Platform: Sega Dreamcast
D2 is a very odd game. On one hand, Kenji Eno and WARP have masterfully grafted classic RPG game elements on to a 3D third-person survival horror adventure game. On the other hand, their creation suffers from several fundamental design flaws that prove both aggravating and tiresome.
D2 is technically the sequel to D, a pre-rendered Myst-style horror game for the 3DO, Saturn, and PSX circa 1995. D no Shokutaku (lit. “D’s Dining Table”), as it was originally titled in Japan, told the bizarre story of a young woman’s psychedelic journey through a hospital to stop her insane father. Though each game area was entirely pre-rendered and required the player to do a lot of puzzle solving, D’s compelling story and presentation were far more adult than most other pre-rendered adventures. D ended up selling over a million copies in Japan, though it was not as well received in the States.
D2 began as a haunted mansion romp for Matsushita’s ill-fated M2 console, but the entire game concept was ditched when the team switched to the Dreamcast. The new D2, which is set in Canada’s arctic tundra, was the first game officially announced for the Dreamcast console.
D2 is a 3rd-person 3D adventure/RPG. While comparisons to Shenmue are inevitable, it is important to note that D2 is not a Shenmue derivative. D2 was released in Japan on December 23, 1999, just four days before Shenmue.
Regardless, there are all kinds of superficial similarities between D2 and Shenmue. Both feature a 3rd person mode for movement, a first person mode for indoor exploration, and a separate mode for fighting. Both have excellent (and similar looking) graphics and texture work. Both games develop complex characters and rely heavily on recorded voice for speech. Both model time and weather cycles, and both games are primarily story-driven.
Unfortunately, Shenmue is a better game by several orders of magnitude. D2 tries hard to merge 3rd person action elements with RPG mechanics, but several serious design flaws ultimately keep the game from being successful.
Like every other WARP game to date, D2’s main character is a blonde woman named Laura. The game is comprised of three basic modes: the indoor exploration mode, the outdoor exploration mode, and the combat mode. The majority of the game is spent outdoors fighting monsters, while the indoor mode serves as device for puzzles and plot development.
Indoors, Laura is given a chance to speak with NPCs and explore. This mode works like the original D: the first person view can be guided to specific points in the room, but free movement is not allowed. At each waypoint, Laura can examine her surroundings and pick up objects. Dead-end waypoints become inaccessible after their usefulness has been exhausted. For example, in the first room Laura must explore there is a path leading from a bed to a small closet. Once Laura has examined the closet, retrieved all the items from it, and returned to the bed, the closet can no longer be approached. This is a nice touch, as it lets the player know when they have sufficiently ransacked an area.
Indoor environments are linked together as rooms. While moving within each room simply results in the camera floating over to the next waypoint, inter-room transitions cause a 3rd-person FMV sequence to play. In fact, FMV sequences (generated within the engine) appear for almost every indoor action Laura can take. Every time Laura opens a door, collects an item, or examines an object, a unique FMV sequence plays. While this might sound tedious (and is sure to turn off some players), the extreme use of such sequences serves to heighten the tension of the environment; several times over the course of the game, a transitional animation is interrupted by a surprising story event. The impact of such events is compounded because the player has been lulled into a sense of security by the shear abundance of FMV sequences. While the pace is slow, the indoor mode is quite well done.Once Laura steps outside, the camera switches to a standard third person over-the-shoulder point of view. Most of the game is spent in this mode, as Laura must traverse the huge levels on foot. The outdoor mode is beautiful, sporting some of the best graphics I’ve seen on the Dreamcast. Moving around is fairly easy with the D-Pad, but the analog stick control is so bad that is basically unusable.
As Laura explores the outdoor environment, she is given the opportunity to hunt local wildlife for food. Laura carries a rifle (which inexplicably cannot be used in battle) that she can use to shoot at the occasional rabbit, bird, caribou, or moose. Equipping the rifle causes the view to change to that of a first person sniper reticle. As Laura zooms in on a target, the view becomes increasingly shaky, just like every other sniper view in video game history. At the highest level of zoom, the crosshairs are so shaky that you’ll wish Laura had some of Solid Snake’s Diazepam lying around. Successfully shooting an animal will give Laura “meats,” which can be used to regain health. The main purpose of the hunting mode seems to be the collection of meat, and to break up the monotony of the time consuming traversals across D2’s landscape.
As Laura moves around outside, monsters will frequently burst out of the snow and attack her, causing the game to switch to combat mode. Combat mode looks like a first person shooter, except that Laura cannot actually move around. As enemies advance, the player must use the analog stick to point their targeting reticle at the enemy and fire. Each enemy has a weak spot, and targeting this spot will cause the monster to take more damage. If an enemy gets close enough to Laura to attack her, the view will swing wildly and become spattered with blood. When more than one enemy attacks Laura at once, buttons allowing her to swivel left or right will appear. Once all the enemies have been defeated, Laura is awarded experience points. As Laura levels up, her max hit points also increase.
