Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Old Favorites: Zone of the Enders 2

I am still playing through SRW:OG2 (I'm at mission 36 out of 43, the end of the third route split), but I think I have used up all of the good topics from that game, so I'm going to move on to something different. I have been meaning to write about Konami's Zone of the Enders 2 for quite a while now (I even pulled it out and played through most of it again a few weeks ago), so now is as good of a time as any.

Zone of the Enders 2 is one of the finest action games I have ever played, and it is easily the greatest mecha action game I have ever known. Its format is simple and classic (go through a series of stages in order, fighting through countless enemies and bosses), it has a straightforward plot (there are a lot of complex things happening in the background, but the story focuses entirely around just a few characters and events, making it easy to follow), and it has a lot of good action. The game has a very bad translation, terrible enough that the original promotional trailer has better dialog, but it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay. It is also short (in many places, it seems like there were sections of stages and scenes that were cut) and the Versus Mode is lackluster, but it has a lot of replay value and a great Extra Missions mode.

The real glory of Zone of the Enders 2 is found in the controls and combat system. It was a brilliant move to combine shooting and blade attacks into the same button, with the attack you use determined by range. Most similar games have different buttons for different types of attack, but since Zone of the Enders 2 puts so much emphasis on the lock-on and focusing on one foe at a time, it makes a lot of sense to use one button for both kinds of attack (after all, who is going to swing a sword at long range?). Being able to modify those basic attacks with the Dash and Burst modes (both of which are triggered with the same button) adds to your basic abilities and flexibility, while still keeping things simple. With the powerful Grab attacks and Subweapons also both controlled by one button (though this is toggled with a press of one of the L buttons), you can perform a very wide variety of different attacks with just four buttons and the analog stick, freeing up other buttons for controlling vertical movement, the lock-on cursor, and the defense shield. All combined, the game lets you freely fight extremely fast-paced and exciting battles while freely moving in 3D space, and is a lot of fun. My only problem with the control scheme is that too many minor effects rely on the poorly designed analog face buttons of the Dualshock 2 controller, which means even a slight change in pressure on the button can lead to different results from some attacks.

In terms of stages, battles, and opponents, Zone of the Enders 2 is great. Unlike the first Zone of the Enders game, there are quite a few enemy types, each of which is very unique and requires different strategies and weapons. My only complaints in this regard relate to the bosses. The first Zone of the Enders has truly great boss battles, concluding with a pair of unforgettable high-speed fights against an opponent evenly matched with the player, but the sequel doesn't have as many good boss battles. The battle against Ardjet is too easy, the battles against Nephtis are overly drawn out and rely on repeating the same gimmick over and over, the battle against Inhert is muddled by the opponent's constant evasion, cheap doppleganger tricks, and the pitch-black second half, and the battle against Anubis is ruined because you can't use even half of your normal combat options against him, while he has a single attack that dominates the flow of battle (the homing, shield-breaking fireball). The game would have been even better if the designers just let you fight bosses the same way you could fight normal enemies.

As a final note, in my opinion the original Zone of the Enders is a great example of building a story around how just a single character interacts with a much broader conflict. The reasons for the conflict and the details of what is happening around the hero are ignored, and everything is focused entirely on how the hero reacts to a sudden catastrophe and grows in response to it. Even though the original Zone of the Enders is a tragically short game, its story plays out like a good movie so well that I don't think it would work as well if it were any longer. Not every game has to be a huge epic in order to tell a really good story.

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