CONTENT WARNING: D2 is a mature-rated game with a narrative-heavy design. As such, everything you read below comes with a heavy warning for both adult themes and plot spoilers.
Before his untimely death in 2013, designer and musician Kenji Eno had established a reputation as a true auteur video game developer. Whether you enjoy his work or not, it should be easy to respect Eno as an individual who was once possessed of extraordinary creativity and I’m sure that fans will remember the handful of titles that he produced alongside his team at WARP as fondly as the man himself.
As to be expected with most progressive works though, professional reviews of WARP’s games were divisive to say the least 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 from more forgiving publications, 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 is considered to be a masterpiece to some and a exercise in tedium to others and for fifteen long years had I myself looked on curiously and wondered which side of the divide I would fall eventually fall on.
D2 – which was originally developed in a somewhat different form for the cancelled Panasonic M2 console – 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 national magazines of the time. At first blush you might expect this game to be a sequel to the original D, but that’s not exactly the case. Although the two games share a title, they’re entirely separate stories with similar character names and the odd visual reference providing, at best, a tenuous link between the two.
D2 begins with a lengthy opening movie that introduces the leading heroine and protagonist Laura Parton who is seen aboard a passenger flight currently crossing over the snow-covered wilderness of Northern Canada. Following a rather 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 survives the crash and after banding together with a mysterious woman named Kimberly, she discovers that the dead bodies of the passengers have come back to life as mutated monsters who have now overrun the area and begun preying on all human life that they can lay their misshapen feelers on. With only a few 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 fate of the entire world.
When read in this way, D2 may first appear to be another generic adventure title or Resident Evil clone, but stating as such could not be more inaccurate. This is a story with more symbolism and a greater number of explored themes than perhaps any game I’ve personally played since and its explicit cutscenes that showcase action of a disturbingly violent and sexual nature have arguably not been outdone either.
As a video game, D2 does indeed possess the hallmarks of a typical survival horror title, but it actually plays like something a bit more sui generis than that and stands alone from the similar games of its period. One part 3D adventure RPG and one part horror-infused interactive movie, this game knits together several different genres that result in an end product that feels indisputably original, vibrantly realized, and at times rather gripping. But then true to its roots, D2 is also a profoundly flawed experience plagued by frustratingly 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 some rather wonderful outdoor scenery, this is a visually arresting game even now and looks very sharp when viewed through the Dreamcast’s crisp VGA display mode. The realism factor is quite high throughout D2 in fact and although the bizarre plot naturally requires you to suspend your disbelief on an almost permanent basis – as Laura is seen traipsing through deep snow in nothing but her miniskirt and high heels – there are many little flourishes that you can’t help but appreciate on a stylistic level.
Character models sport detailed facial features like moving eyeballs, Laura’s cold breath can be seen whenever she steps outdoors, and a background system is in place to determine the game’s 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 historic nature of computer graphics, then the attention to detail in scenes like this will surely impress you.
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 where your character can manipulate objects and collect bonus items that may be hidden in the immediate area.
The use of FMV cutscenes in these areas are almost ubiquitous and you’ll find a recorded sequence can play 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, it’s important to note that the vast majority of FMV material in this game is strictly unskippable. Worthy of mention however is the fact that the story cutscenes can be paused; a feature that’s sadly uncommon by the usual video game standards and extremely welcome considering the very long running time of D2’s FMV in general.
Every now and then however, what you first thought to be an ordinary cutscene may throw something truly surprising at you – like the one sequence where a typical ‘open door’ animation suddenly leads you to an exposed cliff face and one potentially deadly fall! Although such moments are few and far between, they are effective in occasionally upsetting a player’s sense of security and overall the first-person mode in D2 is quite accomplished and sometimes tense as a result.
When the gameplay moves to the more scenic outdoors, a player is treated to a third-person viewpoint and control scheme reminiscent of Resident Evil albeit with full 3D environments as opposed to pre-rendered scenes. Various wild animals including hares, caribou, and snow grouse live in this picturesque wilderness and Laura has the opportunity to hunt them with the rifle that she carries in her inventory.
Equipping the hunting rifle switches the view to that of 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 that you can – I’ll choose the ones from TimeSplitters and Outrigger myself – but you still won’t be close to grasping how infuriatingly difficult it is to aim this thing.
If you do somehow manage to tag an animal with the hunting rifle though, you’ll be instantly rewarded with cooked slices of meat that each restore more health than a standard first aid spray, so the reward is at least a useful one for those who persist. The game even records your successful kills and issues you with a special medal for each animal that you bag at least 10 times; it’s an odd feature to be sure, but not necessarily an unwelcome one… for masochists at least.
The outdoor areas themselves are incredibly large so you’re given the impression that the hunting and photo-taking portions of the game were intended not just as a thematic element, but also to provide breaks in the arduous walks that you’ll be doing between 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 about outside. During these fights the viewpoint will again switch to a first-person view where a stationary Laura must defend herself with whatever firearm she currently has equipped.
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 just another one of those little touches that adds to the overall experience.
At its heart though, D2 is very much a story-driven game and the plot here is about as wonderfully twisted as you could imagine coming from the WARPed mind of Kenji Eno. I touched on this briefly at the beginning, but it has to be stressed how truly varied and bizarre the overall storyline to D2 really is. 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.
You can expect D2 to be an unpredictably screwy, but as interesting as it can be at times, it has to be said that the story woefully overreaches and this is where we’ll start moving away from what makes the game so unique and impressive and start discussing why it ultimately fails to be enjoyable.
Isolated from humanity in an icy wasteland, Laura learns early on that the infected humans are trying to pass themselves off as human and can only be identified by their green blood. Fear and suspicion of other survivors is teased, which is fine if you happen to like tributes to The Thing, but the relevance of this setup sort of disappears the further into the story you go.
