In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
'That's great/It starts with an earthquake...' R.E.M. - It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)'
Iíve never been involved in a natural disaster. When I went to Japan, the worst that ever happened to me was torrential rain in June, but thatís supposedly a given. In Wales, the worst that happens is a minor flood in the valleys and live in the city, so itís not really a problem. When I turn on the news and hear that there was a minor earthquake in the area, Iíve slept through it every time. For all intents and purposes, I lead an uneventful and non-terrifying life. So when a game series like Zettai Zetsumei Toshi comes along, why am I eagerly awaiting the next catastrophe to hit with all the glee of one of those nutty preachers with the megaphone in the street?
Well because, to put it bluntly, this underrated series is frigging amazing.
SOS: The Final Escape
Zettai Zetsumei Toshi AKA SOS: The Final Escape or Disaster Report (Iíll call it SOS since thatís what Iím used to) is a unique game that defies pigeon-holing. I can only describe at best as 'survival horror'. Instead of zombies or demons from another world, the player is pitted in a survival against the elements. Your enemy is all around you, from the tallest skyscraper to the smallest house. The enemy is invisible, but itís there alright; lying in wait with another life-threatening surprise. You have to ration your supplies and prioritise tools to keep on your journey through a world of devastation. Youíre an ordinary person having to survive an extraordinary catastrophe in much the same way as any other horror game. Itís just that you canít fight back.
You play Keith Helm, a reporter starting his new job with a local paper in Capital City; a shinning new monument thatís situated on some artificial land called Stiver Island. On his way there, a massive earthquake turns the train over and Keith wakes up to find that the bridge to the island is about to collapse. It turns out the quake has destroyed Capital City and the aftershocks are sending the island into the sea. Keith rescues Karen Morris, a college student who was about on her way back to the mainland. The couple canít go back to the airport, so they have to travel into the ruins and reach an evacuation point. After several narrow escapes, they meet a photojournalist named Greg Bach, who suggests that the quakes were a sabotage. Keith also meets up with a student named Kelly Austin, whoís preoccupied with finding her brother before she can leave. After finding his newspaper editor in the abandoned newspaper offices, Keith discovers the truth about Gregís conspiracy theory. Soon he finds that itís not just the elements that are dangerous (I canít believe I just said that) and has to find a way off the island before he sinks with it.
SOS: The Final Escape is all about high stakes; when to move, when to lay low and when to run away from a collapsing freeway thatís about to land on your head. Itís unpredictable stuff, forcing you to be constantly on your toes and surveying the surrounding area for objects that have the potential to crush you. This is not a game where you can get cocky (unless youíve played it countless times...like me!) and the constant presence of a companion serves to remind you about your responsibilities. Your main goal from beginning to end is primarily to survive; the narrative puts meat on the gameís bones but ultimately it really serves to connect the jaw-dropping set-pieces.
Ah, the set-pieces. SOS is relentless in that regard; constantly using squeeze and release tactics to create apprehension. You could be wandering along, with everything looking relatively stable until the floor opens up and you start running the gauntlet from one end of the street to another. Other times you get nothing but minor aftershocks that threaten to erupt into full-blown chaos, only for things to go quiet again. There are far too many specific set-pieces to mention in the game; my favourite is probably at the amusement park. You have to traverse around some blockage by using in a swan boat, only for a nearby big wheel to break from its hinges and roll towards your general direction. The urban environment is a killer; anything could be your worst nightmare and yet you must use it to your advantage if you want to progress. There arenít any puzzles, except for the environment itself. The game is about navigation and using certain tools to aid you in that respect; a coat hanger as a rope slide, a car jack to open some shutters, etc.
Your body is also against your endurance in this game. You need to constantly find water supplies to keep your Thirst Points up. When your Thirst Gauge is depleted through exertion, Keith will slow down and start to lose health to compensate. You find yourself looking for water taps on a regular basis or collecting decent sized water bottles to fill up and carry. Itís not a frustrating chore though, since you can go for a while without water and youíre always in fresh supply because the taps act as save points too. Overall itís a unique take on game survival (youíre constantly looking after your body) and it helps increase the tension on the harder difficulties.
