Before his death in 2013, designer and musician Kenji Eno had established a reputation as an auteur video game developer. Whether you enjoy his work or not, Eno possessed extraordinary creativity and fans remember the handful of titles he produced alongside his team at WARP as fondly as the man himself. Professional reviews of WARP’s games were divisive and popular opinion on their mainstream releases D and Enemy Zero in particular, referred to them as everything from “inspired” to “borderline unplayable.” But whereas these two titles received at least some residual praise, WARP’s final game D2 did not fare well critically or commercially.
Released exclusively for the Sega Dreamcast in late December 1999 (Japan) and then again in August 2000 (North America), D2 was originally developed in a somewhat different form for the cancelled Panasonic M2 console. The final product has remained a Dreamcast rarity to this day; a niche exclusive that never saw a wider release in Europe despite the considerable hype being generated by certain magazines of the time. Although it reads like a numbered sequel, this is a separate story with a few character names and the odd visual reference providing a tenuous link with the original D.
D2 begins with a lengthy opening movie that introduces the our heroine and protagonist Laura Parton who is seen aboard a passenger flight crossing over the snow-covered wilderness of Northern Canada. Following a shocking pre-9/11 hijacking scene, a glowing meteorite inexplicably collides with the plane and plunges it and its passengers into the deep snow amid the isolated mountains.
After being saved by a dying stranger, Laura bands together with a mysterious woman named Kimberly and finds the dead bodies of the passengers coming back to life as mutated monsters. With only frail alliances and her own martial skills to rely upon, Laura braves the harsh environment in search of answers not only to the cause of the crash, but also her fading memory and an awakened force that now threatens the entire world.
D2 is a story that explores many themes and its explicit cutscenes that showcase action of a disturbingly violent and sexual nature have arguably not been outdone either. D2 does possess the hallmarks of a typical survival horror title, but it feels more sui generis; standing apart from similar games of its period. One part 3D adventure RPG and one part horror-infused interactive movie, this game knits together several different genres and it’s at times vibrantly realized and gripping. So too is it a flawed experience plagued by short-sighted design and narrative decisions that ultimately prove to be its undoing.
D2 is beautifully presented and features graphics that looked incredibly realistic for 1999. From the expressive character models, detailed texturing, and wonderful outdoor scenery, this is an arresting game even now and it looks very sharp when viewed through the Dreamcast’s crisp VGA display mode. The realism factor is high, although the bizarre plot requires players to suspend disbelief on an almost permanent basis — as Laura is seen traipsing through deep snow in her miniskirt and high heels.
Character models have detailed facial features, Laura’s cold breath can be seen whenever she steps outdoors, and there’s a dynamic weather cycle. A couple of scenes present NPCs who take drugs and you can see them putting pills into their mouth which have each been individually modelled. If you have an appreciation for the history of computer graphics, the attention to detail in scenes like this are very impressive for their time.
In terms of gameplay, D2 features three primary modes of interaction. When indoors players are presented with a first-person view for light puzzle solving, NPC conversations, and exploration. Laura can manipulate objects and collect bonus items that may be hidden in the immediate area. The use of FMV cutscenes are almost ubiquitous here and players will see a recorded sequence for almost any action that Laura takes, whether it’s opening a door, picking up an item or pressing numbers on a keypad. Whilst some of the more humdrum actions in this sense can be freely skipped, the vast majority of FMV material can’t be. However, story cutscenes can be paused; a feature that’s sadly uncommon and extremely welcome considering the very long running time of the video in general.
However, every now and then what first looks like an ordinary cutscene may do something truly surprising — like the one sequence where a typical ‘open door’ animation suddenly leads Laura to an exposed cliff face. Although such moments are few and far between, they upset a player’s sense of security. Overall the first-person mode in D2 is quite accomplished and sometimes tense as a result.
When the gameplay moves to the scenic outdoors, a third-person viewpoint and control scheme reminiscent of Resident Evil (with full 3D environments) takes over. Wild animals including hares, caribou, and snow grouse live in this picturesque wilderness and Laura can hunt them with her rifle.
Equipping the hunting rifle reveals a first-person crosshair and as the player increases their zoom on the target, the camera becomes visibly shaky and harder to control. Imagine the very worst sniper rifles from video game history and you still won’t be close to grasping how infuriatingly difficult it is to aim this thing. If players do somehow manage to shoot an animal, they’ll be rewarded with cooked slices of meat that can restore a lot of health. The game even records successful kills and issues players with a special medal for each animal players shoot at least ten times.
The outdoor areas are incredibly large which gives the impression the hunting and photo-taking portions of the game were intended not just as a thematic element, but also to provide breaks in between the arduous walks needed to access the various key locations.
Combat is a feature with much the same intent, as players are subject to random encounters with enemy monsters as they travel outside. During these fights the viewpoint will again switch to a first-person view where a stationary Laura must defend herself with firearms.
A nice element to the combat is – once again – found in the presentation as the exact area you’re standing in is where the fight will take place when it begins. Aside from the tension-killing sound of the Dreamcast GD-ROM loudly spinning up before each battle, this seamless integration that forgoes loading screens and generic scenery as a backdrop is another one of those little touches that adds to the overall experience.
At its heart though, D2 is a story-driven game and the plot is about as wonderfully twisted as you could imagine coming from the WARPed mind of Kenji Eno. Along with the aforementioned themes of drug abuse, there are plot elements concerning everything from environmentalism and genetic engineering to time travel and that old WARP favourite: cannibalism. D2 is unpredictably screwy, but as interesting as it can be at times, the story woefully overreaches.
