Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner

I find Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner an odd game, as far as video game sequels go. Not for what it does; that part’s all too familiar. The game takes what its forerunner did, and adds onto it, refines it, improves it, etc. I’m more curious about what all that does to the game as a whole. Although both the story and the gameplay find themselves bigger and better than before, they do so on separate terms. This creates a weird tension between narrative and gameplay, as they find themselves unable to reconcile their own terms. So while both elements are strong on their own, they never come together to realize 2nd Runner’s full potential.

I say this, knowing how basic the story’s premise sounds. It begins with generic everyman Dingo Egret stumbling across a battlemech (named Jehuty) during one of his mining missions off of Jupiter’s moons. Soon after, though, Mars’ BAHRAM armies attack him and try to claim Jehuty for themselves, forcing Dingo into the war between BAHRAM and Earth’s Space Force. It’s a straightforward premise, but there’s a lot more thematic subtext than the surface lets on. Beneath the story about two great warring powers is a warning about mankind’s overreliance on technology, and the dangers it poses when we use it to mask our previous beliefs about the world. This should be no surprise, considering Hideo Kojima’s involvement with the game. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that the game makes its argument as forcefully as it does.

At least for me, what makes it especially strong is how intricate the argument is. Not only does it permeate almost every element of the game, but each element constantly reinforces the other. Where the cinematics impart the mechs with a divine significance, the narrative warns of what happens when we carelessly adopt those attitudes for ourselves. In Dingo’s case, he has to entrust his life to Jehuty, as he can’t leave the cockpit without dying. Likewise, where the game’s various personal narratives explore how constraining the new runner tech is for its pilots, the political narrative demonstrates how the alternative isn’t much better. Instead of using AIs or the tech that goes into space travel to improve daily life (which is well within the realm of possibility), Earth is more interested in projecting its military might and colonial history on Mars. In turn, BAHRAM now has the justification it needs to build weapons of mass destruction, all while spouting rhetoric of evolution and salvation.

This isn’t just nice to have, but absolutely necessary for Zone of the Enders 2. None of these elements could ever hope to communicate the game’s themes on their own. Not only would they lack important context, but they’d also be riddled with minor holes that the other elements patch up. Early in writing this, I wanted to pick away at the faults in the story, like the logistics of the political situation, or the cutscenes’ melodramatic presentation. But melodrama aside, I slowly realized that these weren’t such big problems for the game. None of them matter when the game’s various elements start working together, and it’s good to see the game realize that. It results in a more thorough, cohesive narrative than Zone of the Enders 2 could offer anywhere else.

That is, if we ignore the gameplay. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s poorly constructed or anything. Just that the focus isn’t conducive to the narrative’s demands. You might consider this strange in light of how much Zone of the Enders 2 borrows from its predecessors. Mechanically speaking, they’re the same game. They use the same controls, employ the same air combat mechanics (albeit in very different ways), and even give Jehuty almost all the same subweapons. So why the difference here, if Zone of the Enders 1 so strongly reconciled its mechanics and narrative?

Ignoring the fact that they’re telling two different stories, the two games also prioritize very differently. Where the first game sought to enlighten players to the ruin the wreaked on the world, 2nd Runner instead seeks mechanical refinement. It’s no secret that Zone of the Enders 1 was a mechanically flat game. The game never offered much outside rescuing cities or following the plot’s rails. I can’t say the same for 2nd Runner. In addition to the average robot fights, you’ve got escort missions, stealth missions, timed missions, Dynasty Warriors-esque grand battle missions, etc. Even the old city rescue stuff makes a brief return. This isn’t even getting into the mechanical refinements the game offers, like more clearly defined subweapons and improved sword mechanics.

If the game’s goal was to be more engaging, then my god, was it successful. All the different gameplay opportunities and refinements sucked me straight into the action and kept me challenged and engaged at all times. Yet I’m wary of treating that as an end in itself. As fun as these improvements are, they don’t fit well with the story 2nd Runner wants to tell. At best, they only distract from that story. For example, how does taking down airships with an energy cannon contribute to the game’s anti-technology themes? Or how does sneaking through a minefield factor into the game’s warnings about using new technology to confine ourselves to the past?

At worst, the refinements and mechanical  framing actively contradict previously established themes. For all the story makes of Dingo’s reliance on Jehuty, you only ever play the game from Jehuty’s perspective. And for Jehuty, technology improves its condition immensely. Allt he new weapons it gets make it far more adept at fighting other mechs than it was before. Likewise, Jehuty adapts on the fly for the game’s various missions, like creating flight paths for when it destroys a train. So while all the positive effects of technology remain in the game, the negatives fails to come across. In fact, the game has no possible way of communicating the negative, because that was never a priority. Its priority is to be an engaging game, and while I have to commend it for that, I also have to point out how that focus butts heads with the narrative.

Of course, that’s not to say that the gameplay makes no attempts to harmonize with the narrative. A lot of that harmonization comes across through overt references to older video games and what the game does with them. Throughout 2nd Runner, I was able to spot references to games like Gradius, Metal Gear Solid, River City Ransom, and obviously the previous Zone of the Enders. Yet in each of these situations, the default way I was piloting Jehuty proved inefficient. What place does a slashing mech have in a Gradius fight? Or in Metal Gear Solid? Each time I found myself failing at these parts, it was because I was drawing from years of ingrained video game strategies. If I wanted to advance, I had to abandon that logic and take actions I would have thought counterintuitive. This in mind, it appears the gameplay tries to mirror the plot on a sort of meta level. The game references make us aware of how we’re applying the past in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense, while forcing us to overcome that kind of thinking.

It’s an interesting argument, although one that I’m hesitant to embrace. Remember: these arguments assume failure (and failure for a very specific reason) are designed directly into the game. But the more I think about it, the more I want to attribute my failings to my own lack of skill. This doesn’t mean that I’m entirely dismissing the meta approach to the gameplay. If somebody else can make the argument for how it all fits, then by all means, go ahead. I’m just saying that my personal experience with the game serves as too flimsy a base for said approach to mean anything.

I guess this is all a matter of perspective. If you focus only on the gameplay, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner starts to make a lot more sense. Looking at the game holistically, though, I can’t help but see it as a divided experience. It’s ironic that the game’s efforts to improve on its predecessor leave it the less unified of the two games.

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