The odds arenít totally stacked against you either. Youíll find useful items to aid you in certain areas or just throughout the game. Youíll find safety gloves, hard hats, crowbars, torches, first aid kits and the like; all of which are stored in a variety of backpacks. The bigger the backpack, the more items you can store, which is particularly useful because of the amount of customisation involved in the game. Combining certain items can give you a variety of more efficient tools. For example, the hard hat, combined with the torch and batteries, will give you a head lamp (meaning less items to store in your inventory). Creating a fruit drink will give you health and replenish thirst at the same time. Like the extensive customisation in Iremís other underrated classic, Steambot Chronicles, thereís so much to collect here thatís mostly decorative purposes. Cowboy hats, shades, funny glasses, diamond rings, etc. They donít really serve much other than to add light relief in a morbid game. Seriously, once you wear that cowboy hat, thereís no turning back!
For all the goofiness you can wear over your rags, your companions play it straight throughout. In a completely dead world, theyíre the emotional face of all thatís happened. You learn to care for them, give them water and talk to them to get their thoughts on the situation. I really love games that do this (especially Atlusí Hellnight) and even though its one-sided, you feel a connection because theyíre depended on your lifeline. The whole survival angle becomes less impersonal and reminds you why youíre investing your time in this game. Thereís a really cool bit where Keith and Karen find a bike and they just ride down to her old house. The city is silent, except for the wheels of the bike and the whole sequence comes across as bittersweet. Itís one of the best examples why I love story-driven games.
Now I really love the story to SOS: The Final Escape. Yes, it does go a bit daft in the final third, but itís one of the stronger elements in a game thatís...well...ugly. Iím not going to lie; this game was obviously done on a budget. While the set-pieces and gameplay more than make up for any downfalls, the game could have benefited from a touch up. The characters are detailed enough (though a little stiff), but everything else is blocky and featureless. When a really explosive part happens, it sometimes never feels all that destructive. A building should shatter when it hits the ground, but here it just kind of topples over and lands as a massive Lego brick. It can be anti-climatic when you see that happen. The localisation to this game is pretty bizarre too. Itís quite clearly a Japanese city and if you look closely at the characters, theyíre obviously Japanese. Even the road signs still have their Japanese calligraphy! Itís disjointing to say the least and I never really understood the overhaul (other than the Ďmore salesí chestnut) when itís so fundamentally engrained with a foreign culture. Itís off-putting, but when you notice it, you canít shake it. The original version was aimed at audience thatís familiar with earthquakes on a regular basis, so the mis-en-scene based itself around such familiarities. Itís impossible to change.
The sound is low budget too. Loud wind noises will just appear with no build up and thereís a lot dead silence in places where it could benefit from the odd sound effect. The rumbling aftershocks are effective, but not so much for the larger events. It sometimes misses that extra Ďoomphí to scare the hell out of you. The voice acting isnít all that great either, but the people who play Karen, Kelly and Greg are decent enough to make you worry about them. Iím pretty sure the guy who played Greg went on to voice Detective Dojima in Persona 4 but donít quote me on that.
But honestly, not even cheapness could kill this game.
SOS: The Final Escape is all about the gameplay. Itís all about the apprehensive tension and calling the quakeís bluffs at the right time. There are no large scale heroics here, just plain old survival. Iíd say this is at least my third favourite game of all time and has to be due for some kind of next-gen remake (I Am Alive doesnít count in my fanboy eyes). Itís a game that should be cherished for being completely different to anything else nowadays and completely defies classification. Like I lazily said, its survival horror based upon realist terms and I wouldnít have it any other way.
I wonít say too much about Raw Danger (terrible name) because itís fundamentally the same as SOS: The Final Escape, but Iíll point out the good stuff anyway and my hatred of 505 Games for nearly screwing it all up. Raw Danger is officially Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 2; it plays exactly like the original only this time our protagonists have to deal with a massive flood from the Hudson River. Even though the American ĎGeo Cityí looks remarkably like its set in Japan again and Iím pretty sure the Hudson River would be geographically in the wrong place to start a catastrophe such as this. But Iím just nitpicking.
