It's rare in this sequel and 'me-too' obsessed age to find a game that dares to do anything remotely original, so to find the unheralded Agetec is publishing the "Earthquake survival" title Zettai Zetsumei Toshi (or Disaster Report as it was known to U.S gamers) caused our fried synapses to almost twitch with excitement.
The idea of charging through the Capital City Earthquake zone running for our lives sounded like a fantastic idea for a game. In fact the last time we recall playing a game remotely similar in concept was a creaking, but rather good for its time, post apocalyptic text adventure called Aftershock back in 1989. This time around, though, the player gets to run around with structures collapsing around his ears, uncovering a tale of greed, fraud, deceit and human corruption. Yep, the survivors you encounter along the way to safety are not always innocent victims, and eventually you'll discover the truth behind this apparently 'natural' disaster.
Pretend your name is Keith
The game puts you in the shoes of a reporter, Keith Miyamoto, who one day in June 2005 flies into Capital Island to start his new job - but during his train journey from the airport an earthquake devastates the city, derails the train and sends poor old Keith flying. Our luckless hero finds himself left behind by the rescue team, and is forced to clamber over wrecked vehicles and a rapidly crumbling bridge in a desperate bid for survival - which is pretty much where you come in.
In each of the game's self contained areas you're forced to wander around, picking up objects, avoiding flying debris and pre-scripted collapsing buildings and making it through to the next section. Most of the time the solutions are relatively simple, but unless you happen to have a walkthrough handy you'll find yourself going round and round in circles looking for the one tiny piece you've missed in order to progress.
While you're looking for clues, you'll be aware of two meters in the top left of the screen. The top one denotes health, while the lower of the two denotes Keith's thirst, and by god has this man got a raging thirst. He's the thirstiest game character in the history of thirst. And games for that matter. Literally every few minutes you'll have to seek out another handily placed tap for you to gulp from (which also double up as save points, oddly). Once you pick up a backpack you'll be able to store water in bottles, but even then, it seems overly pedantic to be forced to check on your character's thirst every couple of minutes.
Thirsty Keith soon hooks up with a fellow survivor in dramatic circumstances, the rather clueless Karen (or Jody as the press info seems to insist). Finally you make it off the bridge onto the island itself, only to discover all manner of evil shenanigans going on. At this point the game's total linearity becomes overwhelmingly apparent. Cars, lorries and buses lie crumpled in charred, twisted heaps, blocking your path. But despite being able to crouch, Keith cannot crawl under the vehicles. Thus almost an hour was wasted trekking around looking for a sign of a way out until it became apparent that one of the coaches has an emergency exit which you can jimmy open. Duh. Admittedly sometimes we suck at games, but this one reminded us of the kind of arbitrary dead ends that point and click adventures used to present the gamer.
Still, once you're off and running again, there are some genuinely impressive scenes to witness, and experiencing a city that's falling apart around you makes for an immersive and exciting environment. Graphically, these moments of chaos are handled very well, and really add a sense of reward for working out what to do next. Sadly, the rest of the game's visuals rarely hit this height. For the most part, you're fighting with a bizarre camera system that does what it damn well pleases most of the time. You can hit R2 to force the viewpoint behind your character, or triangle for a free look perspective, but regularly you'll be falling to your death thanks to the game's abject inability to give you a sympathetic viewpoint.
Other visual niggles conspire to let SOS down, such as the often appalling animation. Keith's lurching giraffe run animation, for a start, is just plain daft, while the frame rate often slows down to a crawl for no good reason at all (other than maybe just being a duff PAL conversion). The texturing is old school first gen PS2 throughout, and it smacks of a game that's using an engine well past its sell by date.
Even the sound effects give the impression of a game that's been hamstrung by a low budget - check out the noise Keith emits when he hauls himself up a ledge, or the swimming effects. They're truly high points in gaming history. If you have a twisted sense of humour at least.
Oh we wept
And on that train of thought, in true low budget Jap conversion style, the voiceovers are also unintentionally hilarious, with the kind of stilted, forced emotion that makes western gamers weep with laughter. Ok, we're not here for the script, but it would be nice if some effort had been made here, as the concept and the storyline does have a great deal of potential. Strangely, once the game ramps up beyond being a question of survival it does suck you in with its conspiracy laced yarn.
But for all its grandiose vision, SOS ends up being a survival horror style adventure game without the shambling zombies, featuring all the inventory management, health worries, camera angle issues, control quirks and save game management of any number of Capcom and Konami efforts of the past eight years. In the right hands (i.e. a big budget developer) this disaster survival concept could go on to become a fantastic niche genre in its own right. As it stands though, it's a neat, refreshing original idea that doesn't quite do enough to tempt £40 out of your hard pressed wallet.