There is no cliche in gaming more widely used than the ‘kidnapped girlfriend’. It’s one of the most archaic plot devices used in videogames, something the platforming genre has mostly grown out of. So it’s no surprise that Zack Zero uses this trope unabashedly to set up its razor-thin narrative, just one of the many things that goes wrong in this 2.5D platformer.
The titular Zack is a space ranger aiming to get his girl back after she’s been taken by the evil Zulrog, your standard dastardly alien emperor. Zack’s story is told through animated cutscenes with zero production values and the kind of groan-worthy narration that should constitute an aural war crime. It’s reminiscent of a Z-grade Saturday morning cartoon, the one’s aimed at selling a line of action figures no one wants to buy.
Zack Zero doesn’t offer much in the way of actual gameplay. It’s a sidescrolling platformer with 2.5D graphics, sprinkled with bits of combat and puzzle-solving. Zack’s suit has three distinct elemental powers—fire, ice, and stone—that are depowered at the beginning of the game, gradually leveling up and unlocking new abilities as time goes on. The problem is that none of the powers are particularly useful, and they drain the suit of its energy, so it’s a gambit to use them for any extended period of time.
The game forces players to use the other powers for the occasional puzzle. Sometimes a chasm can only be crossed with the fire dash, or deadly spikes slowed down with ice, and strangely enough stone is primarily used to pull levers. A few of the powers also have combat functions, but due to the limitations placed on them by the suit’s power gauge, there’s no point in using anything other than the default weapon.
Much of the gameplay is focused on classic platforming, and this is entirely where the game truly falls apart. Zack has a double jump that’s imprecise most of the time. Typically, Zack’s jumps fall short of the intended mark, even with the aid of his jet pack. This is rather frustrating since players can time the double jump perfectly, but Zack just won’t execute the move properly, resulting in many unintended deaths.
This is alleviated by the frequent checkpoints, but it does little to stem the annoyance found in the same cutscene of Zack falling to his death hundreds of times. Some of these deaths are also caused by a lack of clear communication in design, as the game sometimes introduces multiple planes without warning. This usually involves enemies on different planes than Zack and a greater difficulty in hitting them, resulting in many cheap hits that dwindle Zack’s already insubstantial health.
Zack Zero has a cluttered presentation with constant pop-ups and intrusive messages about leaderboard scores nobody cares about. Hearing about how ‘ladyeira’ always has the highest score is enough to make you want to disconnect from PSN, which you’ll want to do anyway because the game has a glitch where it will freeze up unless taken offline. Any doubt as to whether or not you should still be playing is swiftly removed once this fatal error rears its ugly head.
There’s a reason why no one heard about Zack Zero until it showed up one day on PSN with no fanfare. Zack Zero is strictly amateur hour. Everything from its awful production values to the way it bungles simple platforming is an indicator that the developers lack direction. Even if the player manages to look past the dearth of new concepts and the poor execution, the crashes and profoundly obnoxious pop-up messages will ensure they’ve given up on Zack Zero long before the credits role.