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Developer: WindThunder Publisher: Winking Entertainment Corp. Platform: Switch, PS4, PC, iOS Release Date: May 23, 2019 ESRB: T Note: This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game The episodic game format is not without its risks. While it can potentially ease the cost of development in creating smaller games released in sequence over a span of time, a lot hinges on the ability to keep the player’s interest for the duration of the full series. If the first episode doesn’t hook the player, they’re not likely to return for the rest. Such is one of the hurdles faced by the action RPG, Heroine Anthem Zero. Heroine Anthem Zero: Episode 1, or Heroine Anthem Zero: Sacrifice, is the first chapter of a prequel to the original Heroine Anthem: The Elect of Wassernixe and Heroine Anthem II: The Angel of Sarem, which released back in 2002 and 2003, respectively. As both of those games are rather old and obscure, it’s fortunate that Heroine Anthem Zero is set thousands of years prior, and thus requires no knowledge of the originals. Episode 1 features the story of Wanin, a young warrior of the Norse-inspired Uzato tribe that works as a Forest Keeper, patrolling the forest near his hometown for danger. He’s accompanied for the duration of the game by the fairy, Mormolia, who assists him in his duties. Most of the game follows the perspective of this pair, who are entertaining, if simplistic, in their writing. Wanin is a brave, capable warrior that cares for his sister, Naire, who has been chosen to serve as the maiden of an important ceremony in a neighboring land, though he’s also somewhat oblivious and foolhardy. The more perceptive Mormolia, on the other hand, is quick to anger, often insults Wanin for his obliviousness, and loves to drink. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to say about the story, as the main plot beats serve as apparent set-up for what comes, I presume, in Episode 2. And despite the short length, it does not feel particularly well-paced. Large amounts of story and exposition take precedence in the first few hours before turning the focus almost exclusively to gameplay broken up with smaller, lighter story beats for the remainder of the experience. To its credit, the game has some interesting lore. Story sequences are enhanced with great character art, as well as painterly illustrations put on display when characters speak of the myths, legends, and history of their land. The characters are all voiced in Japanese, and their acting boosts the experience as well. The bigger faults with Heroine Anthem Zero lie with its gameplay. As a side-scrolling action RPG, it generally controls well. Wanin can swing his sword in a basic combo as well as dash, double-jump, and scale vertical walls. But the combat overall is very basic and generally lacking in challenge, even on the standard difficulty. There are some enemies that can only be damaged by charging Wanin’s sword attack, and enemies can be stunned by sending Mormolia at them. Even the final boss, the most challenging encounter in the game, was little more than a battle of attrition. In fact, I didn’t die to any of the bosses in the game. What killed me far more often, and with far more frustration, was the game’s platforming. Relatively early on, the game introduces spiked vines that stretch across sections of the ground, walls, and ceilings. At that point, these vines are the single most damaging thing in the game and will knock off huge chunks of life every time you collide with one. The game also features instant-death bottomless pits, and while some are clearly obvious, such as when hopping across a rickety bridge stretched across a chasm, others very much aren’t. More than once, I hopped down a hole, thinking it might lead down to an underground cave, only to be met with the 'Game Over' screen. And if you die, you’re forced to retry from the last save point you accessed. Another issue comes from the game’s map and fast travel system. The map itself is of little use and does nothing to illustrate the actual landscapes. It simply indicates how sections in the zone you’re currently in are linked together. Once fast travel is unlocked, most save points will feature a character that will freely take you to most any other save point, but only within the same zone that you’re currently in. This means, for example, that it’s not possible to jump straight back to town from the western woods. But even then, there’s no real incentive to actually make use of the fast travel, as the fast travel character also doubles as the shop with all the best healing items and weapons necessary to beat the game. Possibly the most annoying moment in the game came during a dungeon that serves as the home of the few simplistic-but-required puzzles. In a large chamber, there are four switches that need to be pressed in order to open the way forward. Each of these switches are in turn blocked by gates that open via other switches, and these timed gates will close after a few seconds. After clearing all four gates, hitting the switches, and opening the door ahead, I backtracked to the previous chamber and used the save point, only to find on my return that the switches had all reset and the door ahead had closed, forcing me to redo the entire sequence. Having only played the game on the Switch, I have no idea how its technical performance compares to that of other platforms. Originally released in 2016, Episode 1 was published on the PC, PS4, and iOS before it made its way to Nintendo’s console this year. Aspects of some of the game’s menus feel tuned more for touch, though playing on a TV is just fine. The only real hiccup comes in the equipment menu, where there’s a strangely long, noticeable lag while scrolling through weapons or clothing in the inventory. The game also occasionally encounters odd hitches during cutscenes, and even during the end credits as different images are swapped in and out. For the most part, these graphic hitches aren’t that bothersome, but on rarer occasions, I’ve had similar hitching occur during gameplay. I’ve had to abort more than a couple of jump attempts because of an odd pause in the animation, though I can’t blame any of my deaths on this. On a more positive note, the music in Heroine Anthem Zero is a genuine highlight. The soundtrack, composed by Joe Chou, is comprised of some great music that fits the tone of the world and characters. Tonally, it reminded me at points of games like Valkyrie Profile, and even in the game’s most annoying moments, the music was one element that I always appreciated. Heroine Anthem Zero: Episode 1 feels like a mixed bag. I like the characters, the music, the world, and the general sense of the gameplay. But the pacing, platforming, and technical oddities frequently pulled me out of the experience. I can’t say that I didn’t have any fun, but had there been more polish and fewer annoyances, I could have had a lot more. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t rule out playing Episode 2, but I’d hope that it’s an improvement. Pros + Fun artwork and interesting, if simple characters + Great music and entertaining voice acting + Attractive and colorful artwork and graphics + Combat is in general lightweight and not stressful Cons + Odd pacing of story and gameplay + Annoying platforming with high-damage hazards and instant-death pits + Lack of responsiveness in some menus, and the map is near useless + Odd animation hitches occur every once in a while that can throw timing off while platforming Overall Score: 5 (out of 10) Average Heroine Anthem Zero: Episode 1 is a mixed bag with likeable characters, music, world, and general gameplay but is brought down by its pacing, platforming, and technical oddities. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher