Looking Back on… Disaster Report (Sony Playstation 2)

Disaster Report
System: Playstation 2
Genre: Survival
Publisher: Agetec
Release Date: 2/16/03 (And here we come to the end of the line with 411 Games reviews, as right after this I went back to writing reviews for my personal site, which I would continue to do off and on until 2005, when I joined what was then Inside Pulse Games, where I’ve been for nearly a decade now. I still somewhat like this review, if only for nostalgic purposes, as it’s about a game I love that not a lot of people do, and it’s probably the best review I wrote for 411, so of course it’s also the last one.

When I saw this game on the store shelves of my local video game store, (I’d like a glass of ice water with ice.) I was actually surprised. Part of me found it surprising that someone hadn’t thought up this idea prior to now… I mean, lord knows there are a multitude of companies trying to produce Resident Evil clones of all shapes and sizes, so why didn’t someone think up the concept of surviving the elements before? It’s a great idea, and I know people would buy it. (It’s especially surprising given that outside of Irem, the developers of this franchise, no one else is even trying it, at all, and Irem seems to have given up on the series; a second game, brought to the US as Raw Danger, did okay, as did a third Japanese exclusive PSP release, but a planned PS3 sequel was cancelled because, well, the Tokoku earthquake/tsunami happened, AKA the one that caused huge leaks in reactors and such. The franchise doesn’t have any further entries announced, because living through a catastrophe is scarier than anything a game can do one presumes, which… I understand, believe me, but given what a visionary series it was, I hope Irem can eventually resurrect it in some fashion. Hopefully once Japan has recovered from the disaster it might find its way back into the market, so, here’s hoping they can recover, for multiple reasons.)

The other part of me was surprised that THIS game came out in America at all. Originally released in Japan under the name Zettai Zetsumei Toshi (No, I have NO idea what that means), (Wikipedia says it translates to “The Desperated City” which… sure, okay.) the game was very… Japanese, let’s say, with style playing as much of a part in the game as substance. I had looked at it, found it to be a novel concept, and then totally wrote it off as a “not coming to the US” game, just because it looked so… weird. Of course, Agetec decided to port it over to US shores, and boy, don’t I feel like an idiot. Well, not really, but I’m just saying. (If you’ve been reading Penny Arcade forever, you’ll also remember this series as the one they made a comic about way back when they had no concept about what the fuck it was banging on about. I’m pretty sure they thought it wasn’t coming to the US either, so at least I wasn’t alone there.)

Storyline sum up: You are a newspaper reporter by the name of Keith, on his way to Capital City to report for his first day of, you know, reporting. However, while on the train, a massive earthquake occurs, and your train derails. (I should probably mention it was over the middle of the ocean, and something like a mile up, so you were super fucked from jump.) From here, you are essentially pushed forward to Capital City itself, where you will meet survivors, save lives, escape near death situations, and have buses and buildings fall on you. It’s quite the experience, I assure you.

Gameplay
The gameplay itself is divided into two similar, yet notably different concepts: running from things that can kill you, and solving puzzles to avoid things that can kill you. Now, in your standard survival game (see Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Eternal Darkness), your antagonists come in the form of monsters, zombies, and other unholy evils of some sort or another. This is not the case in Disaster Report; the ISLAND is your enemy, and everything on it can kill you, from trucks to trains to barrels to buildings, all can and will kill you, without thought or mercy. (That is in no way an exaggeration; there is at least one point where, if you’re not careful, a skyscraper will fall on you. I’m serious.)

Of course, it’s kinda hard to hate an island the same way you hate a zombie, but I got over that, so I’d suspect you will too.

Anyway, gameplay takes place from a third person perspective, and largely consists of avoiding everything that can kill you, IE everything, while trying to get to a rescue location. For the most part, the controls work well… your character automatically jumps when running at a ledge, and will automatically grab for the first thing in reach if he falls off of something. You also have a “brace” button, which you press when a quake starts, to secure yourself wherever you might be, thus allowing you to avoid falling over and possibly taking damage. (Disaster Report almost never puts you into a position where damage can be taken by antagonists, in fact; it’s always shit falling on you, or you falling over and getting injured because of unstable ground, or other similar messed up things. As a concept project it’s amazing, in that, moreso than in any game of its ilk, you truly never feel safe as you play, and cannot do anything meaningful to prevent your demise, sort of moving constantly and being mindful of everything around you.) As is standard for the genre, you are asked to solve puzzles, most of which are simple enough and require very little effort to figure out, beyond the occasional combining of items or searching the immediate vicinity.

