ZHP: Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman is one of the boldest games Nippon Ichi Software has ever released. An attempt to break away from being pigeonholed into just making the SRPGs they were so well known for, it expertly blended the Roguelike with elements of Disgaea to create something both incredibly accessible and deeply satisfying. Naturally, it sold poorly, and never did justify a sequel.
The Guided Fate Paradox is NIS’s attempt to make the ZHP sequel they’ve always wanted to and package it in a manner that might just help it find some success. I certainly hope it works out for them, because what they have here is fantastic.
The Guided Fate Paradox (PS3)
Developed by Nippon Ichi Software – Published by NIS America
I was confident that I wouldn’t have a very good time with The Guided Fate Paradox when I first started it up. The plot deals with Renya Kagurazaka, an ordinary high school boy with absolutely no luck at lotteries who suddenly ends up getting selected as god via, you guessed it, a lottery. Suddenly he’s assigned a personal angel and tasked with granting wishes for those who need help using a machine known as the Fate Revolution Circuit, which allows Renya to help the wishers achieve their goals by moving through a copy of the real world (God can’t interfere with anyone directly or people would begin to slack off if they knew they could call on him for all of their troubles, you see) and defeating monsters that represent their mental blocks.
It’s a fun concept, and one that is introduced wonderfully by way of Cinderella trying to rebel from the story she’s been eternally locked into. A real shame then, that the pacing of the opening chapter is awful. The first dungeon being little more than a tutorial, you’ll kill one or two enemies, move onto the next floor of the dungeon and repeat this over and over until the chapter is over. It breaks up the momentum of both the story and the gameplay simultaneously and works greatly to the detriment of the game as a whole.
Though the game never does break structure and there’s always a cutscene after each floor in every dungeon pertinent to the story, the game quickly gets more complex. The procedurally-generated dungeons begin to introduce unique hooks that never allow you to get comfortable, floors begin to take longer to complete, and the story gets gradually more interesting as it goes on. It takes a while to hit its stride, but when it does, it’s absolutely wonderful.
Mechanically, the game is very similar to ZHP, meaning it takes traditional roguelike gameplay and speeds it up, mixes it with concepts from NIS’s stable of games, and makes everything incredibly approachable. In typical roguelike fashion, everything is entirely turn based, from steps taken in dungeons through to attacking and using items. Enemies will only act when you do, so you can always plan your actions carefully, and given the game’s rather harsh punishments for death, being careful soon becomes crucial.
When you die, all equipment that you have on you is lost, along with half of your money. Your level also reset back to 1, but in a twist that ZHP first introduced, Guided Fate has a dual levelling system. This means that all levels accumulated in dungeons are added to your total level, ever so slightly increasing your base stats. You’ll always be on level 1 when you enter dungeons, but your stats will be greater with almost every subsequent crawl, which in turn impacts the effectiveness of levelling up within dungeons.
Character growth is a big part of the game, right down to the equipment system. All equipment has a Burst Gauge that fills up with repeated use. When the gauge is full, equipment effectiveness is halved, but you’ll obtain a Holy Icon. Holy Icons can be used on the Divinigram, a grid based system that allows you to place icons down to increase your stats and affect how stats will grow upon levelling in dungeons. The stats the icons will increase relates to the type of equipment they come from, so weapons will give you icons that increase attack, armor will give you defense icons, etc, etc. It’s an incredibly engrossing system that allows you to modify Renya’s stats down to the tiniest detail. Later depth comes into play with the addition of artifacts, allowing you to boost attributes such as inventory capacity, damage against certain types of enemies, etc. Angels can also travel with you in dungeons, and they all have their own Divinigrams, allowing allies to be similarly tweaked to a remarkable degree.
The equipment system has even greater depth beyond just working with the Divinigram. Equipment that has a filled Burst gauge can be strengthened at blacksmiths, or synthesized with other pieces of equipment to increase their stats. All pieces of equipment also have unique skills and attacks that require a set amount of SP to use, and having two of the same type of weapon equipped can bestow dual weapon skills, so working out a combination of equipment that works best for you can greatly aid any dungeon crawl.
Strengthening equipment is very useful, but it also helps keep every crawl as tense as possible. Guided Fate never allows players to get comfortable in dungeons, the dread of losing all items and equipment constantly hangs over everything, and even if the enemies aren’t giving you trouble, there’s a constantly decreasing energy meter that ensures that players must keep eating food to stay alive. When energy runs out, HP slowly begins to decrease, and when that hits zero, you’ll faint and have to start the dungeon all over again.
It’s all fairly complex, but everything is introduced in such a way that coming to grips with the core mechanics is all incredibly simple, I showed the game to a friend of mine who had no trouble playing the game after I gave him a brief explanation of the controls and mechanics. That’s part of what makes Guided Fate Paradox so special. It’s absolutely as deep and satisfying and fans of the genre could ever hope for it to be, yet it’s entirely approachable for newcomers. That’s not to say the game is easy, in fact, it’s one of the harder games released in recent memory, but it’s never due to the game being unfair or confusing mechanics. Almost every time I died it was due to me being reckless or making a stupid mistake. There are still traps, a mainstay of the genre, that you will undoubtedly step on, but they can all be found if the spaces they occupy are attacked first, or they can be avoided with certain equipment.
Special mention must be given to the boss fights, which get incredibly difficult and do a surprising amount within the framework of the game. Some fights will see you defending a castle and manning cannons, others will see you fending off enemies while preventing allies from being slowly sucked into a vortex, they’re all incredibly different from each other and require a fair amount of preparation to get through, but they’re all the more satisfying for it.
Ultimately, though it’s not as funny as NIS games typically are, it tells a surprisingly enjoyable story with a cast of enjoyable characters (with wonderful designs courtesy of Noizi Ito) who are all well-acted. (the game has both English and Japanese voice acting, for those interested) It’s not quite as fresh as ZHP was when it first burst onto the scene, but it refines everything seen there into such a fantastic experience that it ultimately doesn’t matter. One of the best entry points for those interested in roguelikes, and an excellent addition to the genre in its own right, The Guided Fate Paradox is absolutely one of the best RPGs released this year.