Z-Exemplar (Full Review)
That made for a perfect time to step in the cockpit and head out for some old fashion galaxy conquering, and see how the full experience stacks up to the demo. Are the 900+ levels too much? How do the large variety of powerups fit into the experience? And did it land the right balance between old and new? Mostly, yes. Despite some rough patches, Z-Exemplar is very much worth its meagre asking price.
Z-Exemplar is a retro side-scrolling shoot em up, akin to classics such as R-Type and Gradius, with pretty much the same underlying gameplay systems. These sorts of modern-retro attempts are a dime-a-dozen these days, though, so thankfully Z-Exemplar manages to add its own dash of flair and personality to distinguish itself from the pixelated crowd.
There’s a decent variety of planet types to encounter, each with its own distinct style and character – from mechanical factories filled with robots and cranes, to jungle planets with vines growing out of the edges, to space rocks filled with asteroids (which yes, splits up into small rocks as they should). Powerup/upgrades too, have a variety of styles and uses, from straightforward laser shields to living vine shields that twist their way around behind you, cluster bombs, homing missiles, and more.
A lot of the personality, though, comes from the humour: the mighty lord Zed sends you off into space alone to take out an entire galaxy in a space ship that looks more like a rusty old Datsun. Your friendly A.I. assistant announces it’s time to “share the good news” when invading a planet. Various emails mix up ominous with humorous jabs at the shoddy state of affairs you find yourself in.
These plot wrappings add necessary flavour to keep the game from becoming a faceless retro clone, but the game is also smart enough to keep them to the sidelines so that they never overstay their welcome. Surprisingly for a game with over 900 levels, Z-Exemplar knows when to show restraint.
That unfathomable amount levels spread across a discoverable galaxy map is probably the most notable element of the game, however, so let’s talk about that. Yes, the game sports a whopping 960 levels to conquer, spread out over a large, non-linear map that opens up as you invade planets. But, no – you don’t have to finish each and every one – not by a long shot. As you gallivant around, ticking planets off your bucket list, emails slowly reveal a far more direct pathway to victory. This fact, combined with the (sometimes extremely) short size of each level, does a lot to smartly avoid making the size of the map into a tedious slog, instead, it frees you up to make your own path to the key points you’ll be aiming for.
The powerup/upgrade/loadout system is the other highlight of the game. There is a generous variety of upgrades available, and better yet, each does a pretty good job of providing its own personality and function beyond just being a different firing pattern. Each also comes with three levels of upgrade that don’t just increase damage but do things like extend the range, number of bullets or other elements to add needed weight to each upgrade. Oh, and you also have the classic “charge” shot, where holding the fire button down for a couple seconds to releases a more powerful bullet, though it isn’t really useful, and for reasons explained later, probably won’t see much use.
The balance of while expanding slightly from the formulas that defined the genre, while still mimicking old, familiar structures, is well done. It’s a heavily retro affair that knows what it wants to be and what sort of audience it wants to play it, but there’s enough sense of “new” here to keep the “retro” from feeling stagnant.
That said and done, there are a few rough patches which could turn heads, that need to be covered.
For one, the mechanism for activating power ups within a level, for me, felt a bit clunky. The system should be roughly familiar to anyone whose played these sorts of games before: within each level powerup coins (Zogs) first have to be collected, and the more you get, the higher “rank” of powerup category becomes highlighted, ready to activate. To then activate a desired powerup rank, you need to hold the fire button down, which charges a bar that progresses through the powerups, until it reaches the category you want, then release the fire button to activate it.
The last rank of power up, a support orb can also be controlled using this system, and theoretically launched in front of behind of the shop as a shield or connected to the front or back as an alternative/extra firing option. Sadly, it’s far too cumbersome to charge and get the orb to where you want it – you’ll be swarmed by enemies far too much of the time for that.
This control scheme is thus too “simplified” for its own good, making it too difficult to use quickly and effectively. Charging leaves you pretty much patiently waiting, defenceless, in a game characterised by short, frantic enemy-filled levels – feeling fiddly at the best of times and punishing at the worst. The second, albeit less worrisome, consequence is that you rarely use your charge shot, since its too easy to accidentally charge too long, and activate an ability you don’t want instead. Another system surely could be far better utilised here, simply using more keys – allowing you to manually cycle through and activate upgrades and freeing up your ability to continue shooting at foes – seems better to me.
The other side of the coin is the difficulty, as it often is with these sorts of games. The levels are short and intense – packed with foes popping out of every corner of the screen and tight narrow walls which must be avoided. Like many old school games, one hit whether from a bullet, colliding with an enemy, or gently bumping against a fern on the ground, will cause you to instantly explode and lose all progress in the level. The ship too, moves a bit slower than really needed. True, there is a speed powerup, but it’s a hard sell when you can only bring four powerups into a level.
This wasn’t a complaint though, as for the most part, I enjoyed these aspects of the game’s difficultly – there was not so much emphasis on bullet hell shooter style dodging, and the levels tend to be short enough that a death (combined with unlimited lives) isn’t such a big deal.
What is a little less harder to chew on, however, is that chuck of deaths that can feel random, due to there being quite a few enemies that will unexpectedly emerge from the back of the screen, unexpectedly emerge from the environment, or simply literally emerge from nowhere. Some of these appearances are telegraphed, but not all. Not enough. For example, on water planets, fish enemies burst out of bubbles which appear on the left or right edges of the screen – that can already be a nasty surprise, but the real problem is the damn bubbles will also kill you on contact, and there is absolutely no way to know when and where they will appear, aside from level memorisation. Better telegraphing of such enemies’ appearances is probably my only real, but major, gripe I have with the game.
There’s a few other nitpicks, space bar as the default fire button with no option to rebind keys, which seems like a strange oversight, but not as strange as the lack of any ability to pause the action whatsoever. The levels are short, but it still seems a little odd to omit.
Thankfully, that last sore spot is the only time I found myself losing enjoyment with Z-Exemplar, as the overall experience is polished, the power ups are fun to experiment with, and the short levels tend to make galaxy conquering feel more fun than a slog. I’ve conquered a few dozen planets, which while being a mere 4% if the galaxy map, for now, at least, I keep coming back for more. All hail Zed!