Review by Eclesis
First off, repeat after me: Zill O'll is not Final Fantasy. Zill O'll is not Final Fantasy. The name of the game on GFaqs at least is also spelled (apostrophied?) wrong as of right now.
Got it? For some completely unfathomable reason every other English language review of this game appears to want to compare it to FF7 when the focus and style are nothing alike, and makes you wonder if said reviewers had actually played the game. ZO is by no means a masterpiece, but it does offer some original and creative elements which aren't present in what console gamers tend to think of as "standard RPG" (ie, Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest), and it's a shame that some reviewers can't look past the uninspiring visuals to see that content.
Being a remake of a PS game, the graphics are touched up but quite dated, as contemporary PS2 games go. The various player and NPC models are not particularly detailed, though they do an adequate job of conveying the action, and the background is quite pretty in some places. In-combat animation is done reasonably well.
Unfortunately, some of the cutscene animation looks quite awkward, and there are bits that make you wonder what it was they were smoking, such as people exploding upon death.
The music is atmospheric and well-suited to the game itself, if not particularly flashy. They unfortunately decided to completely rescore some of the more memorable tracks from the original, but there are certain delightful tunes such as the Homeland theme that plays in Ulkarne.
No voice acting was a decision on the part of the developers to preserve the atmosphere of the original, which may or may not be an issue depending on how your Japanese reading vs listening skills are.
The story and background of the world of ZO is a classic medieval epic of knights and dragons, legendary quests and princesses in distress; it also doesn't, as has become increasingly popular with modern games, suddenly reveal itself to be set inside a computer simulation/40th century Earth/all in some guy's dream. Having said that, it's not a fluffy fantasy with clear-cut Good and Evil, and presents an amazingly wide array of different perspectives with which to view the world. For instance, when selecting a starting location, two of the choices occur in the same town, beginning with the same event. However, the two choices each present a different side of that event, and playing both allows the player insight into the entire thing, and perhaps some realization of just how much perspective colors perceptions.
In fact, most of the game is about perspectives. Depending on which plots you choose to follow, you might discover different and unusual sides of the story. The characters are also well-developed in that respect; very few are black and white, and all have their secrets which require effort to divulge. An antagonistic character may have reasons for doing what he's doing, but he's not going to blabber out his entire life story to some random sword-swinging hero who walked into his fortress two minutes ago.
The plot is fantasy, but doesn't pull punches when it comes to the effects of war, poverty, dark magic, et cetera; almost every single major character has a chance of dying depending on the player's actions, and several are quite a pain to save. Without knowing these characters it's sometimes hard to understand why one would bother, but the scriptwriters do a wonderful job of layering motivation and background once you get into a certain character's plot. For instance, there is a character who you may not even meet depending on actions throughout the game, and who is arrogant and irritating the first time you do meet her; a bit of patience, however, and you start to see the bits of her personality that break that initial mold and eventually drive her transformation into a much more sympathetic character.
A very interesting feature they've implemented is the ability for major events to occur without player interference. In most RPGs when the player is leveling, fighting random monsters for treasure, and generally ignoring plot for sake of shiny sidequests, the main plot stops to wait for them. In ZO, it doesn't; that calendar on the overworld map actually means something, and if an enemy army says it's going to attack a certain city in a month, it will do so regardless of whether the player is there to witness and interfere in the battle. Similarly, if the princess is kidnapped and you don't go save her in time, she simply dies.
Unfortunately, the overarcing plot always ends in the same manner, even if the paths you can take along the way are many and varied. Part of this may be due to the fact that it would be somewhat abrupt if the forces of history decide to either save or destroy the world and thus end the game without you, but it would have been nice to be able to see some alternate versions of the overarcing plot. The downside to the aforementioned moving history system is that, if you've spent the entire several years of gametime delivering mail and finding random rocks, it's quite confusing as to why you're suddenly being asked to save the world.
The system of the game's fairly simple - there's an overworld, there are towns and dungeons, and there are random encounters that you can see on the map. The overworld map is similar to, say, the Tactics Ogre line of games, where you have locations of interest separated by paths, each point in the path denoting one day of travel time require to get from A to B.
There's a framework of the guild jobs that allow you something to do while encountering various characters and plot, and while some of the jobs are repetitive it gives you incentive to visit various locations. Once major plot starts rolling, of course, you have less time to do Guild work, though you can still choose to do so if you want.
Character progression in this game uses the normal concept of levels, though the stats which you gain on levelup depend on the Soul with which you're equipped. Souls are acquired through skill points earned via Guild missions and major events, and once you acquire a Soul you can equip it at any time. However, this means that it's easier to do lots of low-reward quests, build up Soul Points, then get the best Souls to level with. Also, as characters all have a default Soul and they join your party at your level, if the default Soul has bad stats your new characters won't be terribly effective.
The combat in this game is, frankly, ridiculously simple; there are several weapons you can get early on which completely break game balance. 2nd time through, you retain all your Soul Points and most of your Skill Points, and fighting is essentially a cakewalk.
The reason for this is that, in order for this sort of free scenario system to work, it's not possible to set difficulty higher because you're not restricted to when/where you fight bosses or enter dungeons. There's some amount of scaling depending on how late in the game's timeline you are, but it's possible to progress without doing much fighting, and so the challenge in the combat system's sacrificed for freedom of exploration.
On the other hand, as combat is not the focus of this game, they've made it reasonably easy to avoid combat (you can see monsters on the map rather than just have random encounters, and there's a spell that makes you immune to them) and move from location to location. Aside from the loading times, combat is fairly simple and there's no grinding for exp or items or any of that.
One incredibly irritating feature, however, are the random encounters on the world map when passing from location to location. While I understand their purpose if one were, say, on a guild mission to guard an NPC or deliver goods, why they've chosen to implement these encounters when you're simply moving from one place to another is beyond me. The monsters can be easily avoided through spells and pose no threat, and all it winds up doing is force you to sit through a rather extended Now Loading screen.
Zill O'll isn't a game that will appeal to most generic audiences, particuarly if you put heavy emphasis on visuals or gameplay. It's more a world to explore and does a good job of presenting that world in a myriad collection of smaller stories. The characters and events for the most part are written with a mature perspective and do not feel contrived or trite as is a common issue with RPG plots (ie, not everyone behaves like a rebellious 14-year-old).
There are of course flaws in the game design itself, like the rather long loading times and sometimes pointless combat ("Bwahaha I'm the Ultimate Evil!" "We just killed you in one hit."), and the graphics aren't really up to contemporary game standards. People who're looking for challenging gameplay and pretty 3D graphics probably won't find this game engaging, but if you're more interested in exploring a world and story, it's a well-written and immersive experience.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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