Developed by WindThunder Studio and published by Winking Entertainment, Heroine Anthem Zero is the first title in the Heroine Anthem series in over a decade, and the first of which to be officially subtitled in English (fans have been translating the original 1 and 2 off and on over the years). Taking a departure from its earlier title’s form of semi-turn-based combat, HAZ presents itself as a 2D Action RPG with *heavy* emphasis on story and worldbuilding. Players take on the role of Wanin, a young, brash Forest Guardian who is ever accompanied by Mormolia, a small Fey creature who is just as impetuous as her larger friend. As the two work to fulfill quests and protect their home village of Uzato, we are introduced to a large cast of characters including Wanin’s boss and his easily angered barbarian wife, a traveling bard and her animal companions, Wanin’s naive sister Naire who speaks of herself in third person, as well as a childhood friend of Wanin’s who is hopelessly in love with her. Interactions with these NPCs, and many more, will be a constant throughout the Episode, as the focus of HAZ is story.
And boy is there a lot of story.
As soon as you start HAZ, a cut scene plays to help fill in the background of the world it takes place in. Starting a new game will show scenes of Wanin and party traveling through a forest while the opening credits play. After the title song accompanying this ends, several lines of dialogue and character portraits are shown at length, followed by gameplay by almost the 10th minute. Wanin is controlled simply enough with standard directional movement and three commands: jump, attack, and pet attack (Mormolia’s long range swoop). A double tap in either direction causes the player to continually dash until they jump, allowing quick movement through the long city streets, as well as an extra boost to platforms otherwise out of reach. Jumping is quickly augmented to a double jump after the first boss, and wall climbing (sliding) is also introduced. While Wanin’s control is straightforward and responsive, I did find a couple of specific areas of the map to be frustrating to navigate, but this may be due to map design. In battle, Wanin can swing his sword with great fervor, waving it quickly up and down to attack enemies, sending out a gust of energy every three swipes. The distance of the third swipe’s effect is determined by the amount of Heroic Vigor a player has, a fleeting resource that can stack and, once collected, stays with the player until they take moderate damage. Finally, Mormolia’s pet attack can be activated once at a time, shooting her across the screen, damaging and stunning any enemy she comes in contact with. Once used, she has a short cooldown of a few seconds before she can be called upon again. According to WindThunder Studio, later chapters and free updates will allow additional characters with unique skills and pets. Healing items, coins, and potions that buff damage can be found inside crates, barrels, and enemies.
Map layout is rather linear, with some areas having one or two branching paths for the player to explore for health power-ups and other challenges. Thanks to the ability to hop up walls, many areas have some form of verticality that helps break up the monotony of moving one way or another. There are also a few hidden areas to be found that contain extra coins for the player to find. Save spots are scattered around sparsely and are typically paired with a bed or camp to rest up at. Most locations are fairly large, filled with many enemies or many NPCs to interact with. The amount of things to actually do within these areas, besides the main quest, is fairly low; something the developer addressed in a recent Steam Announcement, stating “new branch quest and events” would be coming, “free as promised.”
The visuals of HAZ are certainly easy on the eyes.
Many characters, backgrounds, and still images are well drawn and beautifully colored with vibrant and contrasting palettes. Be aware the title is quite ecchi, with a strong amount of suggestive situations, pictures, and conversations. Nothing explicit, but certainly flirting with the line on a regular basis. While many may not care, for some of us it can be embarrassingly difficult trying to explain what you’re doing watching a slow-pan camera look up at a basically naked catgirl in hot springs (which, naturally, is one of the only times someone would walk in on you). Character animations are less pleasing, with many limbs moving as though they are connected by pins like a puppet, but they aren’t so bad that they’re distracting.
The music of HAZ is another area of praise, with well-composed songs and BGMs that elude to a specific time period the creators want to imply. None of the tracks feel out of place or odd, especially when put into context with the characters and their way of life. A few of the songs were written purely to tell part of the story in-game as a cut scene plays. This is something I haven’t heard of in a game in quite some time.
The story, is huge.
The world of HAZ certainly feels fleshed out, and sometimes overwhelming, with the mention of traditions, religions, race interactions, and families. Many of the cut scenes and lines of dialogue are long winded due to the amount of background they wish to cover at times. Characters are often taking time to talk to each other about where they are, what they’re doing, and what needs to be done.
That being said, this is where I feel HAZ’s problems begin. With so much story and dialogue to read and process, the Action in ARPG is readily pushed to the wayside. In the first 2 hours of playing, I feel as though I only really played for 15 or 20 minutes. The majority of that time was being forced to sit through a music video that wasn’t skippable, or read dialogue that stayed on screen until a specific character finished walking off of the screen. Immediately everything felt bogged down and slow as I ran from cut scene to cut scene, waiting to advance. It’s understandable for most RPG’s to start this way, but many do a better job with pacing by having combat in between large swathes of dialogue. With no player level to grow and the first new piece of equipment unavailable until the end of the second boss, player progression feels extremely stagnant and almost non-existent. And once you do get a new sword, it certainly doesn’t feel like anything special as it seems only three types of enemies exist: 1) small fries that die in one or two sword swings, 2) medium enemies that take 10-15 swings, and 3) bosses that take ~200 swings. It’s not that I don’t like the enemies and their designs, as bosses are well implemented with movement and attack patterns you need to watch in order to effectively deal with them, but damage feels inconsistent when attack buffs don’t change the amount of times you swat at enemies, but an enemy bumping into you will eliminate a solid quarter of health and a section of vigor that you won’t get a chance to refill for another 4 screens. Ironically, as a Guardian of the Forest, thorny vines seem to be Wanin’s greatest enemy, with some of them literally one-shotting you trying to hop between them (one health power-up in the Tub cavern seems impossible to nab without dying - I’ve tried too long). Backtracking to swinging your sword, combos are a big feature that seems to be missing. New swords come with passives that may augment an attack, but your attack combo never progresses past the three hit swing from the J/C/1 button that you’ll be mashing over and over.
And yet, as I’m writing all of this, I am witness to the promise of an upcoming update next month that will change most of these problems, and others. According to the Steam Announcement I referred to earlier, patch 1.1 will change certain movement and enemy behaviors, increase drop rates on specific items (Heroic Vigor included), change map layouts, add an easier difficulty, and add Mac OS support. Quite the changelog. So with this in mind, how does HAZ score?
Heroine Anthem Zero’s strength lies in its story and depth of world. If you expect to play a masterpiece ARPG with innovative and intuitive mechanics, character level progression, and/or a high skill cap that requires regular practice, look elsewhere. But if you want an interesting, albeit sometimes by the book, story played out through captivating visuals and don’t mind the occasional moment of "ecchi," then HAZ may be the ARPG for you. Solid gameplay and appealing boss fights help carry the action between story moments, while not forcing a skill wall on the player, and the promise of more content to come help increase the value of its meager $14.99 price tag.