Review by Sashanan
Reviewed: 09/07/04 | Updated: 09/09/04
A timeless platform/RPG classic lost on the PC
A cross between a 2D platform game and an RPG, Zeliard is a rather uncommon kind of title to find on the PC. In a story similar to most Japanese RPGs of its time, the player sends a brave hero known as Duke Garland into an underground labyrinth to defeat a recently awakened demon and reseal him so that the problem is once more passed on to a future generation. The labyrinth is helpfully littered with underground towns where our hero can rest, upgrade his equipment, and gain experience levels if he has killed enough monsters.
Upon running Zeliard and sitting through its introductory sequences (strictly optional, and a 20 minute time investment), the player finds himself in the first town, ready to talk to townspeople and head into the labyrinth for some carnage. The beautiful presentation is immediately apparent; towns are lush with colour, accompanied with decent midi-based background music, and they just feel very alive. Townspeople wander around, each with a story to tell you and often with helpful advice as well. But as the manual warns, some are under the evil influence of your demonic foe, Jashiin, and will deliberately give false information. As you progress through the game and visit more towns, it becomes more and more interesting to try and weed out the information you need; a process that is not helped by the fact that the English translation is dodgy at times and some hints are quite a bit harder to decipher than was likely the intention.
Towns are also littered with shops of various kinds, and they have quite a bit of character. The bank is run by a dusty individual wearing glasses who looks at you disinterested and disturbed by the fact that you are bothering him, until you deposit a fair sum of gold and his expression immediately changes to a greedy, contended chuckle. The owner of the weapon store is tall, muscular and wears an eyepatch, and woe to the adventurer that bothers him without buying anything. Sages, who teach you spells and are also the people to level you up if you have enough experience, make mysterious arm waving gestures from behind their crystal ball. It's hard not to enjoy the atmosphere that the game breathes.
Once in the labyrinth, the real fun begins. Zeliard consists of a large set of connecting dungeons, which increase in both complexity and challenge as you get farther into the game. There are ropes to navigate, lifts which can be taken up and down, moving platforms that span pits, potions and treasures hidden in secret wall and ceiling compartments, and spikes which you do not want to fall in or try to walk through. Dungeons scroll in all four directions, and with a minimum of key presses you can run, jump and fight your way through them.
Yes, fight; because each dungeon is filled with a rather large population of enemies. Some of these critters are slow and dumb, but many have interesting tricks up their sleeve. Every time you enter a new set of dungeons and the local set of monsters (as well as the background music) changes, it'll be fun and exciting to find out what the game is going to throw at you next. You'll be facing oversized frogs and bats at first (the latter of which make annoying swoop attacks and quickly dart out of your reach when you want to strike them), but later on there'll be a variety of other critters to deal with. Later enemies don't just deal more damage to compensate for the higher level and better gear you'll have, but are genuinely smarter and harder to catch. To fight back against all these enemies, you have a limited number of combat moves at your disposal, including a stab forward, a slash that covers the area just above and also in front of you, and the option to point your sword downwards when jumping or falling to deal some very heavy damage to whatever finds itself right below you. All this is fairly easy to pull off, and the game even automatically choose between the slash and the stab depending on where enemies are in relation to you. This allows you to focus on maneuvering, making sure you stand your ground or make hit and runs where appropriate, without having to worry about exactly how to attack. Just hit the space bar and Garland figures out the rest.
While the first areas of the game are straightforward, requiring only a little searching to get to the end, later dungeons are far more confusing. They're bigger, consist of many isolated areas connected with doors (many of which are locked and require you to find keys), and feature increasingly complex jumping and platform sliding puzzles. By the time you reach the end of the game, you are dealing with invisible walls, secret passages and one way routes which dump you back at the beginning of the dungeon without warning, and you'll be wondering what you ever found hard about the first stages. Many dungeons are made hard by the combination of very precise jumping puzzles and enemies harassing you at the same time. They just love to knock you off platforms or ropes when you least expect it. Fortunately, the hardest puzzles can be made easier by using a handy ingame slowdown option; it certainly helps on those split second jumping nightmares.
You have a long way to go if you intend to defeat Jashiin. Zeliard will take an experienced player an easy 10 hours to complete, and you can count on needing at least twice that if you don't already know where to go. The game is divided into eight parts, each with a town (the last one has two), one or more connected dungeons, and a boss at the end. Interestingly, each dungeon has its own theme; you'll be going through dungeons made of pure gold and an underground forest, as well as the obligatory ice and fire themed dungeons that every RPG seems to have. The boss encounters at the end of each dungeon are epic, satisfying battles against enemies many times your size, some of which will seem impossible to defeat at first. A death will result in being set back to the beginning of the dungeon with a loss of gold, but no permanent consequences otherwise. Even the harder bosses can eventually be overcome just by gaining more levels, although figuring out their patterns will yield much quicker results.
To help you on your quest, you can buy and sometimes find various swords and shields. More advanced swords increase both your damage and the reach of your blade, and shields protect against projectiles and the serious damage that touching monsters late in the game will cause; but only if you are not struck on your unprotected back. Shields do take damage in battle and will eventually break, unless you have them repaired at the weapon shop regularly. Sages in the various towns will teach you spells of varying effectiveness that will help a lot in tricky spots, and various utility items can be bought as well. If Garland is injured, you can use a healing item, or find a safe spot in the dungeon where you can afford to stand still for a moment and slowly regenerate your life. Most interesting of all, you'll be able to find various pairs of shoes in the dungeons which will give you special abilities, though obviously only one kind can be worn at a time. With the right shoes, you'll be able to do such things as wander in the ice caves without slipping all the time, or scale certain slopes which are inaccessible otherwise.
Zeliard is satisfyingly difficult, if a bit on the frustrating side in the last few dungeons. The fire caves are absolutely brutal just to get through, and to add injury to insult, they have a very deadly boss. But you'll likely keep playing anyway because the game just keeps you coming back for more. The beautiful graphics, for its time anyway, along with the varied soundtrack (different music for every dungeon, and a few different town themes that get recycled once or twice) are certainly part of it, as are the cool Spanish names given to your spells and most of the bosses (decent substitute for the Japanese originals). But the main strength of Zeliard is its atmosphere. The way the towns feel alive, the way that monsters, particularly bosses, manage to be both menacing and cute at the same time, and just the sheer fun of running, jumping and slashing your way through the dungeons is something that has to be experienced. Zeliard has pulled this part off so well that the game is basically timeless, and its aged graphics and game engine aren't any reason to pass on it. I replay Zeliard every so often, more than ten years after first getting it, and still enjoy it as much as any time before. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, give it a chance someday; if only so that you finally have a PC game starting with a Z.
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