming and bright visuals make Unlosing Ranger stand out. The gameplay is incredibly engrossing, and you can spend hours burning through dungeons, powering up your characters and finding hidden things. The surprisingly forgiving death mechanics make it easier to stomach, especially if you're the kind of power-gamer who loved reincarnating characters in Disgaea.
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