Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner M∀RS (PS4)

Right after I took a dive into the world of Zone of the Enders, I thought it natural to immediately play the sequel, The 2nd Runner, to wrap up the remaining story threads. For the best possible experience, I played The 2nd Runner MRS, a 2018 updated release for PS4 with enhanced graphics, VR support and surround sound. This version not only felt great to play on modern hardware, it felt like a vast improvement over the original Zone of the Enders as well.

In the year 2174, two years after the original Zone of the Enders, Dingo Egret, a miner working on Callisto, inadvertently discovers Jehuty, which had been hidden away. When BAHRAM forces an attack in an effort to seize the Orbital Frame, Dingo climbs into Jehuty and fights another runner named Ken Marinaris. Dingo then enters the BAHRAM battleship, but is subdued by Anubis, the counterpart to Jehuty controlled by the leader of BAHRAM, Col. Ridley “Nohman” Hardiman. When Dingo refuses to rejoin Nohman, he is shot and left to die. Ken, however, revives Dingo and places him inside Jehuty, which now acts as his life support system. As such, he will die if he leaves the Orbital Frame. With no real choice in the matter, he has to help Ken, who reveals herself as a UNSF spy trying to destroy Aumaan and take down BAHRAM.

Dingo can't survive without Jehuty.

The story is an immediate improvement over the original. While the philosophizing wasn’t completely out of place, the more action-focused narrative of The 2nd Runner allows for more room to fully flesh out the story, including a full explanation of what Aumaan is and why BAHRAM needs Jehuty. This culminates in a satisfying resolution to the main conflict once Anubis and Jehuty can finally clash, a moment hinted at by the ending of the original game. What helps is that Dingo is a more interesting character than Leo from the get-go, though Leo does return in an interesting way as the pilot of another Orbital Frame, Vic Viper. The voice acting, while not perfect, is also a general improvement over the original.

In comparison to the original game’s 3D cutscenes, The 2nd Runner uses traditional animation. The art style has held up very well and allows for more complex emotions than before. Of course, the 3D models of the Orbital Frames are used as well, but the two are integrated very well and the camera is more dynamic than before. In general, the character models are improved over the original game and were remastered splendidly for the PS4 version. Notably, Yoji Shinkawa still designed nearly every mech, but the character Lloyd and the Orbital Frame Inhert were designed by Kazuma Kaneko of Shin Megami Tensei fame.

The traditional animation holds up well.

Kazuma Kaneko's designs stand out.

Like its predecessor, The 2nd Runner is a rather short. My playthrough clocked in at about seven and a half hours, a little longer than the five hours I spent on the original game. Within that time, however, the game manages to bring out more of the full potential of the concepts presented within Zone of the Enders.

The combat remains similar, but with some welcome changes. For one thing, the ring that appears around Jehuty, which shows the direction and distance from the enemy, now also displays the direction and distance of enemy projectiles, allowing the player to more easily dodge something from offscreen. You can also now more easily swap sub-weapons by holding down L1 and using the d-pad to scroll through. As an added bonus, sub-weapon functions are now actually explained when you receive them, although there’s still not much use for some of them outside specific missions. The only universally applicable ones are Mummy, which restores health, and Zero Shift, which makes closing the distance gap a lot faster.

Once you’re actually engaged in combat, you quickly notice that the presentation is more actionized, but this move is for the better. Combat feels faster and the controls smoother, including a faster camera with the right analog stick. There’s also an option for a new control scheme, but I played with the original controls for authenticity. Mission progression is also more linear, eliminating the issue of backtracking from the previous game and making it easier to figure out where to go next. In spite of the more linear maps, however, there are still plenty of hidden secrets, including playable EX-Missions, Orbital Frames for Versus Mode and sub-weapons like Mummy. There also aren’t any Rescue Missions this time around, but there are two missions that are similarly graded and contribute to your final score at the end. On Normal difficulty it seemed pretty easy to get a high grade, since I actually got an A and an S and overall scored a B.

Combat is more action-oriented this time around.

I also noticed a better amount of variety in the bosses, both visually and strategically. The method to defeating them is also less ambiguous and easy to figure out, even if you end up dying in the process. When you do die, it feels more like your fault and it’s easy to figure out how to adjust your approach to better take them on. For instance, getting the proper timing down to parry sword strikes or learning when to be less aggressive to get the best opening. Two of my favorite fights are against the legitimately threatening Anubis, fitting for a final boss, and the encounter with Vic Viper, who seems designed as a love letter to the Gradius series, down to getting more powerful with Options the lower his health gets.

Vic Viper is a love letter to Gradius.

While the gameplay is more fun this time around, there were still some moments of frustration. I attribute this mainly to the setup of certain missions and bosses as opposed to the missions and bosses themselves. Without getting into spoilers, a lot of my frustration came down to timing, which I would eventually get the hang of. There is, however, a section where you have to destroy a fleet of BAHRAM ships, but you’re not given much of an indication that the reason a couple of them close the area you’re supposed to shoot is because you have to destroy a cannon on the other side. For the other ships, you didn’t have to destroy this cannon, so it took me longer than it should have for me to figure out the problem. On a much more minor note, Grabbing is actually a lot more important in a couple of places, which can make a boss that relies on it a little hairy.

The Versus Mode returns from the original game, now including the new Orbital Frames. The faster pacing of the fights made them more fun to play, but I wished that I could actually use the full power set of some of the Orbital Frames like Vic Viper.

One big difference with this version of The 2nd Runner, and one of the main selling points, is the addition of a VR Mode. While in VR, you can continue to play in third-person or choose to pilot Jehuty from the cockpit. Playing through the cockpit is highly immersive and features a rearranged HUD to take advantage of the new perspective. I also applaud the work that it must have taken to alter the game enough to make this mode playable and still retain the fun of the base experience. That said, the sheer speed at which Jehuty can fly in the game may be enough to cause motion sickness while in the cockpit view, though the fact that Dingo is sitting may not help. As such, I suggest sitting down while playing in VR to help mitigate this. On a minor note, Versus Mode isn’t playable with the cockpit view, likely because they only programmed the surroundings with Jehuty in mind.

The cockpit view is very immersive.

There are also a few extras to explore, including character models, a hangar mode with a hidden secret and the EX-Missions. EX-Missions allow you to replay sections and bosses from the game, as well as take on some original challenges to test your skills as a runner. The most fun secret, however, is an unlockable level called Zoradius, a 3D remake of Gradius where you pilot Vic Viper and fight your way through waves of enemies while collecting power-ups to boost your power and speed.

If you liked Zone of the Enders, there’s a lot more to like in The 2nd Runner, as it fixes just about everything the original game fumbled with. The 2nd Runner MRS is an excellent package on its own and, at least from what I understand, is the absolute best way to experience this title. If the stars would align to allow a Zone of the Enders 3 to exist, I would be down to play it.

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