Zenonia Retroview

The Dragon Clan and Holy Knights have gone to war and a boy named Regret is literally born on a field of battle between them. The commander of the Holy Knights steals away with him and the Dragon Clan eternally gives chase, ensuring Regret quickly wears out his welcome wherever he goes. At the tender age of fifteen he finds himself guardianless and kicked out into the wider world to seek out his destiny.

It may not be the most cerebrally satisfying piece of fantasy fiction to grace videogamedom and its script could still use some fine-tooth combing to clean up grammatical errors after all this time, but Zenonia‘s story is well structured enough to retain the player’s interest and injected with a good measure of humor. Its most compelling aspect – and a big part of what keeps Zenonia competitive in 2010 – is the fact that it places Regret’s fate in the hands of the player, who guides him at a series of branch points to determine his alliance with the Holy Knights or the Dragon Clan that’s been seeking him out all this time.

While story branching alone is enough to create some measure of replayability, what really sweetens the deal in Zenonia is the choice of Regret’s character class at the game’s outset. Whether he steps into the shoes of a brutish Warrior, a balanced Paladin, or a swift Assassin determines his skill set, stats, equipment availability and attack animations. While this choice-per-playthrough might sound inferior to transforming the player character gradually in realtime, it effectively complements starting from the beginning to follow different storyline branches.

Besides the divergent story and class system that have been seen to varying degrees since its release, Zenonia introduced a few gameplay systems that remain fairly unique in the genre. Weather and night/day cycles are interesting inasmuch as they allow time sensitive events like special vendors opening and closing shop in towns. However, these seem like mere add-ons for realism compared to the equipment management system, which proves far more central to the player’s experience. Each item has a weight statistic; load up Regret’s bag too much compared to his own strength rating and his normally fast clip slows to a crawl, making him much more vulnerable to enemy attacks.

Weapons, armors and accessories have an additional “endurance” stat that wears down gradually with use. Equipment is purchased or found often enough that natural wear and tear go fairly unnoticed, but the player can also choose to sap equipment condition as a tradeoff for auto-reviving Regret when he’s knocked out — and he’ll be getting knocked out quite a bit. Managing Regret’s inventory demands careful planning as it presents the dual challenge of maintaining a stock of backup equipment and curatives without pushing their combined weight too high. It’s a welcome complexity enforced by warning messages and decreased battle readiness, although the warning messages do little but get on the player’s nerves if no spare equipment or repair materials happen to be on hand.

Zenonia‘s controls capture the genre standard: one attack button and the virtual D-pad for movement, with smaller virtual buttons activating special abilities or items for which shortcuts have been assigned. What’s most interesting here is that menus are navigated via the virtual buttons instead of direct touch, which I found a refreshing compromise given how small and tightly packed inventory menus are. The virtual D-pad provides very tight controls for exploration but falls prey to the usual thumb slippage that can happen so often in the heat of battle in this genre.

And get hot, the battles do! Zenonia‘s difficulty certainly set the bar for Action RPGs to follow. Enemies rush in quick and may spawn into an area faster than Regret can dispatch them, so an environment that seems clear one second can turn into a death trap the next. Unfortunately fighting monsters becomes a drawn out button mashing affair all too often, attributable to a random element in Regret’s damage output. That’s still par for the course in this genre, and on the upside, environmental interactivity provides frequent diversions with puzzles of the block pushing variety. Puzzles are impressively incorporated into certain boss battles, which is a great way of spicing those up — although Regret will still have to win a hack-and-slash competition with his high profile adversaries before he can emerge victorious.

Zenonia shows its age most in the aesthetics department, with squat sprites and music that remains nondescript for the most part. Also, a word of caution for anyone who can no longer stand the mobile RPG’s ubiquitous trademark fetch quests: we might have emulation of Zenonia‘s success to thank for that.

iFanzine Verdict: Thanks to considerable overall depth – much of which still feels unique compared to subsequent Appstore offerings – Zenonia remains a title of great interest to Action RPG fans who may not have picked it up already. Last updated in August 2010, it’s clearly benefited from Gamevil’s long-term support, and the fact that you can probably squeeze up to forty hours out of its $2.99 price tag doesn’t hurt either.

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