This should be a dream come true. Jumping into the cockpit of Jehuty for the first time, dashing across the battlefield and unleashing a fury of homing lasers should be about as powerful as VR can get. And it sometimes is; Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner’s VR port does have the ability to completely lose you in its zany anime world of flying war machines and interstellar warfare. But, as the years tick on from the cult classic’s 2003 release, some of its rougher edges are harder to forgive, especially inside a headset.
To Konami’s credit, it’s stuffed all of the original game into VR and developed a thoughtful new perspective for it. The 2nd Runner’s VR support doesn’t allow you to embody just Jehuty but protagonist Dingo too, slipping you into his life-supported shell for the full Megazord treatment. Whereas the original game is in third-person (and can still be played that way without the headset), you now watch the action unfold from your future-windshield. A helpful holographic projection still shows your mech’s movements, but you’ll see all the sword swings and energy blasts up close.
In the right moments, this is as exciting as you’d imagine it to be. Slamming into the side of an enemy mech as you thrust your sword towards them then smashing them into the wall behind with the help of your Gauntlet subweapon brings Gundam-style destruction to life with enormous payoff. For the first time, you’re an armchair general that’s in the heat of the battle, directly feeding off of the satisfaction that comes with targetting hundreds of enemies with lasers and then watching them all go up in smoke.
Boss encounters are frequent, and their singular focus in turn makes them a highlight. It’s here that ZoE is at its most concentrated and thus most concise, allowing you to truly appreciate the simple thrills of locking swords with another giant mech or double-down on specific tactics rather than simply firing on all cylinders and hoping for the best. For a devoted fan, there’s enough of these instances to make it worth revisiting the game from an all-new angle.
At the same time, it’s hard to deny that something’s been lost in the transition to VR. It’s the perspective, no doubt; ZoE just wasn’t designed to be a first-person game, and that means its arsenal of attacks and enemy encounters weren’t either. Sword swipes don’t carry the same kind of weight that comes from the traditional view, for example, and Jehuty’s slender agility just can’t be communicated as effectively when you can’t see it moving in mid-air. Above all else, Zone of the Enders is about style, and much of that flair is lost when you’re watching from behind the steering wheel.
Bigger battles that pad out the space between boss fights can also be dizzying. The game’s generous lock-on system might be a necessity but it’s also one of the VR port’s greatest weaknesses, constantly spinning you round to face new threats or even just objective markers. It’s not as nauseating as you might suspect, but it certainly is irritating, as if you can’t be trusted to just follow a line and read a map or aren’t allowed to simply spend a minute or two appreciating the world around you. What’s the rush?
Still, there is structure here that you won’t find elsewhere in VR. The 2nd Runner does a great job leading you from set-piece to set-piece with immediate pacing; at one point you’ll be squaring off with an old foe in a vicious laser cage match when, before you know it, you’re off on a high-speed pursuit of a train carrying weapons. Constant additions of new subweapons, some of which do feel like they’re ideal for VR, also helps flavor the action.
Most importantly, though, the game is in desperate need of streamlining for the VR experience. It was never the case that Zone of the Enders was the most narratively gripping of producer Hideo Kojima’s games but being constantly torn away from the action to watch stilted, drawn-out dialogue unfold in 2D windows wears thin in the first five minutes and lasts the entire game. Every time I started to really settle into the cockpit the screen would fade and I’d be ripped out of the experience for another five minutes. Repetitive environments that pad out the six-hour running time are also harder to excuse than they were 15 years ago.
The Zone of the Enders universe is absolutely ripe for a VR game to call its own, but The 2nd Runner’s appreciated if inelegant support perhaps wasn’t the right way to go. There are those expected magic moments of robo-battling ecstasy, but they’re weighed down by archaic design and somewhat awkward integration. It’s way past time for Konami to stop obsessing over the preservation of this cult classic and start thinking about what a great Zone of the Enders game might look like in the years to come. That, I suspect, is where the real magic lies.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS is available now on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR for $29.99. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.