SEGA Horror Fest review: Enemy Zero
While far from a perfect, Enemy Zero still holds a trophy for being possibly one of the scariest games I've played. It's just a shame that it has aged badly in quite a few areas, but it is a unique experience that's worth your time and money. Just be prepared for some terrible dialogue and rubbish plot twists.
Continuing this year’s Horror Fest on SEGA Nerds, I have opted to review what I still consider to be the scariest video game of all time – but one that is often horribly overlooked: Enemy Zero for the SEGA Saturn. I’ve played the beginning over and over and either die (I’ll get to the dying in a bit) or I get too scared and stop playing. So far, the only other game I’ve enjoyed but been too scared to play is Alien: Isolation. Even the Condemned games (which seriously freaked me out at times), I was able to play through … eventually.
Before Alien: Isolation there was Enemy Zero … but before that, there was Alien
To set the scene, Enemy Zero is set on a huge space ship, the Aki, on a return journey to Earth from a mission to find and secure an alien species – which is going to be used by a corporation as a weapon. On the journey something goes wrong and the aliens (there’s more than one) escape and you and your colleagues are woken up from cryo-sleep. And that’s basically all the story you know from watching the Alien franchise… no sorry I mean from watching the opening cutscene to Enemy Zero. It’s pretty evident that the game borrows ideas heavily from the Alien movies: waking up from cryosleep; motion tracker; surprise androids; a clueless, scared female protagonist and the alien wanted as a weapon by corporation.
But this isn’t Alien
However there are some twists, which I believe lay the grounds for Enemy Zero being the scariest game I’ve played – for starters the motion tracker is audio only (so you can’t see which direction the aliens are approaching from), the only weapon you have has a range of about 3 feet and you need to charge up each shot just right before firing to kill the aliens (too short and it won’t work – too long and it overcharges). But to cap that all off – the aliens are invisible. So just to round that up: you can’t see the aliens at all, you just hear the beeps of your tracker and the growls of the aliens, and when they do come to attack you – you have a weapon that needs to timed correctly and only has an effective range of an arm’s reach. You’re not defenceless, but it’s not easy to kill or even aim at the alien! One of the earliest frightful experiences in the game, is when you enter a maze-like basement area. After stepping into the room, you are soon surrounded by beeps of the motion tracker and alien growls and screams. The first time this happened, I promptly died and had to go have a sit down away from my Saturn. It was my first experience with the alien and I did not enjoy it… but, at the same time, I did.
Fear of the dark
Enemy Zero throws you into the action of the game after a reasonably brief FMV cutscene at the start of the game, setting the atmosphere and basic storyline up. You take on the role of Laura (the same ‘digital actress’ WARP used in D and D2) who wakes up from cryosleep with amnesia, not knowing what’s really going on, or what to do – and brilliantly, the game gives you absolutely no hand-holding, so you really do need to work out the controls and also what some random items do. Enemy Zero is also quite a unique gaming experience, because it combines FMV-style gameplay that you find in games like Myst and Riven, with that of a more standard FPS game. So the exploratory sections, where you solve puzzles and find clues of what is happening on the space station are done in the relative safety of the FMV-style scenes. If you don’t know what I’m talking about (because this method of gameplay hasn’t really been done since like 1996), you essentially have high-resolution (for its time) scenes that you can move around in, but on fixed paths and all animations and actions are basic and set movements that occur at specific button presses. The action sections happen between these rooms in the corridors of the space ship. You are in a proper 3D environment, where you have free reign to run and walk around in any direction.
Retro (fools) gold
To say that Enemy Zero hasn’t aged very well would be a bit of an understatement. As I mentioned, the FMV-style scenes are such an old method of gameplay that it feels like a really bizarre, slow and a clunky way of playing a game. You feel restricted and your movement are so damn slow, that everything takes an age to do. The 3D environments feel more normal, but the Saturn’s limitations really make the game feel lacklustre at times. Yes, I still think it’s scary, however the corridors look samey and early on I managed to get turned around and didn’t realise which way I was going, until I returned to Laura’s bedroom. Also the scripting in the game is atrocious. I don’t know if it’s just bad translation from the Japanese original, but everything is spelled out in such a bad way that I felt like I was playing some form of twisted pre-school game. And the acting… wow! If you thought that the original (Saturn, PS1) Resident Evil’s awkward on-screen cast was bad, then you haven’t seen anything. To make the story-driven experience even worse, the game throws plot twists out like a dodgy uncle hands out sweets to kids at a playground, to the point that none of them feel like twists or surprises. Your fellow ship mates die off pretty much as soon as you meet them, giving you absolutely no chance to bond or have any emotional connection to them. One character is supposed to be your lover… I think – that plot point is mentioned briefly in about two sentences when you first meet and then he’s dead by the next scene. And there’s another twist you discover soon after that makes me question the whole ‘lover’ situation, but I don’t want to ruin that for anyone – you’ll just have to let the game do that for you.
You can’t make fools gold, without the word ‘gold’
But while the visuals and acting haven’t held up to the test of time, the overall principal of the game and, more importantly, the essence of fear are still prominent. And for that reason, I still think that Enemy Zero is a great horror game. While I didn’t give a toss about any other character you interact with, I did about Laura. So when you walk down a corridor or a tight air vent and suddenly hear the familiar beeps and growls to signal that an alien is nearby, I instantly started to crap myself. Because Laura was going to die. The puzzles in the game are often basic, but nothing is clearly defined for you, and the use of visual indicators are just enough to allow common-sense to help you through these moments. And I like this, there’s no need for hand-holding or requiring a degree in game logic when puzzle-solving. Having an enemy you can’t see really adds an element of fear and uncertainty to the game. You don’t know where they are or how close they are to you and panic really starts to set in.
Another thing that brings the fear out is how difficult the game makes things for you. One of the key elements is that you have a limited number of saves AND loads – meaning that you have a limited number of lives to get you through the game, no matter how often you save. Let me explain: at the start of the game you pick up a recorder device, onto which you record (i.e save) your voice. The recorder has a limited battery life and each time you save, this decreases. However, the battery life is also affected when you load your game and there is no way to recharge the batteries. So by saving often, you drain battery life and by dying and loading, you also drain battery life. So you have to be extra careful when saving – and if you die too often, well tough luck – you’re going to have to restart the game again, so be careful!
Unfortunately Enemy Zero hasn’t held up over the years as much as I would have liked. Back in the day it was a visual treat and fun bit of gameplay. Now however those visuals are lacklustre and the gameplay feels wooden and slow at times. And the acting/script is almost shameful now. But what it does right is instilling fear into the gamer. The use of invisible enemies is different and scary enough to make you think twice about entering areas of the ship. Perhaps the limited saves feels a bit cheap, but it really makes you think twice about if you should save your progress or not and that makes you even more wary when an enemy is about, because this is not Bioshock – where you can respawn around the corner as often as you like; when you run out of battery in your recorder, you will die. If you want a different sort of horror game, then Enemy Zero is a perfect choice, even if it isn’t a perfect game. Pros: + Invisible enemies are scary + Limited saves/loads add to feeling on vulnerability + Alien growls and screams still freak me out + Puzzles are refreshingly simple and sensible Cons: – FMV-style areas are slow and clunky – OMG the funking acting! – Terrible use of plot ‘twists’ –