ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman was a breath of fresh air for NIS's Disgaea team. It had a similar feel to the Disgaea series but did its own thing. It was a new IP and ended up standing well on its own, possibly more so than recent Disgaea games. The Guided Fate Paradox is the spiritual sequel to ZHP. Rather than a direct sequel, The Guided Fate Paradox feels almost like an attempt to take the same mechanics and ideas and tie them to a more traditional Disgaea setting. The result isn't a bad game, but it feels less novel and fresh.
Renya Kagurazaka is an average high schooler who has never won a contest, so it's quite a surprise when he wins a random lottery at the mall. The prize? He becomes God. A group of angels has chosen him to be the new deity. His job is to grant wishes chosen by the Fate Revolution Device to bring joy and happiness to people. The angels he's working for don't seem to be the most together bunch, and the demons trying to corrupt humanity seem more interested in reading books than destroying mankind. There's something strange about the situation, and it's up to the newest God-slash-high-school-student to figure out what it is.
The Guided Fate Paradox is in love with its own story. The cut scenes can be funny and the characters amusing, but you constantly see those cut scenes. If you progress an iota in the game, you can expect to sit through another long batch of cut scenes before the next level. Considering the short length of the levels, that can really wreck the pace of the game and wear on you. It also isn't as funny or charming as ZHP, and that hurts it in the long run. While I was curious to see more of the super heroic antics in ZHP, I was bored by the constant mysteries and vague foreshadowing that permeated The Guided Fate Paradox. The game is trying very hard to feel like Disgaea but ends up feeling forced.
The Guided Fate Paradox plays almost the same as ZHP. If you've played that game, you'll know exactly what to do, how to play, and even how to deal with most of the enemies. The game has an incredibly slow and lengthy tutorial phase, and it takes forever to reach the point where you can use basic mechanics because the game isn't sure you can handle them. This is a boon for newcomers, but for people who've played the previous game, it can be frustrating to be kept from basic mechanics for so long.
For those who didn't play ZHP, Guided Fate is styled after the dungeon crawling in Shiren the Wanderer. This means you're expected to go through a series of randomly generated dungeons to reach and defeat the boss. Gameplay is entirely turn-based, so you and your enemies move around a grid and attempt to kill each other. When your character dies, he's kicked out of the dungeon without half of his money and all of his items. Dying, leaving or finishing a dungeon earns a small boost to your starting stats, so you may begin weak, but you gain power over time. It's possible to finish the dungeons without dying, but even experienced players are likely to wipe out at a few times.
The burst system is interesting. Renya has five equipment slots: head, left arm, legs, right arm and misc. You can equip an item in every slot, with each providing a stat boost. Each item also has a built-in special skill with properties and elemental affinities. The Thief Boots, for example, render you immune to all traps, and Burner Arm lets you create a giant pillar of flame. Using a skill takes SP, which is the game's mana. SP regenerates over time, but if you use too many skills in rapid succession, you'll be left with nothing but punches until it replenishes.
Any time you use an item, it accumulates burst and increases its stats, so the equipment becomes more powerful. Once the item hits maximum burst, it enters God Burst status, causing the stats to drop and rendering it weaker than before. While bursting means a temporary loss in power, it ends up helping you in the long run. A bursted weapon can be forged or synthesized if you successfully return to town with it in your inventory. A forged weapon gains improved stats and a higher burst limit. A synthesized weapon can transfer 20% of its existing stats to another weapon at the cost of being destroyed. There's a limit to how often you can synthesize based on a weapon's level, but constant synthesis lets you build up much stronger weapons.
Bursting gives you body modification tiles. As in ZHP, your protagonist can change his stats to increase the power he gains as he levels up. To do this, you need to collect holy icons, which you gain every time an item "bursts." Depending on the item, you'll get an icon related to attack, defense, hit or speed. These icons can be placed on your body modification board to provide a stat boost. The initial boost is small, but it stacks up as you gain levels. You can also place holy artifacts on holy icons to increase your base stats or reduce your vulnerability to status effects, among other things. You have to power them with God Energy, which flows from certain locations on the board and travels along holy icons. The further the God Energy travels, the bigger the boost. As such, having more icons and more space means better boosts and a more powerful character.
The burst system encourages you to use gear to power it up, but it also requires you to balance when and where it's used. If you're in a dungeon with a lot of flame-weak enemies, it might be tempting to abuse a powerful fire move. If it breaks, you'll have to deal with a pretty huge decrease in stats when you use it. On the other hand, not using your special abilities can get you killed, and you'd lose the items anyway. Partway through the game, you can have multiple sets of divine equipment, which may be summoned at any time and won't be lost when you die. However, it only lasts for a limited number of turns, and you can't equip any other items at the same time.
The other big difference from ZHP is the addition of partner characters. The angels in your entourage can join you in the dungeon. They can be equipped and modified like Renya, but they run on their own AI. If they die, they'll be kicked out of the dungeon, but you won't lose their gear unless Renya dies, too. Some angels can boost Renya's attack, others can heal him, and in one case, it even brings him a home-made lunch. The problem is that the angels aren't good enough to deal with the game's challenges, so they serve as punching bags or accidentally awaken sleeping enemies. Powering them up is a waste of holy icons that could be better used to boost Renya stats. Their equipment can burst, which is a nice way to earn extra icons, but they're more of a liability than an aid. I actually turned off the partners so they wouldn't screw up things.
The difficulty is very inconsistent in The Guided Fate Paradox. If you don't figure out how to break the game early on, it can be frustrating when you get steamrolled by powerful enemies. If you do figure out how to break the game, it becomes a cakewalk. With some careful body modification and the proper use of equipment, I was immune to damage and traps. Getting a massive 50% boost to your attack or defensive stats can be done within the first few chapters, and it only gets more ridiculous from there. Some places in the game can be tough, especially in the fully randomized martial arts dungeon, but the game seems to reward Disgaea-style character breaking more than it does the roguelike-style use of resources. This is fun if you enjoy breaking the game but tiring if you've already broken the game and have to grind through the easy dungeons to reach the point where you're challenged by enemies. ZHP had this problem, but the new burst system really exacerbates it.
The Guided Fate Paradox looks pretty much identical to a modern Disgaea game, and a number of sprites are actually reused from Disgaea 4 or Disgaea D2. As such, it suffers many of the same problems. The character models are nice and well animated, but the environments are very low effort, and some of the special effects feel half-baked. It isn't a bad-looking game, but more care could have been given to the other aspects. The voice acting is reasonably good, although most of the cast stumbles over Japanese words and names. As usual, Japanese voice acting is also an option. The soundtrack isn't bad but doesn't have any particular stand-out songs, either. There are some fun usages of vocal tracks during boss fights to make them feel more exciting, but that's about it.
The Guided Fate Paradox isn't a bad game, but it's not as good as its spiritual predecessor. The pacing is worse, the plot is less fun, the balance feels off, and the new mechanics don't add much. Perhaps worst of all, it feels like it has less of an identity. Angels and demons and a war between heaven and hell feels like another trip into Disgaea, but it's less charming than other Disgaea titles. The Guided Fate Paradox isn't a bad purchase for people looking for more ZHP, but anyone with a PSP would be better off trying the original first.
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