Disaster Report does present two new concepts to the genre, in the form of the Item Assembly system and the Stamina meter. The item assembly system allows you to build items from your inventory, like building a coat hanger from a crowbar, gauze, and an umbrella frame. MacGyver it’s not, but many of the items are useful later. (It’s slightly more intuitive than what you’d expect from a conventional adventure game, though it only had limited application, to be frank.) The Stamina meter is essentially a rating of your energy to perform tasks, and as you run or do things, it depletes. If it hits bottom, you can’t run, and you start to take damage. To cure this, you drink water, from spigots (which act as save points) or bottles. It’s totally logical, and it added a sense of reality to the game. (I really liked this idea, not only because it made logical sense, but also because it was really different, and no one’s really done it before or since.)

Unfortunately, not all of it is wine and roses. The control is iffy, and doesn’t respond as well as I would hope for such an environment. (This is the single biggest downfall for the game; for all its great concepts, its actual gameplay can be rough as hell at times, and booting it up recently for a livestream, I found it to be too much to take in large doses. It’s a shame, too, because if the control was a bit tighter it’d be a classic.) The puzzles, though easy to solve, can be frustrating at times, simply because they don’t make themselves known. It’s bad enough having to solve a puzzle, its worse trying to figure out that there’s a puzzle to SOLVE. The Item Assembly system, though a great novelty, is hardly ever useful (except for the standard “assemble an item you desperately need from parts that do nothing else” we see in every survival game), as most of the items available to assemble (a torch, the above mentioned coat hanger, a helmet light) are provided by themselves before you have all the tools to assemble them, or aren’t all that useful. In short, you can tell the developers were trying to do a lot of new things, but in the end, not all of it worked as well as I might have liked. (Raw Danger did this a bit better all in all, but I really feel like, had the series continued to the announced fourth game, it might’ve coalesced into something viable.)

Graphics
I wish I could say this game is beautiful, but I can’t; Disaster Report is graphically decent, but not one of the best. The character graphics are solid, but generally bland for the most part… some of them qualify as ugly, but I suspect that was the intention. The background graphics use the more recently introduced format of presenting the foreground clearly, while letting the background appear more hazy (see ICO or GTA3 for better examples), which works for the most part. The backgrounds do a good job of representing a disaster ridden city, though some of it appears blockier than it ought to be. (Yeah, even as a PS2 title, Disaster Report was visually no great shakes; it helped in the sense that it allowed for more movement and action in the large, sprawling city, but it didn’t look great at any point, and even cool situations like the aforementioned falling skyscraper were plagued with slowdown.) The frame rate is also a big issue here… when nothing is going on, it seems to run at a consistent 45-60 FPS, but once things start breaking, the game experiences MASSIVE slowdown… it’s not likely to get you killed, and you might be able to justify it as dramatic, but it’s a real pain. (In some cases it kind of saves your life since it lets you make decisions with more leeway, so, I didn’t hate it as much as I could have.) And, last but not least, a lot of the backgrounds are designed statically, which might not be too bad in some games, but in a game where every piece of the background is dynamic, seeing an overpass tip over at a 45 degree angle, while all the cars stay where they were… that’s a bit more than I can forgive. (HAHAHA I forgot about that! Yeah, you’d be in a position where an overpass was literally tipped at an angle, and they rendered it that way in advance, and cars were just on it, in their lanes, not moving or falling or anything. It was super absurd and I kind of secretly loved it.) So, overall, the graphics are reasonable, but hardly some of the best out there.

