Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal

Review by Old Rooster
September 2002

Wanted—Innocent and Virginal 18-Year-Old Heroine!

Britney wasn't available, so our developers have scoured Europe and found, in a London flat, Amy. Indeed, our Amy bears a striking resemblance to one April Ryan—remember her? But on with the game. Zanzarah is an intriguing amalgam of adventure, RPG, and first-person shooter. It creates an alternate universe of fairies, elves, dwarves, and other peculiar creatures. It seems this parallel world, which has really been there all through time, has been hidden from us for thousands of years due to some ancient misunderstandings. However, there is trouble in River City, or Zanzarah, and the ruling Druids need this naive but bright and good-hearted youngster to heal the breach, solve the problems, bring the factions together, make the universe whole again, etc. To accomplish this, Amy must not only wander the mythical world of Zanzarah, unlocking doors and making discoveries, but also must become a fairy collector and gain skills in fairy fighting!

You've Got to Be Kidding!

As one of those rare gamers who likes to read the manual before playing the game, I was ready to consign this one to some kind of banishment. C'mon—fairy fights, card collecting, elves! It seemed like a Pokemon-type children's game. Well, the banishment didn't occur, because I installed and started playing in one of the most gorgeous and superficially involving game worlds I've experienced.

"Step into the Realm of Magic and Mist—Into the Unknown" —Opening Theme

After a painless 960 MB installation, we are greeted with an absolutely lovely and original opening theme by one Karina Gretere, an Enya sound-alike. Deliberately lingering at the menu screen to hear the theme more than once, I just had to share some of the lyrics with you:

At last you've found your way;
Roads may change and roads may end;
Shapes may change and colors blend;
But time is forever still.

Amy is presented and controlled through a third-person, Tomb Raider kind of perspective. With a combination of arrows and mouse, I found this movement scheme very effective, much more so than with other third-person efforts. Indeed, except for some keyboard shortcuts, the game is completely managed with the mouse and four arrow keys. The interface (health, inventory, conversations, etc.) is also very effectively done, with one possible and fairly large exception, to be discussed shortly. In general, then, installation, controls and overall management are very good.

"I Hope this Isn't One of Those Dreams Full of Little Green Men" —Amy

As Amy is initially transported to Zanzarah, we find not a world of "little green men," but rather one of the most lush and appealing game worlds you're likely to see. Using the same 3D engine that powered Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, the developer has clearly gone to loving pains in a successful effort to involve the player in a set of believable environments. These range from the initial Garden of the Fairies to a City of Fairies, Swamp Village, Village of the Dwarves and the White Cathedral. Most of the inhabitants who desire to communicate instead of fight speak a dialect that is translated into conversational trees for Amy's response. From friendly and helpful owls to the guidance of Rafi, this world of babbling brooks and swaying trees beckons your active and willing participation. You want to explore, see more, find out more about what is happening here.

Sounds are wonderfully done. Soon into the game, you'll hear a waterfall in the distance and find it in full force just around a bend. Not only is ambient work effective, but also the voice acting and background themes integrate beautifully into the whole experience. Indeed, graphics and overall sound/acting/music earn a gold star from my perspective.

"You Need a Fairy Bag to Fairy Fight" —Rafi

Unfortunately, what at first seemed a rather pure adventure (solving puzzles, unlocking mysteries, interviewing citizens) rather quickly deteriorated (in my judgment) to a peculiar skill buildup and collecting game with the primary thrust related to fairy fights, almost in a Quake III or Unreal Tournament fashion!

It seems there is an astral plane in this alternate world, populated by 77 kinds of fairies, in various classes (water, energy, stone, ice, fire, etc.), each with its own specific strengths and weaknesses. A "Table of Effectiveness" is included with the game, showing which of the 12 classes work best against others (sort of a "rock, paper, scissors" approach). For example, a fairy with a high energy rating will work well against water but not against stone. Further, each fairy has two defensive and two offensive spells, as well as experience levels ranging from zero to 60. In a confrontation—and these appear randomly and often as you explore—it's important to be equipped with the "right" fairy companion, or at least have the right one immediately available in the set of five you can have with you at any one time. Of course, you can travel back to London to gather alternate fairies, assuming you've added them to your collection at some point in your quest.

Then, there's the fighting itself. Even as an experienced Unreal Tournament player, I had some difficulty with the controls. It's a first-person shooter scheme not done very well, I'm afraid. Movement involves holding down left and right mouse buttons at times, while watching your mana level (health). It all becomes difficult, annoying and unpleasant. Fortunately, there is an "enabler" available that leads to an automatic win in a fight and, in turn, leads to more direct movement toward the final outcome of the game. Drop a line if you would like that cheat, I mean "enabler."

Finally, you also have to be thinking about and managing magic spheres (crystal, gold and silver), as well as other various and sundry items necessary for progress in Zanzarah, including a Pixie Bag, herbs, healing potions, golden carrots, an ocean conch, coins, and, my favorite, the garlic atomizer. Collecting various fairy cards enables your visits to different lands or areas (keys).

"Humans Are So Terribly Minded Where Magic Is Concerned" —Rafi

There are about 25 hours of play in Zanzarah if you "skip" most of the fairy fights and proceed as directly as possible. The land is wide open and, although certain keys and tasks are required to proceed to the next level, one really has to search, explore, chat with townfolk. Frankly, for this gamer, the fairy fights and even the collecting became something of a pain, redundant, even mind-boggling. I became frustrated by the action sequences and was pleased to find the enabler code available. Never having played Pokemon, perhaps I'm not of the necessary mindset for this kind of experience.

After my first hour with Zanzarah, I told our fearless leader that I didn't care what kind of game was incorporated in this world—it was so beautiful and involving that just being there made it all worthwhile. Well, it does make a difference, and the esoteric and rather peculiar gameplay (from my perspective) affected, I'm afraid, my overall viewing of the title. With its stellar graphics, fine level design and wonderful sound, Zanzarah could readily have earned one of our coveted gold stars if the gameplay had been more purely adventure, or even action/adventure, in the sense we typically experience it. Instead, in an apparent desire to be creative and different, the designers went with a strange collecting game coupled with a substandard shooter. In spite of the lovely world, the complexities of managing fairies, together with the difficult fights, brought this down to a thumb up rating. As a disclaimer, this is one Rooster's opinion, and it's very possible that others may find this gameplay right up their alley and not as mind-boggling as did this player. Indeed, I would recommend the game to many, given the reservations expressed above and, once the price becomes "budget," which I suspect will be soon, you may well choose to "step into the realm of magic and mist—into the unknown." The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Funatics
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: June 2002

Available for: Windows 

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System Requirements

PII 500 (PIII 800 recommended)
64 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)

Where to Find It

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