Have you ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone where this criminal dies and thinks he's gone to heaven? At first it seems like he's living in a perfect world where he can do no wrong. But, of course, with the traditionally creepy Rod Sterling twist, the criminal realizes that everything is perfect to a boring fault and that he's actually trapped in purgatory. That's what the experience of playing Zone Of The Enders is like. At first it seems like an anime fan-boys wet dream made into an interactive reality. But by the end of the game, it's more of a despairing nightmare.
Player control in Enders centers around a socially and emotionally dejected boy named Leo. Under a set of extraordinary circumstances, Leo comes into contact with an experimental Orbital Frame, or a flying giant robot for you civilians. The Orbital Frame is named Jehuty and Leo becomes its unwilling pilot in an effort to foil a band of malcontents stirring up trouble on Leo's home space colony. Those familiar with the giant robot genre in Japanese animation (or anime) will instantly recognize the clichés and plot devices designed to give younger audiences a vicarious and fantastic sense of empowerment.
Regardless of the unoriginal premise, its still more than serviceable and, by all early indications, Enders seemed to be another seminal masterpiece under the watchful eye of videogame auteur, Hideo Kojima, who served as the title's producer.
Visually, Enders is an anime world brilliantly realized in full 3D graphics. The wide-eyed and multi-hued hairstyles are in full effect and while the mechanical designs aren't memorable enough to place them alongside the pantheon of legendary robots that preceded it, they will still invoke that trademark anime sense of style and cool. Rounding out the presentation is a soundtrack made up of classic 1980s-sounding J-pop tunes with squeaky pitched female vocals and the requisite poorly "dubbed" English voices.
The movement controls of Jehuty are also very remarkable. Rather than taking a slow and complex "simulator" approach to piloting an Orbital Frame, the developers came up with a surprisingly simple and approachable system. This allows players to duel with enemy Orbital Frames with uncanny ferocity and dexterity that distinctly resembles what one might see when watching an anime on the same subject. The zero-gravity lock-on control scheme is most unique for its universal usability despite the frenetic action and dramatic shifts in camera orientation.
The developers have done an admirable job of initially making players feel as though they are actual citizens in an anime world filled with giant robots, cute girls, and melodramatic villains. However, the world of Enders eventually unravels because the robotic combat action—while exciting at first—gets repetitiously stale within hours. The latter half of the game degenerated to the point where I turned my brain off and practically cruised through on autopilot with a basic button-mashing technique. By the end, I felt that the gameplay was intolerably dull and disconnected from the first half of the game. The developers either thought there was enough content to hold a gamer's interest for 10-plus hours or they just ran out of ideas on how to keep the gameplay flowing and refreshing.
The cornball script, countless sci-fi rip-offs in the storyline, and unresolved ending only served to be the final nails in the coffin. Enders got off to a wonderful start, showed flashes of innovation and potential, but at last it ends up sinking under the weight of its own monotonous gameplay. It's not enough for Enders to only resemble an anime. It would have truly benefited from being more of a game.
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