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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Shoot-'Em-Up
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Release Date: July 23, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Zenzizenzic'

by Brian Dumlao on Jan. 15, 2016 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Zenzizenzic is a fast-paced, adrenaline-infused, twin-stick "bullet hell" shoot-'em-up and open-world roguelike. Featuring an abstract art style and a thumping soundtrack, it'll get your thumbs sweating and your blood pumping!

Buy Zenzizenzic

There are a few games that try to evolve the twin-stick shooter. Everyday Shooter, for example, worked with the idea of using your bullets and destroyed enemies to create guitar riffs while Beat Hazard Ultra let you generate enemy arenas based on the music you're generating. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 toyed with the idea of constantly chasing high scores among friends, and Super Stardust HD took the arena concept and made it spherical, giving the player movement without boundaries. Zenzizenzic throws in several contributions to the genre, and the result is rather distinctive in a genre that can be thought of as simple.

The game mechanics already do things much differently from other twin-stick shooters. You still move around with the left stick and shoot in any direction with the right, but you now have the ability to customize your weapons. You start with a swarming missile launcher and a heavy laser beam, but you can later change that to a defensive warp or black holes that redirect enemy fire. Both of the weapons that you choose are infinite, but their use is limited by a shared special weapon meter. Downing enemies gives you access to shields and weapon upgrades, which include powerful orb shots and dumb missiles to go along with your regular shot. You can also speed up and slow down movement of your craft to let you modify the behavior of your regular shots.

Zenzizenzic also borrows from the bullet hell subgenre. The game wastes no opportunity to fill up the screen with an equal amount of enemies and bullets, and there's barely any time for the player to catch a breather. In a way, it is exactly what twin-stick shooter fans would expect, minus the fact that you can't blow up everything you see. Conversely, the game gives you a visible hitbox instead of making your entire craft vulnerable to fire. It'll take some getting used to, but that little bit of extra breathing room is a godsend once you learn to take advantage of it.

One of the more interesting things that the game adds is the idea of exchange. Shields, for example, can also be converted into area-clearing bombs, so you've got two different forms of ship protection with one element. Points can also be exchanged for extra lives during gameplay. That may seem like it could make the game much easier, but the points you have at the end of a run are deposited into a total pool of points that are used to unlock more stages and weapons. Thus, you're constantly debating about whether to go for distance or unlocks, making the score more valuable outside of expected leaderboard status.

The title features three gameplay modes, though you need to amass a great deal of points to unlock one of them. Classic takes the game into a standard arena. Enemies come in from all sides in distinct patterns, and your job is to blast as many of them as you can and survive. Toward the end of the stage, the game gives you a chance to reach a bonus stage, where the focus is shifted away from shooting and you must navigate a scrolling labyrinth to find open pathways and not touch the walls. Once you end that, you're thrown into a big boss battle before the stage is finished.

This proves to be a very good combination once you get your hands on it. Though you have  brief spots when you can shoot lazily, you'll spend most of your time trying to dodge large rectangular shots and hoping that you'll discover the shot pattern before another group of enemies rolls by. The speed modifiers do well for positioning, and enemy groups come in at such a good pace that you'll never get into a lull while playing. The bosses are also more interesting since they don't seem to be bullet sponges or have so many forms to get through before they expire. They take what feels like the right amount of shots and have enough good patterns, so they're fun instead of a nuisance. One of the more interesting aspects of Classic mode is that you don't go through the five levels sequentially. Instead, you're given stage one for free and have to unlock the rest in any order. If you wanted a more traditional experience with automatic progression, you'd have to unlock Gauntlet mode.

If the first two modes are ones that genre fans have come to expect by now, then Macro is the antithesis to that. The mode changes quite a few things for your ship, such as the ability to trade points for lives on the fly. Instead, you can carry three bonus items in addition to your special weapons, even though the items are usually good for only one or two uses. The biggest change is that the game is transformed into a roguelike as you move from one randomly generated room to another, blowing up enemies and refilling items. Defeating enemies builds up a meter which, when filled, summons bosses that are multiple screens in size.

This is probably the best thing the game has going for it. The roguelike elements of permadeath, randomness and eventual upgrading make this feel very different from other shooters, and the exploration aspects are a great alternative to arenas. The action remains furious as enemies are much more aggressive, and the colossal bosses give the game a more epic feel. It isn't exactly the best mode to play if you're concentrating on unlocking items since the scores gained here don't reach the heights of Classic mode, but the mode is addictive and deep enough to keep you coming back long after everything is unlocked.

From the screenshots, you'd think that Zenzizenzic has rather simplistic graphics. With everything being constructed solely out of squares and rectangles, that's a very valid criticism. However, the amount of layering done to these squares gives it a very good sense of depth when displayed against darker walls, and the shading also makes it look very good in motion, especially with the different scrolling levels at play. The simple look also allows for a solid frame rate no matter how many objects are on-screen, so you won't get handicaps due to technical snafus. One thing that can be confusing, though, is the fact that it sometimes isn't very clear what's an enemy and what's a bullet. The black and white nature of the power-ups and points is easy to discern, but you will find yourself sometimes shooting at a square only to realize that you're shooting at a bullet and not a foe.

Meanwhile, the music is absolutely amazing. The soundtrack covers a wide gamut of electronic styles, including chiptune, and each track is perfect for the chaos that surrounds you. The tracks can be toggled in-game, so if one pops up that you aren't particularly fond of, you can automatically switch to another one. The score is definitely the most prominent part of the audio because there's not much in the way of sound effects. All gunfire never rises above a whisper, and all of the explosions are silent. It allows the player to enjoy the soundtrack, but shooter fans will find the exclusion odd.

With a striking yet simple presentation, Zenzizenzic is a fresh take on the twin-stick shooter. The slew of new mechanics provides your attacks some diversity, especially with the new bullet hell setting. The idea of trade-offs is a good new addition since it forces you to strategize more in a genre that's not really known for that. The roguelike mode is what will attract players. Anyone looking for a distinctive shooter will be very happy with Zenzizenzic.

Score: 8.5/10

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