The Nardio Review
IS Z-Exemplar WORTH YOUR TIME?
I’m going to have to sadly say no.
WHAT SHOULD YOU PLAY IT ON?
HOW IT PLAYS AND WHY IT FAILS:
Z-Exemplar has a lot going for it, unfortunately, it’s insistence on recreating the retro feel with regards to gameplay and UI make the game more frustrating and painful than fun.
I wanted to love this game.
Z-Exemplar feels like a damned interesting Steam Early Access game. Unfortunately, it’s a paid and final release. That means it’s really rough around the edges, loaded with problems, and yet o so full of promise.
I really wanted to love this game.
Despite, many, many problems, Z-Exemplar manages to have that: one more game feeling that kept bringing me back. Unfortunately, the problems kept pushing me away over and over again. The more this happened the more frustrated and I found myself.
Z-Exemplar promotes itself as a “retro” inspired game. Now that is interesting but also gave me a pause when I first checked it out. The label “Retro” is unfortunately now often used to mask bad game design. At least in my opinion. I all too often find bare bones UI, bad hit detection, and other problems often tagged as retro. Z-Exemplar sadly falls into this.
Z-Exemplar’s UI and menu system are atrocious. The majority of the game is controlled with one button. This game has controller support and yet limits itself to one button…Why?
There isn’t even a pause menu in game. If you want to exit out of a level you need to die. Sure it’s not that big of a deal, but the more I played the more these lazy little design choices added up and hurt the whole.
Buying upgrades for your ship and using said upgrades is frustrating. No tutorial or clear system in place to explain things to the player. Yes, this is a “retro” inspired game, but the menu is convoluted and poorly explained.
My first play through had me wasting money on various upgrades I found out later could only be used in one spot. That wouldn’t be so bad if earning money in Z-Exemplar wasn’t painfully slow. It’s horribly and feels like I am playing a freemium game with the option to buy more currency. Sure early on in game, you are gifted some money here and there, but besides that, you are left to slowly, slowly earn what you need. In my case I was so sick of the game and realized I wasted a bunch of money by mistake by bad/uninformed buying choices that my only option was to start a whole new game. After rage uninstalling after a particularly cheap level. When I came back to the game I promptly bought only what I needed to progress.
This sort of trial and error has no place in gaming anymore. Sure this a “retro” game, but that is just bad game design. You can’t call bad retro. It is just bad.
This leads to another frustrating problem with Z-Exemplar, poor weapon choice and the inability to allow the player to test said weapons. Sure Z-Exemplar touts having a large weapon selection, but in reality what you actually can use and need are few and sadly far between.
Z-Exemplar offers a lot of weapons and support parts but really found that if I wanted a chance at succeeding in game I’d need a set selection that helps me stand a chance against a lot of the games punishing level design. Homing missiles, spread fire and a shield wall in the back is the only way to play in my experience. Anything else and I’d die way too often from cheap deaths. Z-Exemplar offers a lot of cheap deaths. Usually, memorization helps deal with these sorts of things, but thanks to the randomized nature of some enemies spawns, you really can’t count on that too much.
The worst offender to the one button interface is the power up/weapon system that has been taken right out of Gradius. It was frustrating to use way back when Gradius was released and it is utterly horrible to endure and work with here. I would honestly say 90% of Z-Exemplar’s difficulty comes from this stupid and horribly implemented power up/weapon system.
In Z-Exemplar you power up your ship during each mission by collecting energy from fallen enemies. The more you get the further down a list of weapons and power ups you can unlock. So 2 energy gets me spread fire, but 3 gets me missiles and 5 gets me a back facing shield. Well, ideally, I want to get my spread fire first, then get each of the following one by one.
The problem is Z-Exemplar is sort of randomized in regard to enemy placement and what they drop. Some levels will have enemies poop out energy left and right. Others, you will be frantically starving for it. Even worse often times you will deal with levels that only give you this energy as you go into an area heavily infested with attacking enemies.
