Reviews | Xbox 360
By Alex Kierkegaard / January 9, 2007
Zegapain is an anime show by Sunrise (the house of Gundam) which aired between April and September last year on the TV Tokyo network. For an obviously manufactured series it's rather good -- at least judging by the six or seven episodes I've watched so far. The story is competently told and the idea behind it is quite clever, and though it starts out small it quickly grabs your attention and skillfully builds up your desire to see what happens next. What also appealed to me was the stark, sparsely populated setting, as well as the great opening and ending music (by Akino Arai, who worked on Noir and Macross Plus, and newcomer Rocky Chack).
The hero of the story is Sogoru Kyo, a high school boy living in Maihama in Chiba Prefecture (just outside Tokyo), who leads a normal life of school, sports, and romance. Kyo's life is one day thrown in turmoil when he meets Misaki Shizuno, an enigmatic girl who draws him into fighting giant robots in a game-like world. Naturally, that virtual world quickly proves to be much more than just a game.
What's interesting about the show (and the manga side-story serialized in the monthly Dengeki Daioh, and the audio drama Our Last Days) from a gamer's perspective is that it seems to have been bankrolled by Microsoft in yet another attempt to get more 360s in Japanese households. So not only do viewers see the Xbox 360 prominently listed as a sponsor at the start of each episode, but the main character also plays a game called "Pain of Zega" on a suspiciously green console, and I assume that the green-purple color scheme of the Altair Zegapain (the mecha that Kyo uses) is also a result of Microsoft's involvement (call me paranoid but that's the impression that I get).
Now I couldn't tell you whether the show met with any degree of success, or if it helped sell any 360s, but what I can tell you is that Zegapain XOR, the tie-in game released to roughly coincide with the series' half-way point, is not worth bothering with. It was developed with obvious apathy by cavia, which seems to have mastered the art of making games "for money" (see Touryuumon, Win Back 2) so as to be able to fund more worthwhile projects (such as Bullet Witch). Now to some this might seem like a prudent strategy, but in the long run, for a talented group of individuals, it is terribly counterproductive. Consider that XOR was released on the same day as Bullet Witch, and it is plain that if the time and resources spent to develop the first had instead gone into the second cavia could very well have had the game of the year, and filled its coffers with enough cash to take on something even more ambitious right away (that is assuming they'd have gone for a worldwide release, because a Japan-only 360 game is still financially doomed by default, regardless of how well it does). I guess if you don't have confidence in your abilities then cavia's approach is the way to go, but just look at how companies like Valve and Blizzard have thrived, by fully committing themselves to every single one of their titles.
Now XOR fails on many levels, but what really condemns it is the shitty control scheme. cavia chose a third-person perspective to display the action, as in Hideo Kojima's Zone of the Enders (2001), but where ZOE gave you more or less full control over your mecha, in XOR your giant robot basically flies itself. You are in effect forced to use an auto-targetting system which locks you onto the nearest on-screen enemy, and then you simply press forward on the left stick to close the distance, and then either fire your guns or get even closer for a sword attack. Once your target is destroyed the lock-on system picks another one, and you rinse and repeat.
There is zero skill involved in this process; the lock-on reticle is so huge that your fire will find its target even if you are half-blind, and melee combat will only test your luck and button-mashing skill, since it is impossible to tell who is hitting whom when slugging it out at close range, because the damn screen jerks around too much and the enemies never, ever stand still, except those that always stand still.
Even worse, the way this lock-on system works makes independent flight impractical, because the camera moves in such a way as to always keep your current target in sight -- even if that target is so far that you can't actually see it. So you can only ever move towards a target, never away from one, and taking cover behind buildings, etc. is out of the question. You do have the choice to switch off auto-targetting, but this only makes things worse, because the controls in this case suck even more. Instead of using a standard dual analog setup (look with the left stick, move with the right), here you have to use two triggers for ascending and descending (as if you were controlling a helicopter for christsake!), the left stick for looking and the right stick for moving horizontally. This daft system effectively renders your mecha uncontrollable and makes even the easiest missions practically impossible, and you will doubtless quickly revert back to the auto-targetting system, which makes the fighting dull and robs the game of any fun and geniune challenge it might otherwise have offered.
