Zero impressions

[12.18.01] » Looking for more on Tecmo's new horror adventure? The GIA has Zero help for you with Zero impessions and screenshots.

    Though Tecmo's Deception series has managed to stay interesting through three installments - largely through its unique atmosphere and clever mechanics - the trap-based gameplay is beginning to show its age. So when the company announced that the Deception team would be crafting an entirely new game, codenamed Project 0, for its first effort on the PlayStation 2, the GIA was curious to see what they could to when freed from the restraints of the franchise.

   The result, now simply titled Zero, is an odd mix of traditional horror gameplay, strongly Eastern aesthetics, and, oddly enough, photography. Zero has just been released in Japan and the GIA had the chance to spend a few hours with the import. Early impressions are of a stylish, unique, and genuinely creepy game that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but is certainly an interesting brew. Be sure to check out the accompanying screenshots for a look at the game in action.

    One of the most striking things about the game is something that it isn't. Unlike almost every Japanese-developed horror adventure, Zero actually takes place in Japan. The entire game transpires in an around a rural manor house with traditional Japanese architecture, decorations, and fusuma paper doors. Long abandoned, the house has a mysterious and gruesome history that draws a famous horror writer and his encourage there to use it as a basis of a new novel. The writer, his editor, and his assistant disappear soon after traveling there. The game begins in a flashback, complete with black and white coloring, as one of the writers' students comes to the manor to try to find out what happened. Though you're only given a few vague hints at this point, whatever took place there was grisly and unnatural. The young man finds his mentor's notebook and is treated to a sort of psychic transmission of the three missing persons being chased through the mansion by horrifying spirits. After fending off one ghost, the student, it seems, suffers a similar fate.

    The real game begins when Miku, the younger sister of the student, comes to the manor a short time after then looking for him, armed with only a flashlight. Luckily, she soon finds her brother's camera, and this is where Zero begins to get interesting. The game takes the old superstition about photographs capturing the soul literally, and Miku must defeat the manor's ghosts by taking their pictures.

    The gameplay for this functions like a cross between Pokémon Snap and a first person shooter. When you switch to the camera view, the left analog stick moves the viewfinder around, while the right stick can be used to move. How much damage you do to the attacking spirit is largely dependant on the "composition" of your photograph. Keeping the ghost centered in the frame builds up a damage meter, and the angle and distance of the final photograph determines the amount of damage you do.

   The player is given "Spirit Points" based on the quality of the picture, and these can then be used to upgrade the camera in various ways. So far, we've only been able to increase the central viewfinder, but more interesting "EX Abilities" can be purchased later for more interesting effects, such as slow motion or night vision.

    The combat is enjoyable and quick-paced, if somewhat limited, but early impressions seem to indicate Zero's emphasis is more on atmosphere and story than endless battles. More importantly, camera is used in interesting ways elsewhere in the game. While Miku explores the mansion, she's constantly assaulted by fleeting apparitions and strange visions. Quick players can capture these on film for extra Spirit Points. Some of these photo opportunities are scripted, but some can't be seen by the naked eye at all and must be found by listening carefully or waiting for a telltale vibration from the controller. The number of photos you can have at one time is constrained by the type of film you're using, but players can save particularly impressive shots in a separate photo album to admire later.

   Photography is also central to Zero's puzzles, many of which are a sort of photographic twist to the standard "find the right key" gameplay. Occasionally, you'll come across a door with paper seal. Photographing the door will cause a picture of another location in the manor to be displayed. The seal on the door can only be broken if you can recreate the displayed picture with your camera. So far these have been relatively simple - hopefully, they won't be used as an excuse for unnecessary backtracking. More traditional puzzles also exist in the game, and the camera can often be used to provide a hint by photographing the puzzle.

    Overall, Zero's gameplay is interesting, but the main attraction is the genuinely frightening atmosphere and creepy storyline. As Miku moves through the dilapidated manor, the horrific events of the manor's past are recounted though messages left by the writer's team or the past inhabitants or, more often, by their dead and wandering spirits. So far, these brief encounters with the dead have been chilling and expertly directed -- many of them simply play out in the background while you're exploring. The frequency and variety of these scripted events gives the feeling that it really is haunted, rather than populated by the standard videogame band of roving monsters.

   Zero's graphics will most likely draw many comparisons to Silent Hill 2, mostly for it's heavy use of light and shadow. The manor has little interior lighting and Miku must find her was with only a flashlight. Though the lighting engine doesn't seem quite as realistic as Konami's game, it's certainly nothing to complain about. The graphics themselves, however, often seem uneven. The characters and ghosts are extremely well modeled and sharp, but the environments are occasionally blocky and employ muddy, low-quality textures. The game also uses Silent Hill 2's "grain filter" to a good effect. Whenever a spirit appears, the screen will briefly take on the appearance of old, worn film -- a stylistic motif that ties neatly with the rest of game.

   This attention to detail extends to the clever, but unobtrusive camera work. Unlike most fully 3D adventure games, which still follow the Resident Evil model of more or less static camera angles, Zero's camera is much more dynamic. The view isn't player-controlled, but it does constantly change in subtle and often disconcerting ways to heighten the tension. You may see one angle when leaving a room and a much different one when later reentering it, and when Miku stumbles across one of the many ghosts wandering the manor, the camera will usually cut briefly to a new and jarring angle.

   Thankfully, the camera doesn't get in the way of the controls, which are a good compromise between the standard Resident Evil scheme and "camera-relative" controls like Devil May Cry or Silent Hill 2's 3D mode. Basically, the analog stick always moves Miku in the direction you press it, but the X Button always causes her to run in the direction she's facing. The end result his that you only use the analog stick to "steer," which avoids a sudden turn around when the camera angle changes. Moreover, due to the first person nature of the combat, the "artsy" angles never get in the way of the gameplay. All isn't well in the control department, however. Miku seems to control strangely when near a wall and, often, the direction you press on the stick doesn't seem to map exactly to the direction you move.

    With only a few hours of play, it's hard to tell whether Zero's photography mechanics can carry an entire game, but the developers certainly seem to be extending the basic idea as far as they can. At the very least, Zero should find a ready audience among those who have grown tired of the standard fare in the horror genre. Tecmo has yet to comment officially on the chances of the game arriving here, but the latest issue of the Official PlayStation Magazine puts Zero at a Spring 2002 release. With the company having few games for the coming year in America, it certainly seems likely.

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