I’ll admit right off the bat that I’ve never been into anime and that I flat-out hate the Metal Gear Solid series after I gave its HD Collection a try. It was puzzling to me, then, why I was interested in reviewing Konami’s Zone of the Enders HD Collection in the first place, which I will refer to as ZOE HDC from here on out. Perhaps it was my love of giant robots, or maybe I was just dying to try something new. In any case, my curiosity has paid off, as I’ve discovered a series that harbors some of the most unique gameplay and effective storytelling I’ve seen in a while. In short; it’s good, and it’s held up very well.
The series takes place in the future, when humanity has discovered advanced space travel, which is just as well considering there are giant robots flying about called Orbital Frames. Zone of the Enders’ story takes place on a space colony orbiting Jupiter, which is one day invaded by a terrorist organization called BAHRAM. The protagonist is a kid with daddy issues by the name of Leo, who accidentally finds himself piloting a powerful Orbital Frame named Jehuty, and reluctantly chooses to help save the colony with the help of ADA, Jehuty’s AI system. The sequel, appropriately subtitled The 2nd Runner, follows a man named Dingo stumbling upon Jehuty while mining on one of Jupiter’s moon. After a sudden attack by BAHRAM, Dingo is wounded, causing him to undergo intensive surgery wherein he must be fused to Jehuty in order to survive. From there, he makes it his goal to hunt down BAHRAM leader Nohman and his Orbital Frame, Anubis.
Both stories in ZOE HDC have their clichés, but they pull through thanks to great structure and fleshed-out characters. Admittedly, the dialogue and voice acting isn’t always great, thanks mostly to spotty translation. Strangely enough, this actually becomes more of an issue in the second game, but even then the overall execution is still better than many other translation efforts. Being a Koijima game, you should expect to see a lot of cut scenes, the rare few of which do drag on a bit too long, but they can all be skipped. Overall, both stories are definitely above average in the world of gaming, and you can tell that a lot of care and thought has been put into them. The characters are interesting enough to be worth investing into, and the allusions to Egyptian Mythology, such as the way the Orbital Frames are named, are intriguing to say the least.
Gameplay between the two titles is similar, but there are enough differences to warrant talking about them separately. The first game adopts an open-world structure, as you fly around relatively open environments connected by a larger hub on the colony. It’s certainly ambitious, even if it’s often archaic in its design, such as having to pause the game and exit areas from a menu. Objectives involve protecting structures, defeating certain enemies, or finding keys and upgrades strewn about the level, all of which are punctuated by the occasional boss fight. You can revisit areas once you’ve explored them and there are optional rescue missions to complete. The combat itself involves flying around enemies to dodge their attacks and using a combat system that seamlessly switches from ranged attacks to sword strikes depending on your distance from an enemy. All of this controls well, though the combat and objectives do get repetitive after a while, and there are numerous rough edges in the design. It takes a special kind of person to appreciate Zone of the Enders, as it’s more fascinating in concept than execution. However, while it’s not a masterpiece and hasn’t aged especially well, it still has an undeniable charm to it that you don’t see very often these days.
The second game in ZOE HDC sees major improvements by subscribing to the “less is more” ideology. The open world aspects of the first game have been scrapped in favor of a tighter, more linear structure that allows the action to be a lot more focused. Pacing is much better since there are a lot more objective types, and the combat itself has been tightened up thanks to more balanced attacks, smarter enemies, and more flexible control. As far as balanced and finely tuned combat systems go, this one ranks up there with Devil May Cry. The boss fights here are spectacular and involving, and there are some truly creative scenarios to play through here, such as various puzzles.
Of course, even the second game has its flaws. Many of the missions that require you to escort or protect individuals can be overwhelming simply due to amount of enemies you’re tasked with fighting. Also, the pacing isn’t perfect, with some combat sequences that drag on too long, and some checkpoints that are spaced out further than I’d like. Other small issues include occasionally being stun-locked by enemy attacks and some vague objectives (check your map often). However, these flaws never truly succeed in tarnishing the experience, which is unlike anything out there. Once you fully adjust to the learning curve and get the hang of dashing around, grabbing enemies, and delivering the perfectly timed sword strike, The 2nd Runner is a blast. It’s easily the highlight of the package, and a solid action title that is justified in becoming a cult classic.
Both titles in ZOE HDC (OMG) are fairly short, and you probably won’t revisit the first game very often, but I could easily see fans replaying the second game several times, as the gameplay really does hold up. I would advise that anyone unwilling to stomach a good challenge to leave this collection well alone, since it’s definitely more difficult than the average game these days. However, it’s never flat-out unfair, meaning that with enough perseverance and optimism, any relatively seasoned gamer will succeed.
Given that ZOE HDC has been given an HD upgrade, you should expect it look better than the PS2 originals. Thankfully, the visuals don’t disappoint in this area. With the exception of the CG cut scenes in the first game, which look surprisingly blurry and compressed the rest of the conversion is well done. I don’t remember encountering any significant framerate drops, and the overall look is crisp. Only the lackluster explosions and the occasionally drab environment diminish some of wonder. Mention must be made of the spectacular new animated intro for the collection though (you can watch it at the beginning of this article), which immediately draws you in with its fluid animation and outstanding visual style. With all that said, the in-game visuals are unlikely to blow you away, as by and large these are still PS2 titles we’re talking about, but they look respectable enough to satisfy.
ZOE HDC (LOL) sounds pretty good as well. Battles are appropriately hectic as explosions and missiles fill the screen, and although they sound more cartoonish than anything else, they still convey impact and add to the anime feel. A nice touch is the sound of scraping metal as your Orbital Frame grinds across the floor. The voice acting is all over the place, with some lines carrying believable emotion while others make it painfully obvious that the casting directors didn’t have English as a first language. The sound track is terrific, though, and adapts to fi t the mood whether you’re stealthily flying about or locked in combat. There are some effects which do disappoint, however, such as exploding boxes and scenery, but the arresting main theme, titled “Beyond the Bounds” (as heard in the animated intro), makes it easy to forget such things.
I can’t exactly recommend Zone of the Enders HD Collection to everyone. After all, it’s challenging, blazingly fast, features questionable translation, and is generally unlike anything out there. However, those who are even the least bit interested should take the plunge. The 2nd Runner is undoubtedly better than the original, but even the first game manages to convey its own unique charm. The collection is a intriguing package of brilliant ideas both on the gameplay and story fronts, and the fact that so many of those ideas are fully realized is enough to make this a fascinating artifact. Even in its most flawed moments, it’s never ceases to be interesting, which is something that you can’t say of many titles these days. I can admit that I’m officially a fan now, and I’m eager to see what Kojima has in store for us with the future of this franchise.
(Reviewed on Playstation 3. Review copy generously provided by Konami. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 8/10
Gameplay/Design – 8/10
Visuals – 7.5/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 7.5/10
Overall – 8/10
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Kojima Productions, High Voltage Software
Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 18+ (PEGI) (Note that this is mostly due to the inclusion of the gory Metal Gear Rising demo. To give you a better picture of the ZOE games, they were originally rated 12+ by PEGI)