Despite playing a series of mediocre to just plain exploitative Sega CD games, I was actually eager to go out and purchase a little FMV title for the Playstation called, simply, "D." D was an interactive horror tale by Kenji Eno; another Japanese game producer who wishes he was making feature films instead (I'm looking at YOU, Kojima). Eno-san had some innovative ideas about how to make games more cinematic, including a desire to put the player into dramatic, emotional scenarios, embrace rendering technology to bring the player's view directly into a believable digital world, and a whole concept of "virtual actors" that play different roles across his games.
In terms of mechanics, D was essentially Myst with high-resolution (for the time) CG environments and transitions. You were still traveling to fixed points inside a room, but the game would "walk" you smoothly through the scene to get there. Throw in some similar cutscenes, and you've got yourself a little digital movie you controlled. When the follow-up to D was announced as taking place in space, you can bet I was excited. When it was later announced as a Saturn exclusive, well, there's a reason we're looking at the PC port.
Enemy Zero has you again controlling Laura, this time playing the role of a pilot on a deep-space vessel returning to Earth. You wake from cryo sleep to the sounds of emergency alarms and crew members being slaughtered over the videophone. You quickly discover that the ship has become infested with aliens, and must try to regroup with the survivors and establish some kind of plan to stay alive. From there, you cycle between two modes - when you enter rooms, you're searching for critical inventory items and cutscenes in an extremely simplified adventure game interface. Between rooms, you're navigating mazes and fighting invisible aliens in a limited first-person-shooter interface.
Wait, wait.... roll the party bus back. Yes, I did say "invisible aliens." When I first heard of this, I figured trying to fight them would be needlessly difficult. Instead, the system works surprisingly well. You find aliens through an auditory sonar device that's always active in the FPS sections. Different tones tell you if an alien is in front, beside, or behind you, and the tones' intensity tells you how close.
You must hold the fire button to charge your energy gun, and release to blast the alien at the closest range, helpfully indicated by sudden gurgling noises just before it strikes. This means you have to work on the timing of charging the pistol and closing to a very specific distance before the charge dissipates or the alien touches you. Every energy gun also carries about three shots (each new gun "upgrades" that number by one or two) before needing to be taken to a recharge station. If you miss an alien, get attacked when you have no charges, or stumble into one you weren't expecting, you're dead.
It sounds complicated, but there's a pre-game training mode that helps you ease into it. You first fight a visible drone with a minimap, then an invisible one, then without the map, and so on. There's also some trouble when you have more than one alien in the same general area (as tones rapidly step on each other) but those areas are always large enough to let you run away and regroup. In all, the invisible aliens do transcend being simple gimmicks or annoyances.
The entire system is also surprisingly effective at getting you scared. Very limited ammo means every shot has to count, and invisible enemies mean you're never completely sure of where they are, how close, and if the shot will hit. Maybe "scared" isn't the right term for everyone - but I definitely get cocky in most first person shooters, and I wasn't showboating or cracking wise here. You're spinning around frantically, pausing to listen, and hurriedly getting the gun ready when you realize you've miscalculated - just like characters in these sorts of films. The beeping also gives the same building sense of dread as the motion tracker from Aliens, while being critically useful and allowing you to dodge around aliens when there are side passages available.
Generally, the game's graphics are sharp. Areas of the ship are both designed and rendered well. The exploration mode looks the best, and while there are no modern effects like bump mapping or elaborate lighting, these rooms do look like wandering freely through 90s-era cutscenes. I also like the ship's clean design. Smooth walls and modular crew quarters are probably hiding technical limitations, but I like that this isn't the usual "scary ship design" built for the express purpose of housing shadowy nasties. The FPS sections do as well as they can, and clip along at a nice pace. Texture work looks good for an early polygonal engine, and while it does fade to black at an awfully short distance, it naturally works for the mood. This is also the section where you'll see your spooky atmosphere props, like pipes, junction boxes, alien slime, and flashing warning lights.
