Zone of the Enders Review
Konami 2001, 2012
There are hints of potential greatness throughout Zone of the Enders: dog fights between agile war machines, high speed action with stunning camera work, and a story of innocent youth caught in the midst pointless bloodshed. Most notable, though, is the Orbital Frame – the weapon you pilot – Jehuty. Because when it comes to cool looking robots that have defined much of Japan’s most popular cultural exports, Jehuty could easily be the sexiest.
It has the aerodynamic look of a machine, a crystal like sharpness to its limbs, but utilizes organic animation, its ligaments moving with a human familiarity. Jehuty looks like it could be, and is in fact named after, a god. Controls like one, too, requiring a constant firing of its back jets to gracefully whoosh around your locked on target, dodging lasers and then dashing in with your forearm blade. Then, when things get hot, you can quickly cast distance between you and your enemies while splashing them with collective bursts of energy from multi-shot cannons.
But the actual person inside Jehuty is less than divine, he’s Leo Stenbuck, and you’ve heard his story before. A big hearted boy who accidently stumbles upon great power and must use it against his will, facing the horrors of war at a pure age. The premise of many popular anime series, it has every reason to work for Zone of the Enders, but Leo Stenbuck is there to make sure it doesn’t. You’ll hear plenty of “No, you listen!” “I won’t fight for you anymore!” and “Leave me out of this!” throughout, a spine chillingly dumb series of adolescent rage. Of all kinds of people to come aboard a killing machine this badass, it had to be Leo.
That may be a personal frustration, depending on what you were expecting from Zone of the Enders, but the real problem is the game doesn’t capitalize on this annoying and melodramatic teen. Because convenient for Leo, all of the enemies you’ll be facing are unmanned machines. A message of anti violence supplemented by constant battle against computers, the game cheaply dodges its own message and challenges. Leo’s unwillingness to take life is never tested effectively, even the colony he fights to save being void of human activity. Robots hovering over lifeless cities, Leo might as well be playing a video game.
And not a very good one, as admiring the dynamic camera that follows the clashing of blades and high speed combat is about as much you can appreciate. Which does get old when there are only two types (and a half, being generous) types of enemies and an almost equal variety of different environments that you’ll be repeatedly back tracking to as you collect upgrades for Jehuty. These upgrades are most often new weapons, always completely ineffective compared to your simple combo swings. And so as powerful as Jehuty initially feels, the game and its encounters are nearly unchanging from start to finish.
You’ll melee everything until you hit huge bosses that force a more removed approach with their ranged barrages. Here you simply hold down your jets in one direction and return fire, effectively dodging everything. Combating this boredom is the fact that these bosses are actually manned by human opponents, giving an opportunity for some drama, but they amount to adults that simply mock Leo about his young age. “I won’t let some kid make a fool of me!” pretty much sums up the atmosphere of all the fights, shallow encounters reminiscent of many forms of entertainment geared to rile up young children. Maybe the game should of shot for something below an M rating.
More offensive is that even when Leo’s naivety gets another friend of his nearly killed, he remains oblivious, never making any leaps in maturity. Instead of recognizing his limits as a pacifist, the game steers him into falling for Jehuty’s battle computer, ADA, the female voice that tutors you throughout the game. She repeatedly reminds him that she’s a program and incapable of emotion, but Leo doesn’t seem to understand that, or anything else for that matter. Before that relationship can even hope to come to fruition, however, Zone of the Enders end its 3 hour tale, never taking the brilliance of Jehuty’s agility and control to a competitive level. And when you get to pilot something so wickedly designed, it makes the experience that much more unforgivable.
Booting the game up again in 2012 is indeed a depressing reminder of what could have been. The opening screen lending ear to a main menu theme, sung with an electronically resonating, reverberating female voice, sharply lifting and echoing towards you from what feels like the very voids of outer space. For that brief flicker of haunting beauty, Zone of the Enders feels like it’s going to be utterly legendary. The Japanese space opera of human strife and combat mechs to define a generation.
What a tease.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner Review
Konami 2003, 2012
Konami 2003, 2012
Konami has left Jehuty in a coffin on Callisto, an icy moon off of Jupiter, as the only salvageable remnant of their first attempt at the genre of high speed robot action. Too beautiful a beast to be scrapped entirely, Jehuty and its battle A.I. personality, ADA, are instead safely stored away, waiting to be reawakened by a 2nd Runner. That pilot turns out to be retired ace, Dingo Egret, who also comes across the machine by accident, but perhaps this time giving the developers one more shot at creating a game Jehuty deserves.
