Zone of the Enders is a mecha action game developed and published by Konami in 2001 for the PS2, with a HD port coming later for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012. The game revolves around a young boy named Leo living on the space colony Antilia. It gets attacked by a Martian miltary force named BAHRAM and in the crossfire, Leo finds his way into the Orbital Frame Jehuty, which he pilots to fight back against the invaders.
ZoE aims for the more grounded side of the mecha genre. As such, there is a lot of focus on the horrors of war instead of how damn awesome the giant robots are. Our protagonist Leo personifies this theming, since he really doesn't want a part of this conflict. So much so that he whines about it for the game's whole short runtime.
I get the intent, but it just doesn't work for me. And that's because he's only ever focused on arguing with Jehuty's AI ADA and some other characters over the value of human life and how he's not a killer. That's understandable, but it shouldn't be the only thing on his mind. The dude is 14, in a life or death situation without training, his friends just got stomped to death and you can very easily kill civilians during gameplay. He should be a volatile package of nerves, but somehow manages to remain rather calm all things considered. All of these things are glossed over for the sake of making ADA a bit more human thanks to her interactions with Leo, while ignoring potential growth for Leo himself.
Besides that, there really isn't much to talk about. Leo's galpal Celvice might as well be a piece of cardboard and the enforcers of BAHRAM have next to no presence, save for the suicidal Viola who takes an interest in Leo for whatever reason. The whole game feels like the first act in a story that Konami didn't have the resources/willingness to tell in a single game.
The look and feel of the game is a mixed bag. The use of colour, lighting and the excellent MGS2-esque OST manages to create this awesome aesthetic (helped greatly by Shinkawa's mecha designs) that I can't help but adore. But paired with that are the flat environments and the lackluster Space Channel 5-esque CG anime character models that look especially jarring in the pre-rendered cutscenes.
But what's worse is how damn padded this 4-hour game is. You need to backtrack constantly all over Antilia. So much so, that I can just feel the fear the designer felt when they realised how short the game would be if they didn't do this. While there are some optional rescue missions to do and sub-weapons to find, they aren't very worthwhile pursuits. Not to mention that many side activities are incredibly harsh with how much time you get to try them. If you enter an area before an active rescue mission, that mission is just gone next time you get back to the area map.
There comes a point where I have to ask just how much of this game's value was derived from the MGS2 demo and how much Konami banked on people not caring about the length of ZoE. I know many just cast it aside to play the demo over and over again, so maybe they were right. I just wish there was a bit more meat and less padding here.
The one saving grace of this game is the mecha combat. It's the raddest shit, and for 2001, Jehuty animates really well. There's this majestic grace to the machine that really helps sell how special it is compared to the unmanned enemy robots.
You fly around in 3D space and use a lock-on system in order to pick what enemy to focus on. The first thing of note is that attacks are influenced by your distance to the enemy, So at long range, you fire energy shots and at close range you use Jehuty's sword. This simplification helps the combat from becoming overwhelming, while still allowing for a decent amount of variety. You normally only have the shots and the sword combo, but you can modify them by dashing and using a Burst charge.
During a dash, the shots become lock-on missiles fit for multiple targets and the sword attack becomes a DMC Stinger that you can use to get in a quick hit. Bursting (pushing dash while being still) allows for a guard breaking slash and an enormous energy blast, both of which can really bring the pain. You can also block yourself, as well as grab enemies and toss them. There are also a fair few sub-weapons limited by ammo.
It all comes together to a solid and simplistic fighting game-inspired combat system that I haven't seen the likes of anywhere else. The bosses in particular force you to fluctuate between long and short range combatat the drop of a hat, making for some really engaging encounters.
Sadly, there is also a fair bit of jank present under the hood. I find it near-impossible to use the grab on advanced enemies, so come late-game, I just phase that attack out of my pool of moves. Same goes for the Burst shot, which takes an eternity to charge and will result in damage unless you make sure to use it from as far away as possible. The sub-weapons are mostly pretty useless as well, either being difficult to use or not dealing enough damage. Then there's the fact that there are no camera options whatsoever, which really hurts in a game built around full 3D movement.