Here is where the horrible UI comes into place… The shooting button is also the button to select and power up your ship. So I have to stop shooting, hold down the button and try and get the meter to rise and stop right at the upgrade I want/need. Often times I over or undershoot it or it flat out doesn’t register. Meanwhile, I am either passing the energy I need or mistakenly filling up on all of it. This all happens while the game is still going. So I need to worry about dodging enemies as well.
This is a mindbogglingly stupid game design decision.
The problem is if I take in 10 energy I can’t use 2 later for spread shot and redistribute it. Nope… That would have been smart game design… Nope. In Z-Exemplar if you have 10 energy and use 2 well, all 10 energy is now gone. Meaning, as often happens if you find yourself having to dodge and attack a lot and have no time to upgrade properly and painfully slowly, you are out of luck. Most levels demand that you have most of the upgrades active to survive. So it try and try again until the randomized nature of the game allows you the luxury of upgrading properly in time to then deal with and take on the level.
It’s not fun. It’s maddening.
Unfortunately, there is, even more, to dislike with Z-Exemplar. Levels, depending on the planets change background color pallets. That is to be expected. What isn’t to be expected is that enemy bullets change color to fit those pallets. By fit, I mean to fit in. The colors are often very, very similar to the backgrounds. Making bullets very, very hard to see.
Ship movement is also very imprecise. Often times trying to shoot an enemy near the edges or getting energy will get you killed. You try to move just a tad bit and it’s just off. it feels like the ship is only assigned to move to certain areas of a grid. It’s just unnatural feeling. The ship you control’s hit box is laughably imprecise. This makes dodging bullets or trying to make it through many levels pathetically tiny gap passages feel luck based.
Boss fights feel lazy.
All to often enemies dart at you from behind. Considering the tiny screen space we actually have to use this feels cheap and needlessly punishing.
The sound in game is painfully annoying. This is one of the games I totally recommend muting and playing something else.
There is a lot more wrong with Z-Exemplar in my opinion, but at this point I feel like I am kicking a dying horse. I can honestly go into another thousand words at least just describing the problems I have found in game.
Anything good about Z-Exemplar?
Z-Exemplar’s gameplay, despite its many, many design driven problems can be fun. The levels are deliciously bit sized and great for pick up and go gaming. The retro feel, once you get past fighting with its upgrade system feels fun. When the levels aren’t designed in a way that feels sadistic, they can be fun.
Z-Exemplar has that just one more game feeling that kept me coming back. Making me want to retry the game, trying to learn from it. Trying to make it work. I get the feeling underneath all of the layers of design problems there is a good game. I just don’t think it’s worth suffering so much to find it. That said, I know there are gamers who will relish the challenge. That will take the time to memorize the levels and try and adapt to each challenge.
It’s doable. It’s just not for me. I can see this as a great pick up and play sort of game for patient/masochistic/lifeless gamers who are willing to adapt to deal with the many issues and work with Z-Exemplar. This would be great for those gamers who don’t have much too much time to game, but want a short bite sized retro challenge. Z-Exemplar provides that. Not in a way, that I would like. But I can totally see a market for this with the masochistic gamers out there who get a thrill out of beating games like this.
Is it worth it?
Honestly no. But It can also depend on the player.
If you are the sort of masochistic gamer that gets a gaming woody off of all the problems I’ve found with this so far, then buy away. For everyone else, run. Run far, far away.
Z-Exemplar is a great example for budding and future game devs of what not to do when trying to make a “retro” game. From it’s horrible unintuitive menu system, its needlessly forced screen ratio, it’s bad collision detection, it’s horrible upgrade system, it’s absurd bullet color choices and much much more. Z-Exemplar feels like a promising, broken alpha of a game that could one day be magnificent. The fact that it was released like this honestly makes me sad. A few years of TLC and polish and this could have been a modern day masterpiece. As is now it’s just another example of what not to do when designing a “retro” game.
A FREE REVIEW COPY OF WAS GIVEN TO ME TO REVIEW THIS GAME.
Agree? Disagree? Write your comments below
- Single player
- Multiple Save Slots
- Controller Support