Zenith Review – Tragic Comedy
Developer: Infinigon Publisher: BadLand Games Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: September 20, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
The only thing more painful than playing Zenith is realizing the tiniest nucleus of a game that may once have had promise is screaming at its center, surrounded by horrific garbage.
Allegedly a comedy action-RPG, this abhorrent mess does its very best to claw its way into “so bad it’s good” territory, but its litany of baffling bugs and pedestrian design makes it anything but funny. This is simply bad, in some of the most shocking ways possible.
At first, the whole farce is oddly endearing, threatening at times to be as bizarrely compelling as Deadly Premonition. This is not Deadly Premonition, however. That game was actually fun.
If it were running in peak condition, Zenith still wouldn’t be very entertaining.
It’s a trite hack-and-slash roleplayer with a threadbare leveling and loot system, repetitive combat, and cringeworthy dialog too desperate to be amusing. As it flailingly attempts to parody everything from Final Fantasy to Harry Potter, the drawn out gags and indulgent self-references systematically destroy almost any looming humor.
There are scant moments where the game can make one smile, even laugh a little. The opening moments feature giant spiders that sing in a tenor key, wailing tunefully with every attack. Later, we meet a character dressed like Skyrim‘s Dovahkiin, who turns out to be cleverly written once we get past the threat of an “arrow to the knee” joke.
Turns out this particular NPC used to live in a wonderful fantasy realm where they felt empowered, but watched as their world first became prettier, then weirder, then populated by naked women. Turns out the warrior fled his lands after it became overtaken by nude mods.
There are some genuinely good goofs to be found among the more obvious guff, rare hope spots where it’s clear the writers know how to set up a good punchline and stick the landing. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, often making way for dialog where the prevailing joke seems to be someone saying “fuck” because it’s funny when fantasy characters say “fuck” a lot.
A lot of the “jokes” aren’t jokes at all, but just references. Much of the humor comes from the game elbowing you to ask if you remember other, far superior games. Like Duke Nukem Forever, this sad offering regularly confuses parody with citation.
Zenith would perhaps be funnier if it could learn to tone things down a little and not try so hard.
Instead, almost every other line attempts to be irreverent or snarky in some way, the game seemingly horrified at the idea you might forget it’s meant to be comedic. Most of character exchanges are torturously drawn out, hammering home the point until any potential humor is viciously beaten out of it.
It’s the videogame equivalent of an obnoxious drunk gatecrasher interrupting everybody at a party to make “witty” gags that are mostly just Big Bang Theory quotes.
Zenith clearly wants to be The Bard’s Tale with its constant sarcasm and overbearing audience winks, but the only real comparison to be made is that Zenith looks and plays like it was finished in 2004 alongside InXile’s significantly more accomplished production.
Combat is as mindless as combat gets, with enemies launching themselves at the protagonist and swinging manically while the player is expected to do the same. There’s a dodge roll and a shield available, but since neither can be deployed while attacking and enemies attack constantly, it’s impossible to deal melee damage without incurring loads in return. Defensive moves are borderline useless save for some specific moments during boss encounters.
To counter this, Zenith drowns its players in health potions, but considering only one can be used every minute or so, it’s a bizarrely self-defeating system.
Magical attacks can whittle down the opposition as it charges tactlessly toward the game’s thoroughly unlikable antihero. Spell use involves hitting buttons for basic projectiles and area-of-effect attacks tied to one of three elements – water, fire, and earth. They’re badly animated and hard to aim, but they deal decent damage and become crucial to surviving the meat grinder battles ahead.
There’s no real leveling system, with stats relying on new armor pieces to strengthen elemental attacks and resistances. Curiously, weapons themselves don’t have statistics, with attack power governed entirely by the player bonuses gained from armor. The way to be effective is to equip spells and weapons based solely on whatever element has the current highest stat.
The only concession to a leveling system is a skill tree tied to the aforementioned elements. Skill points are awarded but the player is never notified when they are. Instead, you’re supposed to just check the skill tree every so often to see if any points are waiting to be assigned.
Most of the “skills” are laughably ineffective, offering 2% stat boosts (yes, 2%!) or extra attacks for the game’s nine weapons. In addition, skill points are doled out so liberally it’s quite possible to max out the character within three hours.
This last point leads me to believe the game’s very short, but I wouldn’t know because it’s also such a broken game I refuse to play it anymore.
The amount of shit wrong with Zenith is staggering. From the framerate that can dip to as low as 10 frames-per-second to the horrendous loading screens that make ReCore look positively seamless, Infinigon’s trash fire of a presentation is rough at best. However, these immediate issues are only a taste of the stupidity to come.
Crucial parts of this game simply don’t work. Menus frequently become inoperable, with players unable to trade with merchants, equip gear, or assign skill points because the screen’s locked up. Menus will have to be opened and closed any number of times before they’ll actually work. again.
Sometimes they won’t work no matter how many times you reopen them, with the only solution being to quit the game and restart it. Since the main menu can also become stuck, the entire application will often need be closed from the outside.
This isn’t just an infrequent problem, either. There’s a better than 50/50 shot that any given menu will fail to work. It’s as bizarre a problem as it is infuriating.
There are plenty of graphical glitches on offer too, less immediately offensive than the menu problem but ubiquitous all the same. Characters’ feet burying themselves in the floor, physics acting wonky, it’s the epitome of the “unpolished” game in almost every regard.
Sound design is all over the place, with wild volume variances from place to place that can make an already droning soundtrack utterly maddening.
Many of the game’s assets appear to be placeholders, with various characters, creatures, and even text fonts looking out of place, artistically inconsistent, and thoroughly bare bones. Zenith is short on lighting effects – or really any effects – which makes the whole thing look cheap and fake.
What really stopped me playing the game, though, was the emergence of unloadable areas – places I couldn’t go because the loading screen would never end until the game was shut down. This would happen every time, meaning there are parts of the game that literally cannot be loaded.
After wasting my time with broken menus and terrible jokes, this revelation was the final sad punchline.
I’m done writing about Zenith. Frankly, I’d like to stop thinking about it as quickly possible. That it wasn’t relegated to a dark corner of Steam’s Early Access is surprising. That it actually found a publisher, some basic PR support, and console releases is an absolute shock to the system.
Other videogame developers should be offended by this one’s ability to find a publisher.
Zenith isn’t just badly made – it’s appalling. A boorish, cynical failure of a comedy game broken in ways I’ve never before seen. The fact it somehow – everso rarely – manages to show a glimmer of wit under all the misery only worsens the deal, highlighting how this could have perhaps been something decent before it was run through whatever thresher led to it becoming the mangled carcass it is.
There is no cure for the disease this game carries. The kindest thing to do is take it out back and put a bullet between its glazed, gormless eyes.