Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Publisher: Konami Computer Entertainment America
Completed: 22 February 2015
For some, Zone of the Enders is best remembered as the game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo. Certainly it was the major reason I purchased it upon launch in 2001, before I knew what a trainwreck MGS2 would turn out to be. For many of us, it turned out to be a wonderful surprise that the game that accompanied the demo was surprisingly good.
Produced by Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima and featuring mech designs by Yoki Shinkawa, ZOE is a science-fiction action game. Part beat 'em up, part shooter, it is repetitive, short, and the story makes very little sense, but it's a solid first effort in creating an original IP. Attaching the most-wanted demo in the world at the time to it drew more attention than the game would have ever gotten on its own, and it even spawned a fully-fledged sequel, an HD remake compilation, and a spin-off on the Gameboy Advance.
ZOE tells the story of Leo, an young ender (which is a term that is never really explained) who accidentally takes control of an advanced robot called an orbital frame. Leo's colony is under attack by BAHRAM, presumably another colony, and it suddenly falls on his shoulders to deliver the highly advanced frame to a civilian transport company and, of course, save his people in the process.
Unfortunately, the poor localization makes the story a jumbled, confusing mess and Leo himself is possibly the most whiny main character in video game history. I suppose it's supposed to be about the morality of war, but it's so poorly translated that I can't be sure. Leo constantly whines, nags, and accuses everyone else in the game of being a cold-hearted monster for killing each other. The heavy-handed philosophy comes across as way too preachy and oversimplifies a complex issue, and it's often told through long cutscenes or mostly static dialogue sequences, akin to Kojima's more well known Metal Gear franchise.
The story is terrible, but the gameplay is definitely not. It's mostly a series of battles which play a bit like a beat 'em up, with ranged tactics thrown in. Your frame, Jehuty, can fire all sorts of different weapons, many of which are optional sub-weapons, or get in close for melee attacks. It's very flashy and fast-paced, albeit repetitive. The bulk of the game is spent killing a small variety of enemies to collect passcodes needed to unlock a new area or an upgrade that allows you to proceed, but somehow it never really got boring to me. In fact, as I powered up, I found myself enjoying the combat more and more, taking on larger groups of enemies with ease.
There are also several boss fights that require significantly more tactics than the stock enemy frames. Though the game's final boss is a joke, most of them will test your skills, and there are also optional S.O.S. missions which rank your performance based on how much damage you do to your surroundings, and how many civilians are killed in the process. Perhaps it's because my playthrough only lasted 4 hours and 36 minutes, but the boredom of repetition never really set in for me. If anything, I found myself groaning during the overly long cinematics and Leo acting like a crybaby incessantly.
ZOE still looks pretty good in its original PS2 incarnation, but I opted to play the PS3 HD rerelease, which definitely highlights Shinkawa's fantastic mech designs. Jehuty and the enemy frames look beautiful, but much of the background is a blurry texture to give the illusion of scale and depth, which doesn't fare quite as well. The cinematics are also still fairly low quality CG with a distinctly anime-inspired look. That means exaggerated eyes, pointy chins, and tiny mouths, and the lip-syncing was obviously done to match the original Japanese language voice track, so numerous times throughout the game it will look like a poorly dubbed kung-fu flick.
The music is all very electronic, which fits the game perfectly. The voice acting, however, is mostly as bad as the translation.
All these years later, I'm glad I took a chance on ZOE. The first game is almost like a television pilot - you can see all the potential, but it's still a little rough around the edges. The eventual sequel would improve upon nearly everything, but the original game is still a fun little experiment.
Zone of the Enders was completed on a PlayStation 3 via the Zone of the Enders HD Collection with no cheats.