This lack of proper maneuvering, as well the fact that you can't interact with anything other than the enemies (you always inexplicably stop a short distance before coming in contact with terrain features, such as hills, buildings, etc.), make XOR feel more like an on-rails shooter than anything else. And all this is in sharp contrast to the anime, which shows the mechas doing all kinds of fun stuff, such as throwing each other to crash against buildings, etc. In XOR, on the other hand, you can't even land on the ground.
But even if you somehow manage to look past the useless controls you'll still be disappointed, since level design is the game's other seriously botched aspect. In most missions all enemies are concentrated in a single area, and you just have keep swatting dozens of tiny, indistinct-looking spaceships, which simply fly around waiting to get killed, and rarely ever attack you. Eventually you encounter different enemies, and a few of them even look good (such as some kind of mechanical spheres that shoot out a dazzling beam of energy), but they are all equally dumb and offer no challenge, or otherwise, in the latter stages, make life hard for you by all attacking you at the same time.
To end this litany of wrong design choices I'll just mention that most missions are timed, and many of them involve protecting the Oceanus (your mothership) or some other friendly ship. Timed and protection missions are notoriously annoying in flight/space games (which is in essence what XOR is), and that's why good ones only have a few of them, but what does cavia know about making such a kind of game? Fighting bosses is more interesting initially, and there are some decent mecha designs, but a) they fly around so quickly that you don't actually get to see them, and b) the fights are frustrating because the controls suck (see above).
Of course I guess you could say that the action scenes in the anime are also rather boring (that's in fact the show's main weakness -- again, going by the few episodes I've watched so far), so in that respect one could even say that the game is faithful to the source material. But the problem here is that XOR has no cool story to fall back on. The most interesting part of the anime is how Kyo handles his regular life in Maihama, while his adventures in the "virtual" world are not all that exciting. But XOR takes place solely in that "virtual" world, and its story is therefore instantly forgettable. In fact the game's main character isn't even Kyo -- you control some other Gunner (read: mecha pilot) called Toga Vital, who, as Wikipedia tells me, meets Kyo for the first time in episode 22. There seems to be some minor overlap in the plot of TV show and game, as both of them start off by showing a critical battle during which the memories of both main characters get wiped, but the connection is largely a gimmick. Toga's adventures take place so far from Kyo's world that even fans of the show won't miss anything if they skip the game.
There's little point in dwelling on XOR's other aspects, but I'll just mention that there is a customization angle, which, surpise surprise, is also rather crap. You eventually get a choice of mechas and Wizards (read: co-pilots), and after every mission you earn points (depending on your performance) with which you can buy parts and abilities, but even if this aspect was carefully built (and it really isn't -- some upgrades make a noticeable difference, but most don't) it would still be undermined by the boring combat segments. Ditto for the simulation mode, where you can replay missions for practice, or the free (read: side) missions, or the obligatory online battles (assuming you can find an opponent, though most often you won't be able to, since the game has been a huge flop even by Japanese Xbox 360 standards).
Even the way the story is told is half-assed. After every mission you return to the bridge of the Oceanus, where the various characters hang out, and you have to click on every one of them so that they can deliver their one-liners, while Toga takes it all in and hardly ever says anything. And you can't even skip this part, because if you don't talk to absolutely EVERYONE you can't move on to the next mission. Apart from the opening sequence this stupid process is mostly how the story is advanced, and there are no anime cutscenes, which could have at least provided some kind of entertainment.
The graphics are the final insult. They look like slightly tarted up PS2 visuals (though that is not a very accurate description since both ZOE games look worlds better), and if you play on a large screen you'll be painfully aware of the low polygon counts and basic texure work. Only at certain moments does the game look good -- mostly when you are in motion and everything is far away, and during stages which have a lot of bloom and other such effects.
I'd say that about the only aspect of the game that's decent is the voice acting -- mostly because there are tons of it -- and I especially liked how the characters chat between themselves while you are fighting. This truly gives you a feeling as if you are involved in an anime show, but it only happens occasionally and only lasts for a few seconds. And then the in-game music destroys even those moments, because not only is it repetitive, but it sometimes doesn't even reflect what is happening -- both in terms of action and dialogue. What a total disaster this game is. cavia had better come out with something playable next, because this sort of crap isn't exactly winning them any fans.