Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS Review

I’ve been fascinated with the Zone of the Enders series since I first learned about them around the time of the HD collection release. I’m a casual fan of the mecha genre because, well, who doesn’t like massive robots fighting other massive robots? I never managed to get into the Gundam series, but I’m a huge advocate of Gurenn Lagann and Pacific Rim. I’ve played a few games in the genre, too, like the Armored Core games and even Titanfall 2, one of the best shooters of 2016; one that was sadly doomed by its launch window. Still, the Zone of the Enders series seems to present itself as something else entirely; a mecha narrative produced and engineered by Hideo Kojima.

Kojima’s involvement sets up certain expectations; a diverse, unique cast of quirky characters, a cinematic story lamenting the nature of war and humanity, and solid gameplay. With Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner MARS, a remaster of a PS2 game from 2003, well, we get one of these three things.

In Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, we play as a gruff ex-soldier called Dingo Egret, now working as a miner on Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons. During an outing in your mining robot, your sensors detect a high density of Metatron, the future’s McGuffin energy source. You end up stumbling across Jehuty, an advanced Orbital Frame, a highly advanced war robot. Then, Dingo and his friends are attacked by BAHRAM, the nebulous evil force, and he has to climb into the mecha to save himself and his friends.  

Jehuty, along with all of the other robot designs in Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, is brilliantly designed thanks to Yoji Shinkawa, the character and mechanical designer for the Metal Gear series. Jehuty is a sleek, humanoid mecha, embodying a mechanical athleticism and stylish mysticism. Other Orbital Frames share some of these characteristics, but each has its own design personality.

Controlling Jehuty is a blast. The third-person gameplay is a simplified version of the fast-paced action combat found in character-action titles such as Devil May Cry. The mech has melee attacks and ranged blasts depending on your distance from your target, and you can dash and combo your attacks by moving in and out of range. Issues arise, however, when you are trying to target a specific enemy in a room filled with grunts, such as a Commander unit that gives other enemies offensive and defensive buffs. Moving the combat lock-on to the correct enemy in the middle of frenetic, fast-paced combat is, euphemistically, a challenge. The core combat loop, while satisfying, does become repetitive even in the game’s short four-hour span. This is alleviated slightly by secondary abilities that unlock regularly; however, some are more useful and fun than the others. I found myself gravitating to the long-distance grab. Using secondary abilities depletes your energy reserve. In practice, this never seemed to be a problem, as energy refills are plentiful.

Anyway, once you dispatch a few rounds of basic enemies, you end up infiltrating BAHRAM’s main battleship and confront Nohman, BAHRAM’s comically villainous leader, who invites you to (re-)join the organisation. Dingo refuses, gets shot, coma for several months, and then the majority of the game starts, and I’ve somewhat lost interest in recounting the plot. 

Unlike Kojima’s Metal Gear series, none of the characters are interesting or unique. They’re generic, by-the-numbers mecha-anime characters; the hardened mercenary, the inexperienced double agent, the maniacal villain with a god complex, the dumb-teenager-in-a-mech-for-some-reason. Good characters could have made the relatively simple story memorable and enjoyable; instead, I’m already forgetting it as I type this. What I will remember, however, is the voice acting.

Good god, the voice acting. The delivery of most dialogue in the game is stilted and melodramatic, tonally inconsistent from one line to the next. Initially, there’s a certain charm to this goofy failing, but it wears thin after the first hour. And that’s without even mentioning the poor translation for most of the script. This game came out five years after Metal Gear Solid, which helped popularise the cinematic style of AAA games and had a pretty solid localisation and iconic voice-acting.

And it’s a shame, because otherwise the sound design is fine (if a little dated); in fact, the soundtrack is catchy and dramatic, close to par with some modern greats such as Nier: Automata. The upscaled graphics hold up surprisingly well on a 4K system, even if some of the environments are a little bland, as was the style in action games in 2003. The fights look visceral, energetic and colourful, even if they begin to feel repetitive.

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner was, perhaps, a game best left back in 2003. I can imagine that the action gameplay was pretty advanced at the time, and the pace would have blown many away. Today, though, against the likes of the recent Devil May Cry games or even Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, that pace will feel normal or even slow, and with none of the depth of those titles. Those looking for a mecha game, on the other hand, would be better off with Armored Core. You won’t have a terrible time with The 2nd Runner, but it’s best enjoyed as a curiosity.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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