Monday, January 14, 2013

Zone of the Enders

I finally got around to trying the Zone of the Enders HD Collection for PS3.  After watching a lengthy (but enjoyable) animated intro, I naturally chose to try the original Zone of the Enders first, before trying The 2nd Runner.  I didn’t know what to expect from Zone of the Enders.  I knew that it had mechs in it, and that it was a Kojima joint.  That’s largely it.

Essentially, Zone of the Enders takes place in a futuristic setting where humanity has colonized other planets in the solar system, namely Mars and Jupiter.  Earthlings still reign supreme however, and the space colonies are largely subject to their rule.  Tensions continue to rise because of this, until all-out war eventually erupts between the two sides.  Though Earth has the initial advantage due to sheer numbers, the discovery of a superior energy source known as Metatron allows the space colonists (or “enders” as the Earthlings have come to call them) to develop powerful new weapons known as Orbital Frames.  Orbital Frames are—you guessed it—giant humanoid mechs.  The colonists create two particularly powerful Orbital Frames, called Jehuty and Anubis, but the Earth forces steal them.

Note that almost none of what I just explained is really touched on in the game.  Zone of the Enders doesn’t really do much in terms of world-building.  Rather, this is a classic game in that you’ll learn a lot more about the setting and backstory reading the manual than you will playing through the story.

Zone of the Enders begins just as the space colonists are invading the colony that Jehuty and Anubis are being stored in, in an attempt to take them back.  In the process, they basically raze everything to the ground, terrorizing the population.  Though the colonists manage to retrieve Anubis, one little boy named Leo stumbles upon Jehuty and, hoping to hide from the invasion and chaos, clambers into its cockpit.  He accidentally activates the mech and soon enough finds himself thrust into a mission beyond his understanding.
Anyone who’s seen a Japanese mecha anime will be amazed by how closely this setup mirrors that of shows like Mobile Suit Gundam; particularly SEED and 0079.  A war between the spacenoids and Earth; a super-special set of mobile suits designed to give one side an edge; and most of all, an insufferable boy protagonist who ends up with one of said super-special mobile suits.

There are some interesting things to Zone of the Ender’s plot, though.  Though the space colonists are portrayed as an entirely villainous lot in the game, by and large they’re the underdogs here.  Furthermore, Jehuty and Anubis share a fun dynamic, always ending up on opposite sides of the conflict, and seemingly fated to fight each other, despite being developed for the same purpose.

None of this is to Zone of the Ender’s credit though, because none of it is explored in the actual game.  The classic red vs. blue rivalry between Jehuty and Anubis is only hinted at right at the end of the game, and as mentioned previously, everything about the setting and premise was derived from the manual, not the game.
Instead, during the actual game you get a much more focused plot that has Leo being tasked with delivering Jehuty to the transport vessel Atlantis in one piece, encountering plenty of obstacles along the way.  Such obstacles include a large microwave barrier, an army of remote-controlled Orbital Frames, and a snooty ace pilot who is also one of only perhaps two worthwhile characters in the game; the other being Leo.  ZoE’s cast is already quite small, but most of the few characters introduced ultimately play little or no role, such as Leo’s childhood friend Celvice, and the big boss of the space colonists and eventual pilot of Anubis, Nohman.

So not only do we have a cookie-cutter plot mostly populated with empty characters, but we also have a cookie-cutter plot that ends rather abruptly.  After a little over five hours, Zone of the Enders throws you against a final boss that is unbeatable by design, and then it ends.

Zone of the Ender’s primary saving grace is its combat, which is not only fun, but at times nothing short of riveting.  The controls are a bit odd and took some getting used to for me, but at its heart ZoE is a hack and slash affair.

Each of the handful of environments in the game are patrolled by squads of enemies.  Get too close and they’ll attack on sight, and battle begins.  Jehuty has two combat modes that it automatically switches between depending on how close you are to the opponent you’re locked onto.  At melee range it uses its fold out blade for hacking away at enemies.  Backing into longer range causes it to switch to its wrist-mounted blaster.  In addition to regular attacks, you have burst and dash attacks, each with melee and long-range variants.  Burst attacks—consisting of a Spirit Bomb-like orb of energy at long range and a spinning slash at close range—take a moment to charge up, but are unblockable and do more damage.  Dash attacks—an extremely quick side swipe in melee and a burst of homing lasers at range—are quick and keep battles moving at a swift pace.  Jehuty can also guard and grab enemies, and the two abilities share the same dynamic you’d expect: guarding blocks most attacks but is vulnerable to grabs.

In addition to its standard moveset, Jehuty can also equip a variety of sub-weapons found throughout the game.  These have limited ammo, but give you a bit more versatility.  For example, Phalanx is a short-range bullet sprayer with a wide spread.  Halberd is a sustained beam attack that cuts through enemies easily, but is slow and unwieldy.  Geyser throws out a set of pods that emit lasers upwards, setting up a trap.  There are about a dozen different sub-weapons to find and pick up, some of which are integral to progression, like the Decoy ability that allows you to avoid getting killed in one shot by one of the later bosses.

Bosses aside, there are only three types of enemies in the game.  But with one exception, these enemies have a similar moveset to your own (particularly at higher levels), being capable of guarding, grabbing, and burst and dash attacks.  Initially, enemies use only basic attacks and simple strategies, but as you progress through the game, both the AI and its repertoire of attacks and strategies expand, offering more challenge.  By the end of the game, nearly every enemy encounter can feel like a dance with death, forcing you to constantly stay on the move and use each ability at your disposal to avoid being surrounded or otherwise outmaneuvered.  Zone of the Enders teases you with the prospect of exciting one on one boss battles with rival Orbital Frame pilots, but in reality this only happens three times, and only one of them is a battle in the traditional sense.

With only a few exceptions, all of the environments in Zone of the Enders look bland.  The CG cutscenes are also pretty bad, and while it’s not fair to judge them by today’s standard, I do wonder if Konami (or High Voltage, who developed the port) couldn’t have done a better touch up job.  The one facet that stands above what is mostly a visually mediocre game is the mecha design, which is interesting.  Unfortunately, as very few Orbital Frames aside from the enemy grunts show up in the game, once more I can’t give Zone of the Enders a lot of credit for it.

Overall, Zone of the Enders feels like a low key game.  I understand now why people often see it as a tech demo.  The combat is great, but outside of that there’s just not much to it.

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