Stuck in a snowy wilderness, Laura must stop a sorcerer from awakening Shadow (“The Final Destroyer”), an evil entity bent on world destruction. Throughout the course of the four-disc adventure, Laura will meet and converse with a large cast of characters.
Do not let this simple premise fool you though: this game’s story has everything. Sub-plots include drug use, the fall of the dinosaurs, cloning, cannibalism, patricide, aliens, emotional scaring, and time travel. The story goes in so many directions that it becomes a tangled mess of incidental events and unnecessary character interaction. Parts of the story are undeniably cool, but most of the time (especially towards the end), the cut scenes will simply have you scratching your head.
Even worse, many of the story elements are never resolved, nor do they directly affect the game. A good example of this is the drug use sub-plot: a particular drug called “Linda” is introduced to the player early on in the game. One of the main supporting characters is an addict, it is revealed that some of the bad guys are addicts, you visit (and ultimately destroy) the research facility where the drug is produced, and another major character turns out to be the son of the man responsible for the drug. A significant portion of the play time of the game is devoted to the drug theme, but sub-plot ends up having no bearing on the main story. With the exception of the mission that requires you to destroy the Linda plant, the entire sub-plot could be removed without affecting the game. Yet an incredible amount of time is spent developing the story behind Linda and its effects on the addicts. Odd.
The plot is further weakened by the fact that the main theme seems to have been lifted almost verbatim from the movie John Carpenter’s The Thing. Though the source of the conflict in D2 is not aliens, the basic premise is the same: trapped in the arctic, people begin to change into horrific monsters with lots of tentacles and extra appendages. The monsters often try to pass as human, and the only way to tell a real person apart from a doppelganger is by observing the color of their blood.
The final blow against the story is the character’s dialog. While not Resident Evil bad, the dialog is bland and unnatural, and the delivery is not helped by the awful lip synching. However, since this game has been translated from Japanese, I am willing to chalk up the conversations to poor localization.
A final note on the story: the content of the story is surprisingly adult. In addition to some in-game nudity, there are several weird phallic references throughout the game. One boss monster looks like a naked woman with a Little Shop of Horrors plant monster extending from her vagina. Though the inclusion such adult content is in poor taste, it is not as bad as some other less-explicit games, as the content is never presented as pornography. Nonetheless, the game was censored slightly (some cameras were moved) for its American release. Compare the Japanese and American versions of the introductory movie.
Even though the story may be all over the place, D2 has all the components necessary to make a fun game. Unfortunately, the game is marred by a few dubious design choices that severally lower the quality of the experience.
The single largest problem with D2 is lack of direction. Short term goals are almost always vague, cryptic, or nonexistent. The size of each outdoor area is huge, and an incredible amount of time is spent traveling between locations.
For example, one of your first tasks in the game is to “look around outside” for a missing young girl. The problem is that outside is huge. You can spend an hour running around to the various locations on the map, and none of them will have anything of interest or value. Nothing at all happens (besides innumerable random monster encounters) until you return to the hut where you started (without the missing girl). When you go back inside, a story event will occur and you’ll be given a new goal. The designers of the game expected you to step out side, walk around briefly, and then promptly return to the hut. However, since nothing has been done to enforce that expectation, you can waste an incredible amount of time perusing a girl who cannot be found.
Given that you always have a choice of at least three places to explore, you might think that D2 has “open ended” game play, or that story events can be viewed out of order. This is not the case, and despite the open nature of D2’s world maps, the game is excruciatingly linear.
Each of the four discs contains a different area, and all of them are fairly large. Each area has a “safe house” location that you can always return to. The major NPC characters usually hang out at the safe house, and you can restore your health there by sleeping. When the player leaves the safe house to go exploring, they are usually given three obvious destinations to explore. However, only one of these locations will ever be useful, and the player is almost always required to immediately return to the safe house for the story to progress.
Because of this “always return to the safe house between exploring locations” philosophy, an inordinate amount of time is spent traversing the same parts of the map. In order for the story to progress, a typical D2 map might require to explore in an order like this: safe house, location 1, safe house, location 2, safe house, location 1, safe house, location 2, safe house, location 3, et cetera. While keeping the story linear is fine, this degree of game play linearity is annoying to the extreme, especially when there is nothing stopping the player from wasting time exploring a location that is not yet meant to be explored.
