Everyone knows I love a good shmup, so when Team Grybanser Fox sent their latest creation over for review I was excited. Zeno Death is the fourth title in a series that has been boiling under the surface but has gone from strength to strength. The first four entries all fared well with critics so lets dive in and see what Zeno Death, described as the final chapter, is all about. Due for release early September and available on Steam.
Right out the blocks it is clear that Zeno Death is your typical shmup story of aliens attacking and you being relied on to save the Earth. There is not much more you need to know about your mission and anyone familiar with shmups will feel right at home. You start the game with the choice of three ships that all have their own attributes. The usual spread, focused shot and speeds separate them. They each have a unique secondary weapon as well. You will notice that each craft has a ground and flight mode but more on this later.
The first thing that struck me about Zeno Death was its difficulty. This is no easy Sunday stroll like Team Grybanser Fox’s last game Super XYX. Right from the start the bullet hell action is real and deaths come thick and fast. You soon notice the ingenious continue system that requires you to spend your collected orbs. The more orbs you collect the more you can continue, run out of orbs and it truly is game over. This neat idea is made more desperate as each continue will cost more orbs than the last. Zeno Death will appeal to those who crave super hard shmups and chasing that elusive 1cc, casual players may feel frustrated though.
There is no let up in the difficulty and just making it through the first round felt great. It has the classic trope of practice makes perfect. After the first stage something quite odd happened. The game switches to an overhead run ‘n gun with winding paths through a ground level. My first impression was deflation though. Coming from the hectic blasting of a vertical shmup to a slower paced move and shoot style felt at odds with itself. Every stage switches between the two play styles and my honest opinion is the overhead run ‘n gun levels are not well implemented. They seem out of place and almost like a tech demo lumped on to a classic shmup.
The overhead levels feel bland compared to the flying sections and I could not help but want to rush through it to get back in my flight mode. Some players might enjoy the switch as it certainly mixes up the gameplay. But shmup fans are normally looking for a pure experience and this just feels like a conflict. It is not just the dramatic change of pace, the overhead sections do not control well. If it had used a twin stick mechanic it would have been better but you have to stop, turn around and fire again which feels awkward at times. I feel like I am being harsh but these levels really did bring the experience down for me.
But what about the flight levels? They are much better, with hard action and bullets coming from all angles. Multi-phase bosses that are difficult and require some working out are well designed. The enemies are fine, if a little samey in places. Each craft has a secondary fire that acts as a close quarters attack. Killing foes with this weapon will create medals that build up to give much needed extra lives. Using your main shot and secondary fire becomes pivotal to surviving in the later levels and mixes up the gameplay.
The overall gameplay is good, fun and challenging. The bosses themselves lack variety though, some are just giant grey boxes without any flair. But Zeno Death has its own style that comes across well. The animations are great but the bullets were, at times, a little difficult to see. Not a major problem though as there are options to mix the colour palette to your liking. One of the stand out features is the pumping soundtrack that bounces along. The composer, HeavyViper, can take credit for their excellent score that really adds polish to Zeno Death. There are nine stages to get through and only hardened shmup players will probably see it through to the end.
Zeno Death is a well made game with some great touches but it is let down by the run ‘n gun stages. But there is fun to be had anyone looking for a new shmup will get what they need from this challenge. Casual players would be better to pick up Super XYX.