Agetec / Irem
Genre: Survival Action
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been exposed to a number of ‘disaster’ movies. The first that I remember seeing was when I was introduced to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno during some double feature on cable by my mother. It’s not a genre that I usually gravitate towards, but those films have always managed to catch my interest. There’s a certain allure- especially to this diehard horror fan- to the adversary in a piece being the environment and the set pieces rather than a tangible force or person; the unpredictability and sheer carnage of the situation can make for an entertaining experience, even if it’s rarely poignant or soul-stirring.
Disaster Report, the first of the Zettai Zetsume Toshi titles revolving around natural calamities, is a game I distinctly remember my thought process while purchasing. Looking at the back of the game, the promise of battling against your environment and trying to survive as catastrophe upon catastrophe strikes around you was a novel concept to me at the time. It still looked like an early PS2 title, though, so I was wary as I grabbed it on sale and brought it home to try my best at it.
It’s taken a few tries. Like a lot of the games in my backlog, I could remember making it a decent way through the game and then stopping for some reason but couldn’t drag out the reason. Was it an infuriating sequence in the game mechanics? Was it just because my attention had been drawn to another game I had been meaning to play? Recently, I sat down with a determination to get through Disaster Report and relive the experience to figure it out and knock another piece of my backlog Jenga stack off of the tower.
The Pacific Ocean. 2005.
Man-made Stiver Island has been thriving for some time, a bustling city of residential, commercial, and recreational success. The island was meant to be a technological advancement to help the world by creating liveable areas that could be managed and maintained for large amounts of people.
Taking up the role of recently inducted reporter for The Town Crier, Keith Helm, you find yourself waylaid on while en route to Capital City, the hub of Stiver Island and location of your new workplace. As an earthquake suddenly rocks the island and knocks Keith unconscious, he wakes up to a very different landscape. Overturned vehicles, broken roads, and buildings slanted to near toppling all greet him as he awakens, unsure of what is happening.
What he does realize, however, is that he must escape to safety as soon as he can. Making his way toward the inner workings of Capital City, he- along with a handful of survivors he runs across in his fight for survival- must reveal what is happening to the previously stable Stiver Island and escape. If they can overcome the misfortunes that have mounted around them, they may be able to reveal the reasons for these sudden disasters and, of course, stay alive.
Playing on the ‘survival’ mechanics that the plot sets up, Disaster Report has a few spins on the usual action adventure games of its kind. Movement is basic, following the standard use of directional navigation for Keith. There is no jumping per se, but if you approach a ledge that is within reach, you can press against it to climb. Just the same, by running toward a ledge or gap, Keith will leap off at the appropriate point, enabling the player to reach another ledge or jump over an obstacle if need be.
Throughout your trek around Stiver Island, there are a few gauges for you to keep an eye on. First and foremost, your health bar indicates how much damage you can physically withstand. Every so often, there will be an aftershock that you have to crouch during or a set piece that will collapse or endanger Keith’s well-being. If it hits him, his health will drop. This also occurs if he falls from a height or does anything that would normally harm an actual human being.
The other meter that you have to keep an eye on is your character’s “hydration” level. Throughout the island, Keith will come across water sources and fountains that will let him re-hydrate, filling this gauge (and doubling as the save mechanic for the game). If the meter completely depletes, Keith’s health will also start to degrade. Thankfully, Keith can keep bottles in his backpack to fill at these fountains so you can recharge his hydration between watering holes.
Inventory management becomes a bit of an adversary in its own right as you’ll run across a number of items that can help you in surviving your ordeal. The question becomes what you bring along- a flashlight may help navigate some of the darker areas due to the power outages in the city but should you replace one of your first aid kits to make room for it? How about those flares that could help someone see your position in the case that rescue arrives? As you travel, there will be many trials to overcome and means to bypass them that can be found by exploring.
The Good, The Bad, And…
By most means, Disaster Report isn’t terrible. If you enjoy the shlocky early-era Playstation games that popped up by the handful, you’ll appreciate this game for what it is. It tries something different and has enough variety to feel organic, including multiple paths and endings to take as well as a revolving door of allies who, while near useless, are not liabilities in regular gameplay. The story is fairly engaging, too, and learning more about Stiver Island and its development is compelling even if the game doesn’t dig too deeply into the lore.
Where Disaster Report actually “fails” is in the second half of the game. The camera is a bit tough to navigate under standard conditions. Unfortunately, the action-packed moments and stealth sequences that lace the latter parts of the story, while often cinematic, become near-impossible at times due to a combination of fixed camera angles and inability to easily maneuver your field of vision as the player. Given how unforgiving the conditions can be to succeed in some of these situations, it’s unforgivable when you can’t manually control what you see and wind up with a ‘game over’ as a result.
The game also takes a number of cheap shots, some of which are just kind of annoying and some of which can be lethal- and thus incredibly annoying. Admittedly, this falls more under “ugly” than “bad” since the game revolves around unpredictability and avoiding disaster. While expecting to have to run from one obstacle, Keith will find himself in an unwitting situation where he also must dodge falling objects or some other hindrances that have not been telegraphed to the player. While I only suffered a few deaths to this, I was still glad to have saved often and had to vent a little frustration every so often at the fact that I had done what I thought was smart only to wind up stuck under a wall of fallen construction supplies.
Disaster Report is serviceable to look at, and there are a few neat visual touches that show that there is some attention to detail. One that I thought was interesting was that the characters clothes show wear and tear the further along the adventure plays out (and thankfully, not in a weird fanservice-y way). The environments are interesting but retain the feel of a city with the palettes only really changing in some of the more natural environments like the city park. There are a few strange motion blur and clipping issues here and there so it may not do much to impress but it is rarely boring to look at.
Giving the game a listen has some of the same issues that are indicative of the time. The voice acting is distinctly “okay”, offering up echoes of games like Resident Evil. That aside, though, there is a stockpile of sounds effects from crashes to cracks and explosions that help enhance the environmental chaos but suffer from time to time from the same limitations that the graphics do with rare stutters here and there. For what it’s worth, though, the music that is utilized from time to time does a bit to help with some of the action sequences, feeling right at home with any other PS2 or Dreamcast soundtrack.
In the grand scheme of gaming, Disaster Report lives up to plenty of indie game standards, despite having some decent development and publishing behind it. The narrative is sound, the characters aren’t stereotypes (though they are a bit dull) and there is plenty to explore. Like plenty of natural disaster films, though, once the ‘human opposition’ element is introduced, it falls apart, leaving a lackluster third act hanging off of an already typical story.
The graphics aren’t top of the line. The gameplay has plenty of quirks. There are a good amount of instant death moments that can be mitigated with persistent saving habits. At its heart, this plays like an early Playstation 2 game and has a solid nostalgic charm. If you can deal with some inconveniences here and there, this is a unique little piece of work that will preoccupy 8 to 10 hours of your time. For its time, Disaster Report was actually a neat piece with some interesting mechanics and offered up a bit of a challenge. While only the sequel was released in the US, I’m looking forward to seeing what improvements may result from potential built up in the origins of the series here.