The annoyance caused by traversing the same area approximately 2000 times is further compounded by the combat system. Of the game’s three modes, the combat mode is by far the weakest. The first-person shooter system holds up ok when there is only a single enemy, but it quickly becomes a chore when multiple monsters attack. There is no way to defend against attacks and Laura can only shoot at one monster at a time, meaning that the player is often forced to take a hit. With the exception of the “G-bomb” grenades, none of Laura’s weapons can hit multiple targets at once, so the player is forced to choose which enemy will be destroyed while the others are allowed to advance. Though pivoting controls are provided to switch between monsters, they are not always available and do not help against monsters that move. Even worse, Laura cannot pivot without said controls, so sometimes she ends up staring at the ground waiting for a pivot button to appear. Finally, the idea that shooting monsters should cause the screen to become speckled with blood sounds cool, but in practice it simply obscures the player’s view and makes combat more difficult. These flaws, combined with the fact that monster encounters are random and frequent, make the combat system one of the most aggravating parts of the game.
The hunting mode was obviously included to ease the monotony of traveling between locations, but it has its own share of problems. The most obvious issue is with the zooming sight. The game acts as if an invisible dowel extends from the gun sight into the world. When zooming in and out, the length of the dowel changes. If the dowel passes through a solid object (like a tree or the ground), the sight automatically zooms back to free the dowel from the object. This means that as you are panning around in the hunting view, your zoom level may automatically adjust itself to keep you from looking through a tree or boulder. This is annoying and absurd, and it makes tracking an animal that is a fair distance away very difficult. Furthermore, the animal AI seem to be sensitive to the touch of the invisible dowel, and will often start running only when you focus the targeting reticle on them.
Even worse, the animals have the ability to vanish into thin air. When a creature has been running for a certain amount of time, it will often just blink out of the world. The AI are also aware of their visibility from the player’s perspective, and will often use background cover as an excuse to completely vanish. If you attempt to follow an AI around a corner, for example, it will almost never be there when you arrive.
The last nail in the hunting mode’s coffin is the frequency at which different types of animals appear. Over the course of the game, I shot about 30 rabbits, 10 grouse, and one moose. I never even saw a caribou, though the manual tells me that they exist. In a mode designed to relieve boredom, the lack of variety makes the experience annoyingly bland.
In general, the execution of sound, music, art, and animation in D2 is excellent. There are very few problems in the actual implementation of the game, and (excepting the control and aforementioned design issues) the presentation is spot-on. The UI simple, original, and easy to use, the music is minimalist and haunting, the voice acting is decent, and the graphics are spectacular. As with the first D, the FMV sequences have been executed with a degree of flair lacking in most video games, though I personally found the decision to mix 3D pre-rendered graphics with live action footage to be a poor one. The character animation is a mixed bag, but overall the production quality is very high. As with any title that features recorded voice, I would have preferred an option for on-screen subtitles so that the game can be played with the sound turned down. Overall, however, D2 looks and sounds great.
Wrap Up and Final Notes
This article has turned out to be considerably longer than I had expected. Given the original concept and high quality production behind D2, I was quite disappointed to see the game blemished by significant design flaws. It is obvious that a lot of thought was put into the game, and it is too bad that the end result was not a more satisfying experience. D2 is by no means a bad game, but with a few changes it could have been an excellent game.
D2 has taught me the following lessons:
- Always give the player clear goals.
- Give the player hints about which areas require exploring and which are not yet (or no longer) meaningful. Restrict access to areas which have no value. The way D2 closes off useless passages in the indoor mode is a perfect example, while the openness of the outdoor mode horrendously violates this rule.
- Original stories are appreciated, but so are comprehensible ones. Side quests are ok, but they should have some minor bearing on the main story arc.
- Combat and other situations where the player may be killed need to have tight, responsive control. An above average player should be able to get through a difficult melee without much trouble. Never put the player in a situation where he is forced to take a hit.
- In a game about exploration, traversing the game world should not be a chore.
- Using copious amounts of transitional cut scenes can effectively lull the player into a sense of security, making them more vulnerable to surprise.
- Obstructing the players view–even for a cool ‘blood on the camera’ effect–can be annoying and detrimental to the experience. This is especially true when the view is obscured in “high stakes” situations, such as combat.
- Though the validity of random encounters in general is debatable, the player should always have some mechanism that allows them to choose their battles. Most RPGs use an “attempt to run” mechanic, which is fine.
- If monsters encounters are intended to surprise the player, it is probably a good idea to make sure that they are not preceded by five seconds of CD loading sounds.
If you have a Dreamcast and some time to spare, pick up D2 and play it through. Though the game drags at times, the overall experience is, with a few significant exceptions, good. Most importantly, the mistakes made by Warp can serve as valuable lessons to the rest of us. As the 3D exploratory RPG genre gains momentum, my hope is that developers pay attention to games like D2 and avoid making similar mistakes.