Isolated from humanity in an icy wasteland, Laura learns early on that the infected mutants from the plane are trying to pass themselves off as human and they can only be identified by their green blood. Fear and suspicion of other survivors is teased, but the relevance of this setup disappears later into the story.
Other narrative elements are better developed, with others just trailing off entirely. The best example of this is the subplot involving the stupidly-named drug called “Linda”. A great deal of time is wasted on the drug and the cannibalistic rampages it sends its users on and it has very little bearing on anything by the end. When you’re eventually tasked with destroying the pharmaceutical plant that manufactures Linda, it feels like more of a side quest than it does an integrated part of the plot.
The translation that the game has undergone from its native Japanese language has resulted in some odd dialogue that is made even worse by poor lip-syncing. The majority of scenes feel fairly natural all things considered, but matters are not helped much by the decision to make Laura a (mostly) mute protagonist.
As the Silent Bob of the video game world, Laura is a character of very few words and she only speaks in extremely rare and dramatic circumstances. Whilst I’ve seen at least one explanation suggesting she was traumatized after the plane crash, the actual reason doesn’t even matter; the effect on gameplay is that players never get any insight into her character and nor will they hear any interesting exchanges with people she meets. It feels like a missed opportunity to add depth. Laura still ends up being a strong and likeable heroine overall, but hearing her exclaim nothing except for the odd gasp or inquisitive squeak gets old quickly.
D2’s story also features adult-oriented content that’s still rather grotesque. Standard enemies sport plenty of pulsating veins and tentacles, so the phallic connotations will not be hard to miss; especially when an infamous cutscene involving tentacle fellatio appears near the beginning of the story. The most graphic depictions come from the depraved boss monsters that are artistically weird and exploitative in equal measure.
An otherwise superbly creepy battle against a reanimated flight attendant, complete with funny quotes and a brief glimpse of undead cleavage, sets the tone for what is to come. Players witness a fully nude humanoid doppelgänger, an unmistakable weak point reminiscent of a female vulva, and a peculiar infected old man with a gigantic pelvic tentacle that spews a semen-like substance when it attacks. The paedophilic undertones present in that latter encounter are in particularly poor taste.
D2’s biggest pain is players not knowing where to go and what they need to do next. The very first objective asks Laura to find a young girl who went missing from Kimberly’s cabin. My Laura travelled from the mysterious stone hut and plane crash site all the way to an abandoned mining facility and back again, but there was no little girl anywhere. This being 2015, out came an FAQ guide on my mobile phone almost immediately and what did I discover? The little girl can’t be found during this segment and I instead needed to return to the starting location to trigger a new cutscene that issues a totally separate objective.
So after being told to find the missing girl, the answer was to instantly turn around and go back inside the cabin Laura had just left. Sadly this disappointing lack of short term direction and general good sense persists throughout the game and going up against it without the aid of a spoiler free guide – like I did – would be hopelessly ill-advised.
The plot develops at a languorous pace during the early going with unnecessary character monologues and plot threads that ultimately don’t go anywhere. Although players have the useful ability to save their progress whenever they like, it can’t be done outside of the appropriate menu screen. Cutscenes in D2 often precede and bookend every major encounter and it can sometimes run upwards of 30 minutes before control is given back to the player. Apart from being long-winded, this makes it very easy to forget the save button. I was forced to backtrack through a partial disc’s worth of content because the game didn’t prompt me to save when moving to the next disc. And if the game crashes during one of these miniature films, the result is the same.
Later on Laura gets a snowmobile which cuts down on the amount of travelling, but the controls on this thing are twitchy. The amount of backtracking done between Laura’s current safe haven and various mission objectives wouldn’t be quite so tedious if it wasn’t for the boring combat. Although I expected much worse, the combat in D2 is drab and despite WARP’s best efforts, it fails to inject the thrills that the game needed.
From her first-person perspective, Laura can encounter up to three foes at one time, but none of her standard weapons are designed to suppress so many enemies at once. An erratic and generally unhelpful targeting box highlights enemy weak points during these battles, but it’s usually safer to spray and pray whilst occasionally quaffing restorative items to counter the unavoidable hits from enemies.
Thankfully the designers chose to include consumable grenades that act as a localized smart bomb to bring most regular fights to an abrupt end. Boss enemies have specific attack patterns and more obvious vulnerabilities, which is good, but the straightforward tactics needed to defeat them are less so. Winning a battle awards experience points that lead to level-ups and a higher maximum health score. It’s fairly bland stuff.
Even though the horror factor falls flat, the art direction and animation is cutting edge for its time and even though the repressed soundtrack isn’t particularly memorable, there are plenty of ominous tunes that give a suitably creepy vibe.
Another unsettling twist occurs just after the end credits where a foreboding real time clock (tied to the console’s internal settings) appears to display the time left till December 31, 1999 with the intention of revealing a secret message that reads “Welcome to the 21st Century!” as midnight passes on the following New Year’s Day.
If the game is completed after this date then the clock makes little sense as it simply shows the console’s present time and date against a uniformly black background. I may be in a minority here, but having the real life time and date shown to me at the end for no adequately-explored reason somehow freaked me out more than anything that took place during the actual game itself, robotic vulva included!
Ultimately D2 is too long and too indulgent to be worth playing through to the end. The gameplay is too slight and too much time is reserved for reams of video content and tedious backtracking. Director Kenji Eno clearly had grand visions of making video games that were more video than they were games and it’s felt here in a big way.
D2 is a unique experience, if not necessarily a fun one. WARP put commendable effort into crafting this bizarre adventure, it’s just a shame that the anaemic gameplay couldn’t match their lofty cinematic ambitions.