Review: Zero North Zero West

The walls between dimensions are mostly solid but not always, and in the right place they may not even exist at all.  Somewhere in a small town in the west, little more than a wide spot in the road, there’s a theater playing a movie that shouldn’t exist, opening up a door to the passageways between universes.  Rows upon rows of endless doors stretch out forever, all identical, so it doesn’t matter if you choose the one in front of you, or behind, or ahead.  Any one could lead anywhere and the only way to know is to explore.

Zero North Zero West sets you loose in endless new worlds, each stranger than the last, with no goal but to wander.  You can choose to either go through the intro each time you play, with a short FMV clip followed by a nice walk through the twilight into the theater, or pick a door and jump straight to finding out what strangeness awaits.  The multiverse is packed with worlds, no two exactly alike, and as a traveler there’s nothing there that can hurt you. Zero North Zero West is a pure walking simulator, without a threat to be found, and even the landing after jumping off a skyscraper is harmless.  Whether you choose to run in search of the next exit point or amble about to learn the land is completely your choice and the reward for doing either is the same: you see the new world on your own terms.

Each new universe is its own place, though, and worth taking at least a little time to get a feel for the terrain.  They tend to fall into types, with plenty of cities, plains, forests, etc, but the presentation and physics all differ.  In one world you might be able to jump incredibly high, while another only lets you bunny-hop.  Most universes are fairly stable but some have floating blocks that spin as you walk by.  You usually start in a house or apartment, and while its walls are normally solid that’s not always true.  The real differences, though, come from the million different styles they’re all rendered in.

Zero North Zero West is as much a shader playground as it is a walking simulator.  Every world and landscape is filtered through a different graphical effect, some of which are bright and clear and others drowned in so much noise it requires real focus to see what you’re looking at.  One world might be black and white, another vibrant blocks of solid color.  Interim dimensions can be small enough for a short stroll, showcasing a specific effect that’s a bit overwhelming for a larger landscape, while others go nuts with lines arcing and swooping through the air.  No two areas are the same, and with dozens of dimensions to explore it takes a while for repetition to set in.  Even when you end up in a familiar place you can still go exploring, though, because most universes stretch off in every direction for a far distance before the edge of the world kicks in.

When you land in a new world it’s at the center of a map, and you’ll have no idea how big or small it might be.  Most are huge, extending far beyond the draw distance, and while a cityscape might be harder to explore than the plains there’s always something new to find.  The main quest is to turn up a door to the next world, but I had just as much fun jumping to the top of skyscrapers to take in the view as I did seeking out the exit.  There’s no reason to rush, after all, and even if you do get tired of being in one place while unable to leave there’s a simple shortcut in the menu that can be activated at any time.  It can be a bit jarring switching from no HUD at all, immersed in the world, to having a pile of options at the bottom of the screen, but it’s nice to be able to move on when the search for an exit turns up nothing.

The only small problems in Zero North Zero West, in fact, come from how minimalist its gaming aspects are.  There’s not a single word to be seen past the developer logo, once copyright notice and epilepsy warnings are done, and the icons aren’t particularly self-explanatory.  One door on the main screen takes you into the game, the other drops to desktop, and the only way to know which is which is to use them.  The menu screen is also all icons, and while figuring out volume isn’t hard I still have no idea why the eyeball icon takes me to a level library where the world names are spelled out in 1337-5p34|<.  The final UI mystery is why, if you turn around to walk through the very first door when starting a new game, the game performs its goodbye fadeout and sends you back to the desktop.  99% of everything you do in Zero North Zero West involves walking about and looking at amazing views, but that 1% of menu usage could stand to be a little more self-explanatory.

Closing Comments:

Zero North Zero West is an amazing vacation into the unknown.  Each world has its own look, style and internal logic, and the best you can hope for is to understand a little of it before getting distracted by the entryway into the next new land.  While each interdimensional journey has a starting point at the main menu, the end is whenever you’ve decided you’ve seen enough and have had a nicely relaxing trip into otherworldy space.  There’s no threat or goal to distract from the experience, and the win state comes from seeing something beautiful and mysterious.  Zero North Zero West is an incredible journey through unexplored worlds, packed with amazing sights rendered in a riot of color and effects, and a perfect vacation when your mind needs a getaway somewhere new.