At first sight Shadow of Zorro looks like a promising swashbuckling action-adventure game, putting you in control of the legendary masked swordsman as you sneak, slice and skewer your way through 1820's California. The game begins with the arrival of a new police chief, who Zorro's father quickly recognises as a Spanish collaborator who helped Napoleon's armies a decade earlier and took part in a notorious massacre. Before long Capitan Montero is up to his old tricks again, and it's up to you to uncover his evildoing. A competent, if slightly long-winded, tutorial introduces you to the game's simple controls using what amounts to an underground assault course. Movement is achieved using the left analogue pad, while the camera angle can (theoretically) be adjusted with the right pad. With a couple of button presses Zorro can clamber over obstacles, leap across gaps, edge his way along precarious ledges, lurk in the shadows and swing from chandeliers. Probably. I never got that far, because the tutorial appears to be broken towards the end, with a seemingly impassable barrier that I can't get over, round or through. Once you get into the game itself things soon take a turn for the worse. Probably the biggest problem is your view of the world, which varies between Resident Evil style dramatic camera angles and a Tomb Raiderish third person chase cam. Sometimes you can't even see Zorro because he's far off in the distance or hidden round a corner, and in one particularly bad case (which I can only put down to shoddy level design) he vanished behind a large building and the camera failed to switch perspectives at all. In another spot the camera had a tendency to try and show you the action through the ceiling of the room below. This makes your average horror survival tripe look like a masterpiece of game design by comparison...
Oi, Nancy Boy
Even when the camera isn't trying to shield your eyes from Zorro's flowing cape, it's still deeply unhelpful. The game's stealth aspect is completely ruined because you can rarely see where you're going or where the guards are stationed. The right analogue pad is supposed to allow you to move the camera, but more often that not it simply doesn't work. In the rare places where you are allowed to move the camera from the position ordaned by the developers it tends to catch on walls or vanish behind pieces of furniture. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that In Utero's Zorro is a wuss. He will only take on guards mano a mano, and if confronted by more than one opponent at a time he gives an annoying little laugh, kneels down and promptly surrenders. This might be how the French fight, but it's not what you expect from a swashbuckling Spanish comic book hero. And given that you often can't see where the guards are thanks to the shoddy camera work, sometimes your only clue as to when Zorro is about to bring your game to an abrupt end is the danger meter in the top right corner of the screen. When the meter turns red and your Dual Shock controller starts throbbing in your hands it's time to peg it before Zorro has a chance to throw in the towel. In fact, Zorro has to be the laziest, ponciest, most cowardly and downright temperamental video game hero I've ever come across. Sometimes it's not even immediately obvious why he's surrendering, and to make matters worse he refuses point blank to kill anybody. Instead he just leaves his victims unconscious on the ground after a duel, so if you double back on yourself you usually end up having to sneak or fight your way past all the guards you defeated just a minute or two earlier. Needless to say this is rather frustrating, especially as the guards seem to be terminally dense. On regaining consciousness they get up, snoop around for a minute to see if they can find the person that just knocked them out, and then go back to their standard patrol as if nothing happened. Sometimes you will sneak up behind a sleeping guard, knock him out with a silent blow to the back of the head, then return a couple of minutes later to find him soundly asleep again, allowing you to repeat the process and carry on about your business.
Combat itself is novel and, for the first couple of hours at least, rather entertaining. Drawing more from the likes of Parappa The Rapper than your average action game, it involves rapidly pressing a combination of circle, square, triangle and cross buttons in the right order. Get the order right before your time runs out and you are rewarded with the sight of Zorro cutting up your opponent. Press the wrong button and you have to start over from scratch. Run out of time without completing the sequence and Zorro will be on the receiving end of the blow. The fight scenes are truly excellent (or at least they are when the camera doesn't mess things up by obscuring one or both of the combatants) with Zorro gracefully waving his sword around, stabbing and slicing as his enemy stumbles around trying to parry the blows with his rifle or sword. It's no surprise to learn that In Utero motion-captured a real swordfighter to produce these impressive setpieces, and the result is some of the most stylish fighting you'll find on the PS2. The downside is that combat can get a bit repetitive after a while, as the sequence of buttons you have to press seems to be entirely random, and the complexity of the combination has little or no discernable impact on how much damage the blow does. Sometimes guards will fold after a single hit, sometimes they take two or three strikes. The difficulty level does scale nicely as the game goes on though, with more and more keys to press as you make your way through the game's five missions.
Sadly these missions are another let down. The game starts off sensibly enough, with you sneaking into the Capitan's expansive villa to find out what happened to some missing taxes after a friend of the family was framed and arrested for stealing them, but it's all downhill from here. Your next task is to overhear a conversation. Unfortunately there's no clue as to how Zorro knows to listen for it, or where the conversation is taking place, and as the levels are fairly non-linear it's not at all obvious where you should be going. In the end it turned out to involve clambering on to a rooftop, going round the side of a building and through what at first sight appeared to be a dead-end. In fact, the map transition trigger here was so poorly placed that I actually crawled under it the first time and went through the archway without setting it off, leaving me to wander around outside the level before merrily walking through a solid wall to get back to where I was supposed to be. In the end I had to resort to reading a walkthrough to find out what the heck was going on. This kind of thing is all too common in Shadow of Zorro, and the game just appears shoddy and rushed. Sometimes you have no task at all, leaving you to wander around in the hopes of triggering the next event, while at other times the description is cryptic or imprecise. The storyline makes little sense at times either. For example, at the end of the lengthy opening mission you rescue your friend from jail and ride off into the moonlight. Then, without any further cutscenes or explanation, the next mission begins with you standing right on the other side of the wall, wanting to get back into the barracks you just spent the last half hour trying to escape from. Maybe I'd just dropped off by this point and missed some vital plot dump...
Shadow of Zorro is a deeply disappointing game whose sole saving grace is its spectacular duels. Frequent camera problems, a shortage of save points and Zorro's apparent death wish add up to an often irritating experience which just isn't worth £39.99 of your hard earned cash. This could have been a good game with some more work, but like Cryo's other recent release, Franck [sic] Herbert's Dune, it looks like it was underfunded, poorly tested and then kicked out the door prematurely.