Zack Zero is a robust platformer that's let-down by a low-budget art aesthetic and some cheap presentation. It reinforces the idea that appearances can be deceptive; what initially presents itself as a low-budget Cartoon Network tie-in actually emerges as a robust platformer with some strong combat mechanics and good level design. Crocodile Entertainment's downloadable debut may not smash open the creative piggy-bank, but it does a fine job working with established ideas — and it actually spawns an enjoyable two-dimensional romp that's only really let-down by its utterly generic art-direction and iffy narrative presentation.
At its very core, Zack Zero is a mid-nineties sidescroller framed around a very modern mechanic: the protagonist has the ability to switch between suit-types with a tap of the D-Pad, channeling the powers of the Fantastic Four to make for some interesting combat and puzzle scenarios. In essence, Zack Zero doesn't possess the full roster of the Fantastic Four's abilities — just the good ones. Indeed, there's no Stretch Armstrong and invisibility cloak here, just the Human Torch and The Thing. Oh, and that ice dude from the X-Men too.
Using each of the protagonist's powers becomes a key area of the combat. While Zack's equipped with a deadly boomerang in his standard form, switching between the elemental types — rock, fire and ice — allows him to deal additional damage at the expense of a depleting power bar. In order to encourage experimentation, developer Crocodile Entertainment's tied each of the different suits to multipliers, allowing you to significantly up your score if you're rotating between suit types to off your foes.
It's a strong mechanic that, outside of some clunky controls, is reasonably implemented, and demands forethought, preparation and planning. For example, while the rock suit is extremely powerful, it significantly hinders your movement, making it a less than ideal get-up when faced against fast moving enemies. As such, one strategy you might happen upon is to freeze your foes using the ice suit, and then follow up with a powerful stomp using the rock suit. There's a depth to the combat system that encourages experimentation, and while the game does get repetitive in its closing stages, the system is more than strong enough to carry the majority of Zack Zero's campaign.
The game cleverly thwarts a lot of repetition through strong, core design choices. Zack Zero is a well paced game, breaking up throngs of combat encounters with slick platforming, decent puzzles and some exploration. While the platforming can be a bit finicky due to the game's controls, Zack Zero is a forgiving game that respects your investment. You'll rarely find yourself backtracking through whole stages and repeating long segments, as the campaign is peppered with frequent checkpoints to alleviate frustration. As we get older, good checkpoint design is something we're starting to appreciate more, so kudos to Crocodile Entertainment for getting that right.
Like the combat, puzzles utilise Zack Zero's unique selling point to great effect. One particular challenge had us switching between suits and stepping on pads in order to open a door. The puzzles are largely memory based, pattern challenges, but they help to break up the pace of the platforming and combat, and add an additional layer to the gameplay. There's a real loving attention to detail that underlines everything Zack Zero does.
The game looks attractive too. While the bland art direction doesn't do the product any promotional favours, the actual in-game visuals are solid. Saturated colours and strong lighting help to bring the setting's fantasy world to life, and the game's steady framerate lends a smooth foundation to the action. The game can get a bit choppy in places — especially in areas of high activity — but for the most part it runs at a slick, and somewhat technically impressive, 60 frames-per-second.
Unfortunately, the cut-scenes antithesise the game's primary production values, resulting in a distinctly low-budget feel. It's a shame because outside of the Saturday morning cartoon style, Crocodile Entertainment's actually got an enjoyable story to tell. It's all anchored in spiel and McGuffins, but there's clearly been thought put into the narrative and it provides a good driving force for the gameplay. The plot sees Zack's long-term girlfriend, Marlene, captured by the "evil" Zulrog. However, it later emerges that the heroic duo were responsible for the death of the antagonist's brother, and so the game manifests itself as a tale of vengeance as much as heroism. It's hardly original stuff, but it provides strong motives for all of the starring characters, and at least adds some context to the moment-to-moment action.
It's such a shame then, that the presentation during these periods of exposition is so weak. Non-animated scenes and poor narration add to the art-style's cheap flavour, and even though the content itself is good, you could be forgiven for zoning out during the cut-scenes.
As previously alluded, the game is underpinned by a relatively engaging score system, which sees you rewarded for mixing up your attack types in combat scenarios. You'll also earn points for discovering hidden collectibles, and breaking crates. While the system would feel pointless on its own, Crocodile Entertainment's found a way to make it stand out. The inclusion of a global leaderboard enhances investment, but it's the implementation of real-time updates on scoreboard leaders and global positions that makes the points system way more engaging than it has the right to be. Think of it as Need For Speed's Autolog for a platformer, and you should get the general idea.
Sadly, the constant online interaction does appear to be causing some technical issues. We experienced multiple crashes during our time with Zack Zero — all of which were solved when we signed out of the PlayStation Network. Developer Crocodile Entertainment informs us that it is investigating the issue, and will presumably produce a patch in the coming weeks in order to solve any stability issues.
The campaign's punctuated by several boss encounters, which, like any old-school platformer, rely on pattern memorisation. These sequences can feel a bit predictable, but they add a nice challenge to the end of each level, and enhance the game's retro appeal.
In all, Zack Zero's a compelling platformer despite what its cringe-worthy art-style and occasionally low-budget production values would lead you to believe. The suit switching mechanic is a great inclusion, and it's utilised strongly throughout the game's campaign. Great pacing, satisfying combat and some decent puzzles elevate Zack Zero to a surprisingly enjoyable status, even if it's not exactly brimming with fresh ideas of its own.