Other narrative elements are better developed, but others just seem to trail off entirely. The best example of this is the subplot involving the stupidly-named drug called “Linda”. A great deal of our time is wasted on discussions about the drug and the cannibalistic rampages it sends its users on, but it also has very little bearing on anything by the end. When you’re eventually tasked with destroying the pharmaceutical plant that manufactures the drug, 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 also led to some odd dialogue that is made even worse by the game’s generally poor lip-synching. 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 source attempt to explain this decision as her simply being traumatized in the wake of the plane crash, the actual reason doesn’t even matter; the effect on gameplay is that you never get any insight into her character and nor will you hear any interesting exchanges with the people she meets.
Silent protagonists are common in video games of course, but here 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 pretty quickly.
Of course no comment about D2’s story would complete without talking about its adult-oriented content that even fifteen years on still possesses the potential to be 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 direct tentacle fellatio is run from the beginning of the story. The most graphic of depictions, however, usually come in the form of depraved boss monsters that are artistically weird and often 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. Subsequently you’ll 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 at you. The paedophilic undertones present in that latter encounter are in particularly poor taste too, but as is the case with many of the more controversial elements of the story, such risqué visuals and themes are arguably not as in-your-face as to be too schlocky.
Getting back to the gameplay, D2’s biggest problem should hardly come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the genre and that is: knowing where you have to go and what you need to do next in this game is a colossal pain. The very first objective that you’re given is to find a young girl who recently went missing from Kimberly’s cabin. You’ll venture out into the wilderness learning the controls and fighting off enemies for the first time whilst constantly looking for the trigger or clue that leads you to the little tyke’s whereabouts.
In my particular playthrough 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 wee lass to be found anywhere. This being 2015, out came an FAQ guide on my mobile phone almost immediately and what did I discover? The little girl cannot actually be found during this segment and you instead need to return to your starting location and trigger a new cutscene that issues you a totally separate objective.
Yes, after being told to “find the missing girl”, the answer was to instantly forget about the objective and go back indoors! Amid other emotions – one of them naturally being intense and visceral vexation – I felt confused. Did the developers really expect me to have a short look at the obviously empty surrounding area for a few minutes before giving up? Did they really expect me not to open my map and thus not consider visiting the numerous points of interest clearly labelled on it?
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 an abridged spoiler free guide – like I did – would be hopelessly ill-advised.
Other problems begin to manifest with regards to the story’s pacing which can be politely described as “deliberate“. The plot develops at a languorous pace during the early going with a lot of seemingly unnecessary character monologues and establishing of plot threads that ultimately don’t go anywhere. Although players have the useful ability to save their progress whenever they like (an uncommon feature for older console games), you can’t actually do this until you can bring up the appropriate menu screen.
The problem is that cutscenes in D2 often precede and bookend every major encounter you come across and it can sometimes run upwards of 30 minutes before control and saving capability is given back to the player. Apart from being long-winded, this means that it’s very easy to forget to save your data altogether. I suffered at least one instance where I was forced to backtrack through a partial disc’s worth of content because the game didn’t prompt me to save in between the break where the changeover in media previously occurred.
And if you’re unfortunate enough to have your game crash during one of these miniature films, the chances are that you’ll need to replay through a significant amount of content in much the same way before you can get back to the point where you left off. There’s no autosave feature or even so much as reminder issued by the game itself and whilst the freedom offered here is nice, the frustration it inevitably causes is not.
Later on in the game you’ll get access to a snowmobile vehicle which sharply cuts down on the amount of travelling you need to do across each area, but the controls on this thing are twitchy and it won’t be long before you’re crashing it into every snow drift, wooden post, and defenceless shrub between you and your destination.
The amount of backtracking you’ll do between Laura’s current safe haven and various mission objectives wouldn’t be quite so tedious though if it wasn’t for the rather disengaging combat she’s forced to take part in along the way. Although I expected much worse, the combat in D2 still feels a bit drab and despite WARP’s best efforts, it fails to inject the sort of thrills that the game so desperately needs.
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 attempts to highlight enemy weak points during such battles, but it’s usually a safer strategy to just ‘spray and pray’ whilst occasionally quaffing restorative items so that all of those unavoidable hits you’ll be taking don’t end up killing you.
Clearly the designers were aware of this foible which is why they chose to include the consumable grenades that essentially 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 still won’t challenge or excite players much. Winning a battle awards experience points that ultimately lead to level-ups and a higher maximum health score, but all it really does is help Laura sustain more punishment when going toe to toe with the various late game ‘bullet sponge’ baddies.
It’s a real shame because overall D2 provides a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been a much more enticing adventure.
Even though the horror factor falls disappointingly flat, the art direction and animation here is cutting edge for its time and even though the repressed soundtrack isn’t particularly memorable, there are still plenty of ominous tunes to help give the game a suitably creepy vibe.
Indeed, 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.
Of course if the game is completed after this date then the clock seems to make 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!
Well, except maybe for that giant robotic vulva, but we don’t talk about that…
Ultimately D2 is simply too long and too indulgent to be worth playing through to the end. The gameplay is too lite and too much play time is reserved for reams of FMV content and backtracking that quickly outstays its welcome. Those who appreciate the overly realistic hunting, slow pace, and easy difficulty will find a fairly well put together game in D2 though; one with a genuine movie-like quality that will keep them curious as to how the story all fits together. Director Kenji Eno clearly had grand visions of making video games that were more video than they were games though and here it is felt in a big way.
D2 is a unique experience, but then it’s not necessarily a very fun one to play through either. WARP put commendable effort into crafting this bizarre and progressive piece of work, it’s just a shame that the anaemic gameplay couldn’t match its creators’ lofty cinematic ambitions.