German developer Funatics' game Zanzarah is very similar to Nintendo's popular monster-trading game Pokémon. In that game, and in this one, you collect small creatures and then train them to do battle with other small creatures, but in Zanzarah, you collect fairies instead of monsters, and you fight battles that resemble those in a first-person shooter. However, Zanzarah looks and sounds great, and though the game's somewhat effeminate art direction may seem a bit unusual, it seems somewhat appropriate in contrast to the intensity of the game's battle mode and its traditional role-playing elements. Zanzarah attempts to be a PC game that appeals to traditional interests of both male and female players, and it's moderately successful in doing so.
The game puts you in the role of Amy, an 18-year-old London native at home alone. One strange noise and one mysterious unopened box later, she's in the world of Zanzarah, a fantasy land of lush forests, quaint villages, and squat little goblins, dwarves, and elves. Rafi, the swamp goblin who shanghaied Amy, greets her on arrival and explains that the fairies created Zanzarah long ago to protect all the wee folk from rampaging humans, but now the fairies are acting strangely, and they're attacking anyone who passes by their trees and rocks, and there are some shady-looking elves that just showed up too--so could she help because there's a prophecy that says she will? The story may seem just a little too trite, but at least it more or less dissipates into a lot of meandering quests once the game actually starts. Furthermore, all of Amy's conversations are one-sided: She never speaks and instead only listens to other characters talking at her, and as a result, the development of the plot, such as it is, seems thin.
To complete her quests and save Zanzarah, Amy must start a collection of fairies, which will both protect her and use their powers to clear obstacles in her path. This is the focus of the game, and it's more or less identical to Nintendo's Pokémon, right down to using balls to capture wild fairies. The only striking difference is that in a fight with a wild fairy or a rival fairy master, combat takes place in one of 10 or so different arenas, and you control your active fairy from a first-person perspective. The blasts of magic that you use to bring down opposing fairies are charged up by holding down the left mouse button and can even hurt your fairy if you overcharge. In addition to offensive magic, your fairy has a support spell, which can reduce the amount of damage your fairy receives, make your own attacks do more damage, or even make your spell charge to full power faster. Of course, as your fairies gain levels, they'll be able to use more powerful spells and can eventually use a second pair of spells to change tactics in the middle of a fight.
Combat is pretty easy against a single wild fairy, but it can actually be surprisingly challenging against a fairy master. It's not difficult to score a hit on your opponent; the real challenge in Zanzarah lies in its variety of different types of fairies. The game has 12 different kinds, and if you don't have a good grasp of your fairies' and your opponents' fairies' strengths and vulnerabilities, you'll find that your computer-controlled opponents won't hesitate to make short work of your team. You can also play Zanzarah competitively in online multiplayer games, but the game has support for up to only 10 players per game, and we experienced problems getting Zanzarah's Internet player-matching lobby to work at all.
Zanzarah's art style and fairy design seem naturalistic and heavy on earth tones, and they look quite good. Not all the fairies are of the "skinny woman with butterfly wings" variety, either. There are some odd-looking and inventive designs among the game's 12 different fairy types. You'll see little green imps pedaling helicopters with leaves for blades, caterpillars with human faces and suits of armor made from a tree branch, strange aquatic designs, and even demons, skeletons, and other not-so-cute designs for the fire, dark, and chaos fairy types. The game's environments are also varied and natural looking. Zanzarah's forests are particularly impressive; they're dense with a variety of foliage that rustles and moves as Amy moves through it. Positional sound is used to great effect to provide atmosphere, and the excellent and very appropriate background music consists of relaxing New Age arrangements on medieval instruments.
While you could say that the game plays like a Pokémon clone, Zanzarah has some surprisingly great production values in terms of both art and music, though it could certainly have benefited from a better plot and more character development. It ultimately falls short of being an excellent game, but Zanzarah is definitely good and at the very least offers a relaxing change of pace from more-traditional PC role-playing and action games.