However, while the ship looks fine, the characters do not. They're lanky, plastic-looking models with few points of articulation and frequently exaggerated expressive movements. I understand that they were limited technically, but this hurts the credibility of Eno's digital actors. Watching these automotons lope around and attempt to look human often comes off as unintentionally funny. A supposedly touching kiss between two crew members looks like a kid mashing Barbie and Ken's faces together. An extended moment where Laura is supposed to have an intense grimace instead makes her face look like a ornament in a Halloween store. Things work best when Laura is examining rooms solo and interacting with objects - it still looks fake, but she's not trying to be anything more that a game character inside a game world. It's when she interacts with other characters that the game turns into puppet theater.
Stranger, though, is the decision to keep Laura a mute heroine. She was the only character in D, so staying silent worked there - I appreciated the lack of the usual "Huh? What's this?" mumbles to herself. But here, where other characters speak directly to her, keeping her limited to head nods and quizzical looks seems odd. When she encounters dead crew she can do nothing more than gasp and put her hands to her mouth, pause, and return to normal. Frequently she'll assume the "crying position" (the animation gets reused) and sob, but still, no words. They even went to the trouble of hiring Jill Conniff, lead singer for the band Luscious Jackson, to provide Laura's voice, but this only happens for audio logs that recap the story after you load a game.
Meanwhile, other characters can and do talk, and start to steal the show for it. Despite her plastic looks and behavior, supporting character Kimberly actually comes off the most likeable and manages to make a few memorable choices. Her lines are pretty ridiculous - she goes off on a tangent about the secret to combat being to "look your enemy straight in the eye and never back down" - you know they're invisible, right? But still, there's a performance there, and it generates a character you can feel a little tinge of something for. Perhaps a few similar performances could have given some life to Laura and friends.
The FPS sections have some trouble as well. Controls are wobbly, and it's often difficult to simply move down a hall without weaving drunkenly around. This is made worse because the engine hijacks your view if you touch a wall. I'm not sure what the purpose here is (maybe to prevent clipping), but your view will get violently jolted in a different direction if you just brush the corridor edges. This doesn't help when you're trying to run, and really doesn't help when you're backing away from an alien and trying to aim.
Also, these areas are almost all mazes. The ship is broken up into towers, and the early towers are habitat sections where an elevator takes you around to the crew's rooms. There's still a few basement or power room mazes here, but you can check a computer map in the crew rooms to get a sense of how to navigate them. By the time you get to the second disk, any attempt to explain deck layout or purpose is forgotten. These are true mazes with an entrance on one end, a single exit on the other, and invisible aliens stalking inside. You never have a minimap, but now have no computer terminals to offer guidance either. Disk 3 actually has you running gauntlets of connected mazes without the ability to save between. This is the action gameplay, and it become more than annoying as your gun loses charge, you need to backtrack to the recharger, and all the walls look perfectly identical.
Worst of all, hands down, is the plot. Now usually I don't give away the entire plot of a game, no matter how bad it is, but I'm going to make an exception here. Part of the charm of any game is to unravel the plot and see how it turns out. I personally believe it's the main reason to keep playing. So I feel it's important in this case to let you know just how worthless completing this game actually is. If you don't care about story, you won't mind. If you do, then avert your eyes if you don't like...
Even if you're just in it for the gameplay, the adventure sections resolve linearly, and are virtually puzzle-less. There's a few locks requiring you to know binary counting, but an elevator in-game operates on the same principle and can teach you the code. There were also two power boxes locked by codes. The first had four buttons, and I simply tried every sequence until it unlocked. The second has a clue you can use to unlock it early, but you can't access the new area until you speak to a character. That character will just GIVE you the unlock code at that time, so what was the point?
That's as hard as the puzzles get, and item searches are similarly easy. The prerendered camera restricts the possible locations you can move to inside a room to just a handful, so naturally there's only a few places items can hide. There are no item puzzles, and most of what you're looking for are literal keys to the next area. This just leaves the FPS sections with its clever enemy mechanics, but horribly tedious mazes.
I like the hybrid of adventure and FPS, and the mix actually works well here. The issue is that neither part individually is a shining example of its genre. I think there was the potential for greatness here if more care had been given into making a story worth playing, instead of a throwaway rehash. It's interesting, no doubt, and a clever idea.
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Devil Inside, The, Drakan: Order of the Flame, Dino Crisis, Darkened Skye, Evil Days of Luckless John, Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr, Blair Witch Volume 3: The Elly Kedward Tale, Blair Witch Volume 2: The Legend of Coffin Rock
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