The player takes control of six different protagonists, played in succession, over the course of one Christmas night in Geo City. Joshua Harwell is a student whoís moonlighting as a waiter at an Inaugural Ceremony with a fellow waitress named Stephanie McMurrough. The underground part of the city is flooded, forcing Josh and Stephanie to reach the surface and find Stephanieís step-mother. Amber Brazil is a fugitive on the run, accused of murdering her brother. Issac Schiller is a burned out taxi driver who ends up driving an investigative journalist around town and gets embroiled in Amberís conspiracy. Paige Meyer is a bullied schoolgirl, who must avoided a perverted teacher and decide if she wants to save her bully. Finally thereís Ivan Kozlov, an amnesiac who is the key to the disaster. Thereís also secret playable character in the form of Keith Helm, who must piece together vital evidence of the said conspiracy (this guy revels in raw danger, baby).
What makes Raw Danger different is the story threads overlap and interact with each other. Itís not wholly original since Forbidden Siren already did the multiple character narrative, but itís definitely a worthy hook. This time your decisions change the actions or routes of another character; say if Amber starts an explosion to escape the police station, then that accident blocks off a route in the same scene for Issac later on. All the stories have multiple variations of the characterís ending, so thereís definitely a lot of replay value going on for a budget game. Itís very similar to Steambot Chronicles again, where every minor decision has a suitable consequence later on. I think thatís why I like Iremís free reign games, they really let you sit down and explore the options. The story isnít that much different from SOS: The Final Escape; itís just a series of floods and resulting accidents instead of an earthquake, but the emotional backbone has been pushed to the forefront here. Each character has an intriguing premise and again puts a face on the horror. I think the only weak moment is with Paigeís scenario (as youíll see why later on).
Instead of a Thirst Gauge, characters now have a Heat Gauge. It works in much the same way, but the longer characters stay wet, the more they slow down and eventually die from exposure. Ideally, you need to find waterproof clothing or a makeshift combination of items to keep you dry. Water taps have been replaced by heaters and players can cook food to get lasting effects. Raw Danger ups the difficulty here, since youíre always getting wet in icy temperatures and the heaters are few and far between.
Graphically, the game is an improvement over the first. Itís ambitious at times, but unfortunately, it seems the PS2 canít handle it. Thereís slow down on the more intensive scenes, but overall if you can get past that, youíll enjoy the look of it. Itís still remarkably low budget like the original but thereís a lot more detail going on. Itís those lovely details that 505 Games nearly screwed up too. Seriously, we had a hard time getting this game in the UK. In fact, we never did get this game! Neither did the Australians! I had to import the PAL version from France; even though the game was in English. I got a game with a French manual and cover, but the entire game is in English. WHAT THE HELL Ď505 GAMESí?!
I suspect that they didnít really sell enough copies in Europe to warrant spending any more money to distribute to the UK or Australia. They pretty much blew their localisation budget on making the entire cast bleach blonde (even one Japanese character is Ďblack facedí!) and cut out an entire section involving Paigeís scenario. Originally, sheís supposed to hear a noise from the toilet, only to discover itís one of her teacherís masturbating. After that, heís chasing her around the school to rape her. Personally, I think itís a brave bit of gaming, though some would object to the idea of creating a taboo horror within another horror. In the edited version, he still has his trousers on and chasing her around to make her do homework. WHAT?! If it wasnít for the fact, Kelly Austin makes a reappearance here as another teacher, the whole scenario would have been a loss. God, thereís even a bit where somebody forgot to record dialogue and give subtitles just before a massive set-piece involving you driving a taxi away from collapsing ground! Yes, 505 Games ruined yet another translated game with their antics (see also: Michigan) and now they just publish casual games. Lovely.
Regardless, Raw Danger is a strong sequel. Thereís something ultimately missing that doesnít make it surpass the original. I canít really put my finger on it, but I think for all the concentration on the plot, the developers didnít really give too much thought to the set-pieces involved. Thereís a bit at the end, where a ship crashes through a tower with you inside but thatís the only real jaw dropping moment I can think of. Most of the game is about you following your companions around and solving mysteries. Itís a worthy successor though and one that shows the potential for disaster games if done right and not using controversy to get noticed.
So donít let these games slip under the radar! Sadly, Iíve never played Day of Disaster or Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3, but Iíd love to hear your thoughts.