Mini-Review: Disaster Report

Irem (creators); Agetec (US publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Okay, look. Everything you've already read is true. The controls are stiff and unresponsive, the textures are repetitive and alias up the wazoo, it wins awards for frame rate lag, the dialogue is awful, the voice talent is awful, and I count just ten different sound effects used in the entire game.

(Crunch, rumble, bang, water gurgling, wind blowing, fire roaring, swallowing noise, female "nooo!", male "aaarghhh!", and the infinitely-repeated "huh?" sound. Oh, and footsteps. Eleven sounds.)

But this isn't a full review, so I don't have to talk about all that.

(Actually, I do want to say one thing about the graphics. The game pulls a subtle and sweet trick: rack focus. Your character, shown on the screen, is always in focus; but objects farther and closer to the notional camera are slightly blurred. Very distant objects -- the background scenery -- are very blurred. This lends a bit of realism to the game screens. Unfortunately, the blurring makes dull textures duller and the aliasing uglier, so nobody is likely to appreciate the innovation.)

Disaster Report is interesting because it discards most of the action content from the "survival horror" genre, replaces it with adventure gaming, and works just fine that way. Well, it doesn't work fine -- see above -- but the underlying design isn't the problem. I enjoyed the game; what annoyed me was the controls and the dialogue and the interface getting in the way.

"Survival horror" is the name for action games where you don't have superpowered abilities or giant robots on your side -- you have a shotgun or something, maybe a crowbar, and a tremendous tidal wave of unsavory somebodies are trying to get past your pathetic weaponry and eat your brains. Usually it's zombies -- largely because Resident Evil was the first one of these, and Resident Evil had zombies. (It can also be aliens, but they're probably zombie aliens.) There's a fair amount of exploration and puzzle-solving in between the zombies.

There's no particular reason why all these elements have to go together. It's just tradition (i.e., ripping off Resident Evil). Why not make a survival game without the shotgun? Jeez, you might as well ask why not make a platformer without the coins/hearts/stars/bolts! It's part of the definition!

Actually not, it turns out.

The premise of Disaster Report (in case you have no clue what I've been talking about for the past six paragraphs) is that you're visiting an artificial island off the coast of Japan, and an earthquake hits. Everything is collapsing. You have to survive. No shotgun; no zombies. It's all exploration, realistic environment puzzles, and getting through hazardous terrain.

Disaster Report doesn't entirely divorce itself from action gaming. There's a fair amount of jumping and climbing. Some of this is under time constraints -- aftershocks occur constantly, and things keep collapsing, often with dramatic timing. Like when you're climbing on, over, or under them. You frequently have to hurry. Later in the game, you have to dodge, crawl, and sneak around some hostile characters as well.

However, I assert that this is mostly an adventure game. Because... well, getting back to my "what is an adventure" ideas: Disaster Report keeps giving you new responses, and it keeps expanding its interface.

The scope of what you have to do changes frequently. I don't just mean "new terrain, same engine". Every action game since Doom offers a sequence of levels to explore. I mean the mode changes. New elements appear every other chapter. I'm avoiding spoilers here (like I said, the design is the good part of this game, and if I give the surprises away there's not much left). But trust me, you keep doing different stuff all through this thing.

And the interface really does get stretched in a lot of different ways. You have the usual joystick for moving, plus four buttons: inventory, use-this, hurry, and brace-yourself. "Hurry" is for running; "brace" is for riding out aftershocks without falling and getting hurt. But "brace" winds up getting used for other analogous actions, in a very natural way. Remember I mentioned sneaking past hostile characters? Hunkering down behind a pile of boxes is an instinctive, and effective, reaction.

In action games -- even the most plot-heavy ones -- the basic element of pacing is combat. That's how the designers make the game last; that's how they keep you from rushing from one cool room to another, like a ten-year-old opening Winterfair presents. You have to fight past some monsters to get to the Next Thing.

In Disaster Report you do not fight. Some of the pacing comes from difficult action sequences; but most of it comes from exploration. By this, I mean both wild-blue-yonder exploration -- walking through virgin territory, discovering what's there -- and exploration of possibilities: studying your options, figuring out how to deal with the situation.

(That includes a lot of the jumping and climbing, by the way. Dodging falling girders as you dash through a collapsing building is definitely an action element -- but much of the "action" content is a matter of figuring out what to do. Once you understand that, actually doing it takes little skill. I class that as adventure gaming, and I really think there's more of that in Disaster Report than there is action gaming.)

And if you screw up and die, you can just hit "continue" and try the scene again. As many times as you want.

The point is, the designers do not use action scenes as a barrier to keep you from rushing to the next cool room. Instead, they interpose... more cool rooms. It's all cool new rooms. The entirety of the game -- and I spent about nine hours on it, according to the game timer -- is discovering the Next Thing.

So that's why I think it's mostly an adventure game.

Plus, I gotta say, it's hellishly engaging. You have no idea how stressed I got, trying to get... off... this... damn... island! For nine hours! With everything collapsing, exploding, catching fire, and sinking into the ocean behind me!

Look: Silent Hill was stressful. It's the creepiest thing I've ever played. But, at some level, you know you're screwed in the town of Silent Hill. You're trapped in a malevolent psychosis-hell-world, and that's all there is to it. Evil wants your ass.

Plus, you can take out your frustrations on zombies. With your shotgun.

In Disaster Report, the world isn't supposed to be malevolent. Rescue is out there somewhere. You just have to get to it, and... well, I won't give anything away. You can't make the world safer; all you can do is keep trying to survive. And I did survive. Oh, man, all the crap I survived...

Yes, the game has big implementation problems. But I really want to see these ideas done right. It takes just one good game to start a genre; and Disaster Report done right could start a genre of true adventure games in the console world, in the mass gaming market. Maybe. Why not?

Game Reviews