Sound
Aurally, Disaster Report is something of a mixed bag. The music is sparse and practically non-existent, which actually adds to the paranoia the player feels that the game is going to try to kill them at any moment. When the music DOES kick in, however, that’s even worse, as it indicates something bad is about to happen. (By this, I meant that the music is fine, for reference.) The sound effects are passable for the most part… the background noise is utterly realistic of any city, and adds to the ambience; the sound of your own shoes on the pavement adds to the feeling of emptiness; and the noises of crumbling cityscapes are solid and believable. The voice acting is like nails on a chalkboard, though… I can’t honestly understand why the designers didn’t leave the Japanese audio track in the game… the American voices are pure pain. (The PS2 era was the one where we slowly started to see developers and publishers put more of an effort into hiring English voice casts who actually didn’t suck, and that privilege stopped being something only top-tier games could avail themselves to. It doesn’t hurt that there is currently a massive stock of capable content providers out there, thanks to the shitload of anime dub houses in existence, but I feel like, had this game been released two or three years later, the dub would’ve probably been light years beyond what we got.)

Fun Factor
What sets this game apart, in terms of sheer fun, is that you haven’t done this before. It’s not like every other survival game on the market, and it takes great pains to show that in every way imaginable. From the threat presented by everything in the environment, to the lack of any real combat to speak of, to the huge emphasis put on getting out alive above anything else, this game is the true definition of survival, bar none. (That’s still pretty true today; while some games will incorporate these concepts into stages or levels, the whole game was this way, and it helped the experience a lot.)

It’s kind of a shame that there’s not more to it.

There are seven endings available in the game, but there are, at best, only minor storyline changes presented in each. (Basically you could choose which of the survivors you could escape with, as there were two ladies and one guy to meet along the way; the best choice was to escape with the lady you met in the beginning of the game, but you had multiple different options and paths you could take so really, there were several endings available to you… even if they weren’t so amazingly different as to inspire a need to see them all or anything.) The first time you play through will take 6-10 hours, and everything afterward will probably take half that. Even hard difficulty isn’t much of a challenge; once you learn the pattern of the falling background objects, you’ll be fine, and if you don’t, you can continue around where you bit it. The extra items you can find throughout the game (hats, glasses, gloves) are cute, but unless customizing your compass and appearance is a primo selling point, the only beneficial items you gain from this are the bigger backpacks. (That was another novelty of the game; you’d find different costume items to equip that could decay over time and let you customize your appearance if you were so inclined, as well as make your compass look like… a frog or some shit, basically. It was a neat enough concept, but decidedly Japanese.) The only time the game tries to vary things up is the raft sequence halfway through the game, and that’s only about a minute long, (Also, it sucks out loud.) and the final third of the game, where you’re dodging gun-toting thugs and running from a tidal wave in addition to surviving the island proper, (Which also isn’t great.) though neither of which do much to vary the gameplay any. In short, if you play through the game two or three times, you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and the photo album you receive for beating the game once doesn’t add any real value to the experience. It’s too bad there’s not more to this game… it makes it that much harder to recommend. (Raw Danger was a bit of an improvement over its predecessor in these regards, though reviews indicate the third release on the PSP wasn’t great. I still wonder what would’ve happened with the fourth game; by all indications it was nearly complete when it was cancelled, so we might see it someday as a downloadable game, but otherwise the franchise is probably done with Raw Danger.)

The 411
A novel innovation in survival gaming that offers you no reason to own it, Disaster Report is an entertaining romp while it lasts. The idea is unique, and the game is fresh enough to merit a rental, but after you’ve beaten it, there’s no real reason to go back. I definitely recommend renting this, if only because you’ll see other developers ripping this game off before too long, and because this is a new and different idea that hasn’t been beaten into the ground. (Nope, oddly enough; survival horror itself has become something of a dead genre comparatively speaking, save on the PC, where a shitload of first person games have come out, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Console releases either tend to aim towards action gameplay, like with Resident Evil and Dead Space, or suck, like with Silent Hill, and are generally becoming less and less common as time goes on, while PC games are mostly sticking to first-person play, with the odd exception of DreadOut, which I really intend to install and play one of these days. Either way, falling buildings are mostly relegated to cutscenes, if they show up at all, and none of the concepts that came up here made it into modern games, with the possible exception of Alone in the Dark, and the less said of that, the better.)

Rating:
Gameplay – 7/10 (.5’s are allowed)
Graphics – 6/10
Sound – 5/10
Fun Factor – 5/10
Overall – 6/10 (not an average) (That’s probably the closest to an accurate score I handed out during my time with 411, so of course it was the last one.)

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