That there is more action in The 2nd Runner’s first few minutes than there was in its predecessor’s entirety is certainly a good start. The opposing military force that Leo faced before, BAHRAM, floods the moon’s snowy canyons with both familiar and new enemy types, making a massive skirmish as grounds for the Dingo’s first tutorial aboard Jehuty. But being a smug veteran with a watchful eye for the safety of his comrades, Dingo shows no hesitation in piloting the Orbital Frame and engaging the hostiles that seek its seizure.
The ease of Jehuty’s power comes across just as brilliantly as before, but with a decisive character in the driver’s seat and enough targets to actually justify the firepower, The 2nd Runner feels entirely different from its predecessor, and extraordinarily more appropriate. Flocks of drones blot the skies and reveal that your laser cannons can lock on to dozens at once, sending out dancing blue vectors that create a dazzling show of explosions and smoke rendered in a subtle cell shade. All while you dash between spurts of melee and dispatch enemy frames into burnt embers, The 2nd Runner’s visual flare never fails to compliment its anime styled violence.
Many fans of the genre would probably like to see their own imagined mecha anime come to life in this way, and perhaps that’s what’s being seen here in Kojima’s (the producer) refashioned vision for Zone of the Enders. A new explosive playground of action cut up between well produced cartoon cutscenes, The 2nd Runner begins with some really cool concepts and entertaining developments, namely Dingo’s dire predicament. Shot multiple times in the back by his ex comrade, Nohman, Dingo is left for dead, floating in his own blood in a zero gravity corridor. Witnessing the murder, Ken Marinaris, a spy within BAHRAM and Nohman’s ranks, figures that Dingo’s talents are worth saving, and so she revives the pilot.
But the gesture is hardly one of sympathy. Dingo awakes to find himself in a high tech plug suit and back inside Jehuty, the machine he pilots now acting as his life support. If he leaves the cockpit or disobeys Ken’s orders, he’s a goner. The complete linkage of a human being to a weapon in this manner shows fascinating potential in creating a real bond between the player and Jehuty’s A.I., ADA, and at some moments it really delivers. Particularly one dog fight against an enemy Orbital Frame who battles you from pitch darkness, where ADA’s voice is all you can rely on. She counts down the distance between you and the enemy pilot, simultaneously warning you of incoming attacks before you come to a melee engagement and a chance to deal damage.
All of the boss encounters feature a kind of creative element like this, though few end up as interesting. Viola, Leo’s old nemesis, returns as a vengeful A.I. for several spars with Dingo, for example. Each time she’ll require some kind of physical attack to break through her shields, typically some piece of metal from the environment for you to break her charges with. Once that is figured out she’s quite the bore, as are other bosses that fall too deeply into their own patterns. These methodical battles pale in comparison to The 2nd Runner’s more shoot’em up styled set pieces, such as taking on an armada of battle ships or working your way up an outfitted train in a high speed subway chase.
Dodging cannon fire as you meet your opponents head on is a thrill, but one not offered by the usual arena like face offs between Jehuty and BAHRAM’s grunts. Using pretty much the same camera system as its predecessor, the game’s new set of fast moving and deadly enemies create a new nuisance to the controls. Often there are many, and targeting one for some blade swings means most will be left out of view. An occasional laser to the rear is perhaps tolerable, but when you come across more punishing attacks, the system can become chaotic and unfair.
Which sort of emphasizes a dependency on Jehuty’s subweapons that you discover. Most are just for show, like Halbred, a fat laser beam you can weave around at the expensive cost of energy, but ones like Gauntlet are rather imbalanced in your favor. It’s a blowback, shotgun like attack that’s first useful in sending enemy frames into the narrow ravines on Mars, as they take double damage when smacked into walls. But that enjoyment later turns into sheer abuse. An unblockable blast, it rams even the most formidable opponents helplessly around the field. And it’s especially necessary given the pick-off-the-wounded approach players must take to overcome a challenging group of enemies aided by a limiting camera.
It’s worth noting the specifics like this because The 2nd Runner really is a short experience, making each of its best moments quite memorable, and its worst a shamefully wasted opportunity. In a time frame of 5 or so hours, its cutscenes choose not to carry the initially simple tale of vengeance, but instead feature winded history lessons and vain attempts at making battles seem more dramatic than the awful dialogue can ever hope to realize. It’s like Kojima’s team is forcing their vision for something grander into way too small a space, granting you powers like the awesome Zero Shift maneuver at the last minute. This allows Jehuty to teleport directly behind his opponents from any distance, but it comes to no impressive use in the remainder of the game’s offerings.
Replaying the game with all the gained levels and weapons of your previous saved file isn’t the most admirable work around to this, but Japanese mecha fans may very well settle for what The 2nd Runner is offering. After all, this is easily the most polished and spectacular action seen out of Japanese styled, robotic combat games, and Japan’s lack of interest in raising that bar doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Likely, the task will fall again to Kojima, a man whose preference for over the top drama is at least also rooted in a passion for sweet, bipedal destruction.