Zax succeeds admirably with its simple aims. It handles one vital game design element extremely well: pacing.
The shadow of Diablo looms large over the gaming landscape. Thanks to the phenomenal success of Blizzard's action-RPG franchise, more than a few games have borne its influence. Nox, Revenant, Darkstone, and Throne of Darkness, to name a few, seem to have borrowed from Diablo's isometric action-gaming formula, with its hordes of enemies and hypnotic mouse-clicking. Zax: The Alien Hunter, an action-adventure game from the aptly named Reflexive Entertainment, isn't shy about its influences. The developer trumpets Zax as a combination of Diablo and id's Quake, though Zax has little in common with the latter besides lots of shooting. Zax takes the basic action-packed gameplay of Diablo, puts it in a science-fiction setting, and comes up with a derivative but entertaining game.
Zax features a rather flimsy story, but it still provides a sturdy enough framework to hang the game's action on. The eponymous hero is out scouring the galaxy for profits when he's forced to crash-land on a remote planet. There he meets the primitive korbo, a dinosaur-headed agrarian species that lives in fear of an angry god, OM. OM, you learn, is really a powerful robot with a short temper and a legion of robotic minions. When Zax meets up with the korbo, he naturally discovers his do-gooder side and takes up the fight to liberate them from OM. It's a cliché-ridden plot that sounds a lot like one of the episodes from the original Star Trek TV series. The bland and sometimes childish dialogue doesn't help the story, and the attempts to make Zax sound like a cross between Han Solo and Duke Nukem usually fall flat, too. Lame one-liners like "I'm the man!" just don't cut it, though Zax will utter a few funny retorts from time to time.
Like the story, Zax's gameplay is simple, if not simplistic: You run around and kill stuff. And then run around and kill more stuff. It's a classic gaming formula that can come across as vapid and boring or refreshingly fun. Thanks to Zax's excellent pacing and rewarding action, it's usually the latter here. You'll make your way through 2D prerendered landscapes, exploring lush jungles, alien temples, and innumerable twisting tunnel complexes. Along the way, you'll engage in a never-ending series of key hunts and lever-pulling exercises, with the occasional boss battle thrown in for good measure. Despite their different particulars, the level designs and goals feel very repetitive: You'll free yet another hapless korbo prisoner, switch on the power for some doohickey, or find more artifact pieces for some forgettable reason. That sort of repetition rarely becomes the problem it would be in other games: The level goals and layouts are really just there to funnel more monsters your way, arcade style. There's just enough diversity to hold your interest and keep the action flowing.
During your adventures, you'll face a range of death-dealing robots and native animals, like grunting warthog-like creatures that charge out of the underbrush at you. Similar to the classic arcade game Gauntlet, many of the robots continually spawn from monster generator pads until you destroy a nearby control panel. To fight the game's menaces, you'll employ weapons such as a modified laser welder, an automatic pistol, a sentry gun, a grenade launcher, and a missile launcher. Many of the weapons are superfluous since you can easily play through the game using just a handful of them. Weapon choice is more of a personal preference than anything. When using your guns, you'll find that the controls can feel a bit awkward at first but work very well with practice. You move Zax with the keyboard and move his targeting cursor independently with the mouse. The cursor doesn't show the exact spot where a weapon will hit, but rather the direction in which it will fire. These controls make Zax feel a bit like another '80s arcade classic, Robotron: 2084.