Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 1/18/21
"Z2: Chaos" is the tenth console game in the "Onechanbara" series and follows the events in "Z: Kagura" (2012). Undead uprisings are springing up all over the world, and Baneful Blood sisters Aya and Saki once again form an uneasy alliance with Vampiric sisters Kagura and Saaya in order to eliminate the threat and determine who's behind it. Anna (with only two n's this time) helps them out as their commanding officer in the ZDF (Zombie Punitive Force), but isn't a playable character. An old enemy reappears with plans to exploit both Banefuls and Vampirics, and by the end of the game the sisters agree to put aside their blood feud for good and work together as friends.
I really want to like these games, but they're just not very good. I mean, what's not to like about a group of sexy young ladies slicing and dicing zombies with extreme prejudice, while dismembered limbs and buckets of blood fly all over the place? I suppose it all boils down to presentation, and the series continues to suffer from low budget production values and crass B-movie sensibilities. For better or worse, the series has hardly evolved at all since the first game came out in 2004, and while there's something to be said for consistency, the gameplay remains as broken and boring as ever. It's sort of like eating at McDonald's: the food isn't very good, but you know exactly what to expect.
Like every other "Onechanbara" game, you plow through a series of bland and repetitive areas with the character of your choice, madly mashing buttons to destroy everything that gets in your way. The uncooperative and nausea-inducing camera is a constant nuisance, which means you can only play in short bursts before succumbing to motion sickness. It's amazing to me that with ten games in the series, they haven't fixed the camera issues yet. Also similar to previous entries, it's sorely lacking instructions and objectives. The game explains the controls while you're playing, as if you're in a long-running tutorial, but that's it. You only get to see them ONCE, and you can never look at them again, so if you forget what the circle button does or how to switch weapons, you're out of luck and have to go to the Internet for help. Nearly all games these days have a menu item that at least shows the controller layout, but not this one. And some controls aren't explained ANYWHERE. During my first boss encounter, I kept getting prompted with a blue flashing arrow, but nothing I did had any affect. After going through this for about five minutes straight, I finally had to pause the game and go online. After a quick search, it turns out that the undocumented flashing blue arrow means that you have to swipe the touchpad in a specific direction, which makes this game the second one in over 80 titles that I've played that uses gesture controls. It's awkward, annoying, and not intuitive at all. Another annoying feature is that the jump button isn't useful for jumping, since it launches you forward about twenty feet. That makes basic navigation needlessly difficult.
The levels are crude and unattractive, but the focus is on the characters. The hero character models actually look quite good and the animation does an excellent job of capturing the characters' personalities and body language. However, similar to other D3 titles like "School Girl Zombie Hunter" (2017), their hair looks ridiculous and overly stiff, which is probably an attempt to minimize clipping problems. The girls' outfits are as tacky and trashy as ever, and you can unlock and purchase even more scandalous clothing if you choose. The notorious "Banana Split" version of the game comes with an outfit that consists solely of two strawberries that cover their nipples, and a banana that obscures the crotch area. You can also accessorize your ladies with various glasses, head ornaments, bracelets, anklets, and other goodies, with the most curious item being a piece of toast. That's right, you can slap a piece of toast (or multiple pieces of toast) on your character wherever you want. It's very, very odd, and just like the rest of the game, uniquely Japanese.
As much as I love female action games, the characters aren't particularly engaging and fall into easily recognized and well-worn anime stereotypes. Series mainstay Aya is the only likable and well-rounded one of the bunch, and ironically also the weakest fighter. Saki is like an overly bitchy and conceited ice princess, while Saaya is annoyingly passive and frail, and Kagura is abrasive and obnoxious like a boisterous Yakuza thug. As much as I dislike Kagura, she has the best weapons and move set, and is arguably the easiest and most fun character to play. The Japanese voice acting is very good for the most part, although characters tend to talk in the middle of battle, which makes reading the subtitles impossible. I didn't bother with the English dub, because they're almost always awful - especially with budget titles like this.
Being a Japanese game, the controls are often bewildering, but at least they got the "okay" and "cancel" conventions correct during localization. The menu options are awkward and confusing, and purchasing items is a totally unintuitive process. Similarly, using items isn't explained anywhere, and it wasn't until the end of the game that I accidentally discovered how to use consumable items.
The game is relatively short and the main story can be finished in about six hours. There are "casual" and "normal" difficulty options, and higher difficulties can be unlocked. I played on "casual," which was still fairly challenging due to the overly complex fighting engine. The game is overwhelming to play right from the start, and I fumbled through the entire thing using just the basic weak and strong attacks. However, there's a lot more depth and nuance available if you're willing to devote some time to figuring it out. There are dozens of weapon upgrades, techniques, and power rings that you can purchase and equip, and timing is critical. You can memorize the timing patterns in practice mode, which I found to be completely impenetrable. There are also secondary weapons, alternate weapons, ecstasy attacks, "cool" moves, berserker mode, and alternate demon forms for each of the characters. It's a lot to keep track of. You can switch to any character at any time, which is advantageous and allows resting characters to regain some of their health. You can also call on everyone to join you in battle in a "cross combo" move if they're healthy enough.
The music is hit-and-miss, and mostly innocuous pop metal with annoying autotune screaming vocals. The in-game audio levels are mostly consistent, but the title animation is about twice as loud as everything else. One interesting audio feature is that this is the first game I've ever played that uses the controller speaker. Anna speaks through the controller when the girls are in the field, as if it were a headpiece. It scared the hell out of me the first time I heard it, and while it's a clever gimmick, it grows old quickly and I wish there was a way to turn it off. While this is probably the most polished and streamlined "Onechanbara" game to date, it's still not very fun or engaging to play. It's also a bit buggy and I had to abandon and restart several missions because of enemies that got stuck in the environment and couldn't be killed. It's easy to draw comparisons to "Bayonetta" (2009) in terms of its hack-and-slash gameplay, but the series continues to lack the style, depth, quality, and sophistication that define Bayonetta's universe. "Z2: Chaos" is hard to recommend, but I continue to hold onto hope for the series.