ZHP is finally set free from the PSP

At the time of writing, NIS Classics Vol. 1 has just been released, resurrecting two PS2 classics for a modern audience. Its two component parts, Phantom Brave and Soul Nomad & the World Eaters, can be tricky or expensive to track down in their original PS2 format these days, so it’s enormously exciting to see these brought back for a new generation.

But that’s not all! There’s also a second volume of NIS Classics on the way, due to arrive in spring of 2022, and this one will include PS2 title Makai Kingdom and former PSP exclusive ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman. Both of these are fantastic games but, to my shame, I have never played Makai Kingdom myself.

I have, however, played ZHP, so I’d like to tell you all a bit about why this game finally breaking free of the PSP and being available to a wider audience is a thoroughly lovely thing.

ZHP (which stands for “Zettai Hero Project”, a tweak to its original Japanese name of “Zettai Hero Kaizou Keikaku” or “Absolute Hero Modding Project”) is a delightfully unusual game that blends elements of NIS’ classic strategy RPGs with roguelikes — all topped off with a healthy serving of enormous damage numbers and a ridiculous amount of customisation, of course.

In ZHP, you take on the role of a young man who becomes the superhero Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger after the previous holder of that title is killed. It is Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger’s destiny to confront the dreaded Darkdeath Evilman and rescue the world’s saviour Super Baby — but unfortunately our hero is a little less than up to the task as the game begins.

Consequently, he has a lot of training to do — and here’s where you come in. By taking Unlosing Ranger into a series of dungeons, you help improve his abilities, acquire equipment and unlock the ability to modify his body in various ways. While the game has a strong roguelike feel — Unlosing Ranger resets to level 1 upon entering a new dungeon — there’s also a strong element of persistent progression throughout the game as a whole.

ZHP logo

There are several ways this is implemented. Firstly and most simply, completing or being defeated in a dungeon causes the experience Unlosing Ranger acquired in that dungeon to be added to their Total Level, which in turn increases their base attributes when they are reset to “level 1” on their next expedition. In other words, a late game level 1 Unlosing Ranger will be considerably more powerful than Unlosing Ranger at the start of the game.

Secondly, the aforementioned body modification system uses a tile-based grid where you can unlock a variety of passive abilities, permanent stat boosts and increases to the effectiveness of items and equipment.

Thirdly, you can upgrade and manage the various facilities at Unlosing Ranger’s “home base” between dungeon dives — the facilities you have available to you and the staff in charge of them will determine the items and services that are available to you.

Finally, you can outfit Unlosing Ranger with equipment. There’s a strong focus on durability management, as each item has its own condition rating. As an item’s condition worsens, its stat bonuses and special abilities decrease and are eventually disabled completely. On the flip side, by making use of the Blacksmith facility back home, you can synthesise items together to improve them and boost both their condition rating and maximum effectiveness.

ZHP PSP screenshot
Screenshot from original PSP version

The actual dungeon crawling unfolds from an isometric perspective and, visually speaking, will be familiar to fans of Disgaea. Like most roguelikes, moving or taking an action also affords the enemy an opportunity to act, so you’ll need to consider enemy formations, positioning and whether or not they’re aware of you.

The isometric perspective allows for some tactical possibilities not available in your average top-down roguelike, though — most notably with regard to things like height advantage. In true NIS tradition, you can also pick up enemies and throw them at each other, which is always satisfying.

This being a game with roguelike elements, you should expect to die a fair bit — and while the consequences for doing so in ZHP are less dire than in “pure” roguelikes, there are still some interesting considerations.

Unlosing Ranger will develop a phobia of whatever killed him last time around, for example, meaning that next time he encounters that enemy, hazard or exhibition of incompetence (such as starvation) he will be at something of a disadvantage. Overcoming that phobia, on the other hand, gives you a bonus.

ZHP PSP screenshot
Screenshot from original PSP version

If all this sounds quite complicated, rest assured, it is — though as with most NIS games, that complexity is presented in such a friendly, appealing manner that it never quite becomes overwhelming. The game unfolds at a good pace and gradually introduces its mechanics to you over the course of the main story rather than bombarding you with possibilities from the outset; much like Disgaea, ZHP is a game where the main story is just the beginning of what the experience offers.

As such, while it’s a lot more complicated than some particularly accessible takes on the Japanese roguelike — the Mystery Dungeon games spring to mind — it’s actually a good starting point for those who want to dive into the deeper end of roguelike pool — or NIS games in general.

Its focus on a single character rather than an entire army makes it feel a little less daunting than something like Disgaea — though you’ll quickly discover that there’s still plenty of depth to be discovered here. Don’t be surprised if you end up spending hundreds of hours creating the absolute perfect Unlosing Ranger — this is an NIS game, after all.

NIS Classics Vol. 2, including Makai Kingdom and ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is due out in spring of 2022, and will be released for Nintendo Switch. Find out more here.

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Pete Davison
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