Disaster Report

Year: 2003
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Agetec
Developer: Irem Software Engineering
Genre: Adventure
Review Date: 1/17/04
Rating: ***

June 21, 2005. The man-made floating city, Stiver Island, suffers massive damage from a 6.0 earthquake and starts sinking into the sea. Unfortunately, this is also Keith Helms's first day on the island, working for the local newspaper. For whatever reasons, he's unconscious and abandoned for the first twenty-four hours after the quake, and wakes up just in time to see a rescue helicopter leaving. (this is a recurring theme as there are numerous near-miss rescue attempts) Conveniently enough, Keith finds another survivor who was also left behind and rescues her from a dangerously balanced train car. As Keith, you must protect Karen and find a way off of the island, as well as learn some sinister secrets about the disaster. Along the way, Keith meets other survivors and must choose who his loyalties lie with, which leads to a number of different end-game scenarios.

"Disaster Report" is a refreshing spin on the survival horror genre, replacing bloodthirsty monsters and violence with environmental hazards and evasion. It may also be the first and only survival horror dating simulation game on the market, as the attitudes of the female characters in the game are based directly on how you choose to interact with them. The game makes excellent use of force feedback, and the various quakes and tremors in the game create a real sense of tension, danger, and urgency. Inventory management plays a large role (although nearly everything you pick up is useless), and the inventory screen uses a very clever display to show the volume of everything that's in Keith's backpack. Keith's stamina is based on two factors: physical damage and thirst. Keith is the thirstiest man on the planet, as he dehydrates about every five minutes. Fortunately, there are plenty of water fountains around to drink from, and they also serve as save points. The game is a good length, taking about ten hours to complete on the first pass. However, by the last third of the story, there are so many close calls that I was wondering if it would EVER end. ("Oh no, we missed the boat - AGAIN!")

Technically, the game is solidly mediocre. The graphics range from bland to very good, and the camera uses a blurred depth of field to smooth things out in the distance. Unfortunately, the environment suffers from pixel dancing textures and numerous anti-aliasing problems. Many of the textures are plain and uninteresting, and the devastated world of Capital City just looks a little too clean. Water, fire, and smoke effects are adequate and get the job done. Level design is excellent, giving Keith a large playground of destruction and rubble to play in and explore. Objectives are clear, and it's always obvious where to go next. Backtracking is completely eliminated due to the fact that the environment is constantly crumbling behind you, which just adds to the tension and urgency of the situation.

By far the worst aspect of the game is the fussy and unpredictable camera, and wrestling with it is a constant chore. The game engine also slows to a crawl about 50% of the time, which can be rather aggravating. The voice talent ranges from really bad to pretty good, and the super corny dialog is crippled by wacky Japanese sensibilities and an awkward translation. Just how much politeness and humility is required in an emergency situation like this? Another gripe about the game is that the menu controls are slow to respond, so drinking, saving, and accessing inventory takes a lot more time and button pushing than it should.

However, despite its quirks and problems, I found "Disaster Report" to be extremely engaging and fun to play. The game is easy to play and the setting is so intriguing that I felt compelled to play through a second time to see what the other side of the city looked like. While the game expects you to stick it out and get cozy with Karen, Kelly's adventure is arguably more entertaining. She's more fun to be around than the whiny, frail, and overly feminine Karen, and Kelly's neighborhood is more spectacularly destroyed than Karen's. You also get to meet more characters in Kelly's adventure, but both paths eventually converge and the second half of the game plays out identically. Five of the seven possible endings are obvious and easy to get, but the last two are rather mysterious and continue to elude me.

SPOILER ALERT! At this point, I feel it necessary to poke fun at some of the logic holes and silliness in the game. First of all, Keith is a complete goober - especially in the first half of the game. Nowhere is this more evident than when he and Karen are trying to climb over a wall and Karen suggests that Keith give her a boost. His reaction is completely baffling. "Who, me?" (like there's anyone else around) "I could never... I mean, I'd be so embarrassed. I had no idea you were THAT kind of girl." Huh? There must be some bizarre Japanese subtext that I'm missing here, because in this situation, I would throw all etiquette to the wind and just do whatever was necessary to survive. Then at one point, Karen feels compelled to tell Keith that she's not wearing any underwear. Huh? Again, what does this matter? It only serves the purpose of getting a character judgement response from Keith, but it's still very silly. At another point, Keith needs to build a raft, and in an attempt to impress Karen, he decides to paint it before casting off. What?!? Chicks dig rigs with cool paint jobs, and Karen enthusiastically acknowledges his raft building and painting skills like a giddy schoolgirl. Part of the fun in the game is experiencing these completely bizarre character interactions.

As you would expect, there are numerous logic and plot holes in the game, but none are so blatant and incomprehensible than the scene at the Stiver Island Control Center helipad. The rescue helicopter is twenty feet away and the only thing in your way is an eight foot tall chain link fence. Your friends are on the other side, and everyone knows you're there, so why can't you get to the helicopter and why does it leave without you? After going through so much danger and trouble already, is climbing a fence that difficult and out of the question? Still, if you have an open mind, a good sense of humor, and a taste for B-movie conventions, "Disaster Report" is a nice break from the norm.