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Throwback Thursday – Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal

Throwback Thursday – Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal

Ultimately, despite the fact that the fierce, fighting fairies of Zanzarah only superficially resemble the gossamer creatures of my childhood memory, I had to agree with the press release when it described the game as “enthralling” – but – and it’s a BIG BUT! I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is a purist adventure gamer.


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Note: This review was first published April 1, 2002

Firstly I should emphasise that Action/Adventure hybrids are not generally my cup of tea, and I am certainly no connoisseur of this genre. I have played King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity some of the Tomb Raider games and I have started but never finished Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone plus a less well-known game called Silver. However, once I had seen the website for Zanzarah I just had to have it.

I’ve always been a real sucker for fairy stories and when I read the pre-release, media hype on Zanzarah – words like dwarves, elves, goblins, misty swamp etc. jumped right out at me and caught my interest so much so, that I disregarded the more detailed description of the game, which of course explained that it was a role playing quest/adventure hybrid.

Ultimately, despite the fact that the fierce, fighting fairies of Zanzarah only superficially resemble the gossamer creatures of my childhood memory, I had to agree with the press release when it described the game as “enthralling” – but – and it’s a BIG BUT! I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is a purist adventure gamer. There are no puzzles as such and this game does require combat, in which – rather oddly – it’s the fairies who do all the fighting. I can remember my husband saying how gruesome it sounded when I once said during game-play: “just hang on a minute and I’ll make a drink when I’ve killed this fairy!”

I really ought to explain something about the story and characters before going into any more detail about its features, and I did find the story-line a little bit thin – even predictable. There’s a full motion video giving the beginning and the end of the tale, with Amy’s quest filling up the middle section: We are made aware that once upon a time the world of fantasy and the world of humans were connected and co-existed in peace and harmony but as humans gradually began to suppress and destroy all magical beings, the last of the druids closed the portals between the realms with powerful magic, to prevent any further destruction. However, an old legend remained, that one day there would be a saviour capable of reuniting the worlds and re-establishing the old order. This turns out to be Amy, an 18-year-old human girl, who initially knows nothing of her powers and her importance for both realms, until she is summoned from the human world by the special swamp goblin, Rafi. Once Rafi has transported Amy to Zanzarah, the quest begins. The game then progresses as the story of Amy’s journey through multiple fantasy realms to save this fairytale world from dark powers and to reopen the portals between the worlds.

There is a really a little of everything in this game, strategy, combat, adventure and role-playing which gives it a kind of epic quality. It also has a multi-player option but as I have not tried that feature I won’t attempt to give any details in this review.

Playing the game requires a steep learning curve at the beginning, which is not one of my favourite things, I prefer to dive straight in and start adventuring! However, the enchanting look of the game, the smooth game-play and fluid movement all convinced me to persevere and read the detailed booklet plus invest some time in practising. This practise involves getting to know and learning to handle your ‘fighting fairies’ – a strange concept to me, but it does work within the game story. These fairies are kind-of ‘pets’ that you collect during your travels and as long as you treat them well, they will fight all other fairy-beings that try to obstruct your progress, on your behalf. There are seventy-seven different kinds of fairies to collect! I think I managed about fifty-two and considered that I had done really well!

This is a reward-based quest so that whenever you complete a task, succeed in a challenge or win points by defeating a fairy, then you receive a prize and can progress accordingly. There are multiple kinds of objects to acquire and this is where is gets a bit complicated and it becomes necessary to make full use of the game manual. For instance your fairies need life support, healing potions and spells to compete successfully. Then there are points to build up so that they can grow and become more powerful (this is achieved by winning fairy duals). You will also require magical fairy cards, rune stones, keys, crystals, money and miscellaneous objects to assist you through the many challenges.

The attractively illustrated game manual covers most aspects of the game in detail, however, I was disappointed to find that no comprehensive list of all the fairies is included, and neither is there a list of available spells – both of which would have been interesting and helpful. (These details are available on the internet, and if anyone is looking, I can provide a link – just post your request on the JA Forum).

There are many praise-worthy features in the game. The graphics are superb, the game-play is seamless and easy, with instinctive 360 degree game control using both mouse and key-pad. The soundtrack is completely appropriate with gentle celtic-style music, convincing alien languages, and natural background noises; plus the fairies all have their own distinctive and amusing triumphant battle cries.Zanzarah’s inhabitants are diverse, imaginative and appealing: This is not a game where you could ever feel lonely – there are characters constantly wandering about that you can talk to, butterflies flutter by, birds twitter, rabbits and other creatures scamper across your path. Then of course an aggressive fairy can manifest itself at any time and their visual appearance is always unusual and interesting….. for instance I would never have imagined the possibility of a metal fairy!

There’s a map feature, which is always helpful but in this game it also gives an indication of where you are currently and also where you should be heading – which I found very useful especially towards the end of the game. There are six distinct regions detailed on the map and several more areas within these to be explored, although as a greedy, graphic-glutton, I would have loved to have seen a few more of these!

As far as the fighting goes, there is no graphic depiction of violence and no gore, for which it gets an additional stamp of approval from me.

An unusual facet of the game is that whenever you go to the re-load screen there’s a little footnote at the bottom of the save-game section, which gives you the percentage of the game you have already played and the number of hours you’ve spent playing it and therefore I know that it took me exactly seventy-six and a half hours to play Zanzarah. When I saw this and realized that I had sat there for the equivalent of three and half days and nights to play this game, it did make me stop and ponder if I really am a very sad person!

On the down-side, It is possible to die in the game and the point you return to is the beginning of the level, unless you have saved specifically in the meantime. I would therefore recommend saving frequently, especially after every successful venture. A most frustrating thing is being unable to save in the middle of a challenge, so that every failure means starting that particular test from scratch again. It is also very time-consuming to build up your fairy points. In fact this is my biggest grumble, as this aspect ultimately became a chore instead of a challenge.

I found the save-game system a little unusual (although this system may be more familiar to experienced RPG players). Anyway, in my ignorance I only used one save-game slot on a continual update basis and on one memorable afternoon I had progressed through 45% of the game when my husband (a non-gamer) decided to demonstrate it to a friend and unwittingly deleted everything I’d done! My reaction? Well perhaps I should pass quickly over what is now just a painful domestic memory! In the desperation that followed this event I searched for and did actually find a cheat code on the internet, which I was totally unable to install and had therefore absolutely no other way of completing the game other than starting right back at the beginning. Probably the weirdest legacy of this incident was that I discovered playing the game second time around was actually more rewarding than the first time. Of course I now knew the procedures inside out. I knew the layout of the realms, the capabilities of my fairies, and the best combinations. This made it strategically easier to plan, I had a clearer picture of where and what to aim for and a far better understanding of all the artifacts and their uses, which ultimately made me feel more in control and less confused.

I think the clear message, reinforced by this episode, is that Zanzarah is not a game for a quick weekend fix. It’s a long-haul game, definitely not for the faint-hearted, it requires a commitment in terms of patience and time, but provided you are willing to put the effort in, you will be rewarded with great satisfaction and value for money in return.

It was wonderful therapy at the end of a frustrating work-day to come home and lose myself in the ‘misty swamp’ or the ‘enchanted forest’ – this game is altogether a great vehicle for pure escapism.

Final Grade: A-

System Requirements:

  • Pentium III/AMD Athlon 600 MHz or faster
  • Hard drive space: at least 64 MB
  • 2nd generation video card
  • Memory: 16 MB
  • DirectX 8.1 or higher
  • Operating system: Windows 98/2000/Me/XP


Maggie Holt

Maggie Holt

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