Review: ZENO Remake gives players a chance to experience a unique psychological horror

The menu screen for the video game ZENO. Screenshot taken by Brooke Steffe.

The menu screen for the video game ‘ZENO.’ Screenshot taken by Brooke Steffe.

Brooke Steffe, Reporter

A genius and a murderer handcuffed together. Strangers with no memories rely on one another to survive a horrific facility they’ve found themselves in. Escape is just out of reach for them – can the two of them get out alive?

Ultimately, that depends on the player for ZENO.

ZENO is a single player psychological horror game for PC created by Marutoku Base, an independent production circle for making games. Marutoku Base is run by Umami Mazu, a developer in the indie scene. They have made similar games and visual novels to ZENO.

The player starts off with Aki Maeno and Haru Tsugino, two characters trapped in a room, unable to get out. To get out of the room, they are forced to be handcuffed to one another.

The player needs to lead them through various mysteries and puzzles to escape the building. Chases, memories, and plot twists await anyone who plays ZENO.

Before continuing, an important disclaimer for the player is that violent messages and content are included in this game. These include gore, murder, torture, glorification of mental illness, and cannibalism. The recent release of ZENO is a remake of a 2015 game of the same name, which has a similar plot. The ZENO Remake, which is what this game has been dubbed by the creatoris a rehaul of the original, with changes in artistic design, graphics, mysteries, and route options.

Looking at more of the changes implemented in the remake, most of the changes deal with improving readability, pacing of the text and certain game mechanics. Ending conditions, an option for grotesque graphics and the ability to reference items you’ve already seen are changes also present in the remake.

Many changes were made by Umami Mazu, but the focus is improving the quality for the player.

ZENO has a relatively small cast, with most of the story focusing on the two leads apart from another character in one of the route branches. The rest of the cast is mostly there in the periphery of the story.

The leads are Aki Maeno and Haru Tsugino, a duo relying on one another to survive. Aki Maeno is a genius with a temper. He is a former doctor, research and a recovered Zeno case who approaches the mental disorder through psychotherapy.

Haru Tsugino, on the other hand, is a young man who developed Zeno young and suddenly became distant with others after killing his family. When not affected by the disorder, he is rather trusting and hardworking. He also has a penchant for looking on the bright side of things.

Another prominent character is Fuyu Ushirono, who is a man that chases the duo for most of the game. He ends up being a fellow researcher who can assist the player in getting certain endings. Natsu is his little sister, who had died years prior from being eaten; her presence is mostly known through the recollections that Aki has throughout the game.

The characters, in my opinion, make the game. However, the story is passable. The player climbs through various floors to reach the top. The characters that make it out of the facility are dependent on what the player collects and the actions they take throughout the game. There are revelations in the story on true natures, adversaries briefly working together, hints of betrayal, and much more.

An important aspect to the story is the mental disorder named Zeno, which is what gives the game its name. It is a fictional condition that results from trauma and is only ‘cured’ with trauma. Anyone in the story that is affected by the disorder has an intense desire to murder and cannibalize others.

It is multi-faceted in its nature, but ultimately still follows some of the conventions of horror, specifically those of Japanese horror, which deals with the unsettling and the grotesque. It is a game that relies on suspense and psychological aspects, which are also very commonplace in the Japanese horror genre.

To know the full extent of all the nuances in the story, the player needs to complete several routes. Some facets of the story might not make sense if the player does not take the effort and time to search these routes out. In total, there are three routes leading to nine endings, which build onto other aspects of the story. However, to do that, the player will have to replay the game several times.

While it is not necessarily monotonous, if you don’t make multiple saves the player needs to replay all aspects over again. In the game’s strict adherence to its sequence of events and structure, it might feel like a chore to go through the motions for the player.

Being a foreign game, the ZENO remake needed to be translated. Some of the translations can be confusing or immersion-breaking. There are phrasings that sound weird in English – the example at the forefront of my mind is when Haru addresses the dead bodies they come across as being ‘out of breath,’ which I assume is meant to refer to them not breathing.

There is also the issue of some English shorthand, such as text-speak, is also present; it can be jarring at some points.

I found the sound mixing and the visuals, no matter how grotesque, to be perfect for the atmosphere that they were going for. They aim for a sense of suspense and discomfort and deliver it. The selection of music and its placement within the game was also masterful and did well in adding to the atmosphere.

As I said before, the characters make this game! Despite how unhinged they can get; their complexity grew on me and I found myself becoming very attached to them. However, the characters can be hit or miss for some people; it is very dependent on your tolerance for the over-the-top characters and clichés mixed with complexity.

All in all, ZENO Remake was a game I enjoyed thoroughly. Some aspects of the plot were easy to guess for me and the repetitive gameplay was a bit disheartening for me. The translation did not deter me too much, but it was off-putting at times. However, I prefer character-driven stories and that is exactly what this is. Along with good sound design and visuals, I feel like it is worth the effort to play if you’re interested in it.

You can find Zeno Remake here.