SOS: Final Escape PS2 Review

Another part of the glorious “Winter 03 Sale” special, SOS: The Final Escape is another one of those much over-looked little moments of gaming that has found itself relegated to the sale bins of various game retailers. Forget the survival horror – meet the natural-disaster-survival-horror.

Graphics

Lets get off to a bad start – this game is really nothing special to look at. In fact, sometimes its just downright ugly; the sprites move awkwardly and unconvincingly, there are jaggies and unrealistic movements of objects abound, and sadly not even the FMV can save this aspect of the game. Having said that, though, Tecmo have done a nice job of recreating a devastated city, and of designing obstacles so that they lead you carefully in the right direction without being too glaringly obvious. There is some nice attention to detail in the environments, particularly the interiors of some of the buildings…oh, and the hero has been given a nice blonde do for the Western audience. Hurrah!

Another nice feature is that your character’s clothes will become more ragged as the adventure continues; by the end your companion’s skirt, which was a respectable knee-length at the start of the game, is now at mini-skirt level and your jeans have been reduced to ragged shorts. These neat touches really add value to a game that otherwise feels somewhat unspectacular in places.

Gameplay

You are Keith Helm, a young man on his way to a job in Capital City; a sprawling metropolis located on a man-made island in the ocean. On the coach across the bridge from the mainland, a huge tremor hits the area, leaving you stranded some distance from the shore on the crumbling bridge. As you navigate your way across the wreck, and through the devastated city to the designated evacuation point (gathering other survivors along the way), you realise that these earthquakes are far from being natural occurrences, and that someone wants the city sunk at any cost…

While the latter part of this story seems a bit weak, the whole concept of trying to escape the town before the earthquakes and flooding kills you and your team is wonderfully captured; instead of playing some highly-trained agent, as in Resident Evil, or someone with remarkable psychic powers ala Project Zero, you are just a regular Joe trying to stay alive in a battle against the forces of nature. As you run down a seemingly empty street, a quake may hit and knock you to your feet; a building may then collapse straight across your path, meaning that you are either crushed or have to find another way around the rubble. Its great stuff, made all the more suspenseful for the fact that you have no idea when the next tremor will hit. There are some great set-pieces, particularly on the bridge section of the game, in which sections of the floor are timed to fall away as you reach a certain point in your progress; hanging above the void while the floor of a building falls away into the sea is exhilarating, and a nice change from the usual thrills and spills of survival horror.

There are no weapons in this game; your guy is just a city worker, not a superhero. You have to use your wits – and occasionally, team up with the other survivors – in order to get out of the town alive. Your friends can be of great help to you; if a massive quake hits, setting the screen shaking madly, watching the actions of your team-mate will often prevent you from being crushed. If you see them running away, follow them: if you see them stopping and seeking cover, do the same. Your buddies won’t willingly run into danger. Health can be found in the form of water, which can be collected in various bottles and canteens that you find amidst the rubble; these can be filled at taps on your journey. This is just as well; climbing, falling, even walking around all deplete your health, so its wise to keep a plentiful supply at all times in your backpack. Naturally, exerting yourself more heavily by doing actions like climbing and moving heavy objects will severely lower your health level. However, this is not to say that there is no action; as well as running for your life to try and avoid death from being crushed/drowned/burnt, there are also some sections that see you trying to outwit the special agents sent in to finish off the meddling survivors; these revolve largely around stealth ala Metal Gear Solid, and are surprisingly competent attempts on the genre. Plus, the environments (sneaking around a decrepit shopping centre, anyone?) are a nice turn away from the futuristic environments of MGS.

An interesting feature in this game is that you can pick up new items of attire that can be put onto your character, either for protective or just comical effect; while heavy-duty gloves can be reasoned as an acceptable garment, a false glasses/nose/moustache combo seems a little more bizarre. There are plenty of strange elements like this to the game which really do break up the atmosphere and offer some light relief to the tension of the game. For example, at one point you have to design a raft from debris to float down a fast moving floodway; you can decorate it with paint if you want into a variety of designs. Similarly, at one point you are given the option, should you wish to take it, of peeping through the window of one of your team-mates houses as they get changed. While never very explicit, this cheeky humour detracts from the seriousness of gameplay – whether or not you see it as a fault is up to the individual. Personally, having the female skirt-wearing character ask shyly if I will go ahead of her crawling through a tunnel because she has no underwear on is a slightly bamboozling thing to find in a game that deals with suspense like this.

Finally, one thing I really liked; Keith can vault over low walls and railings. Yes, fair readers, you hear me correctly. No more must we suffer the hardened ruffians of Resident Evil, or the study heroes of Silent Hill refusing to clamber over a box that’s blocking the path, or over a knee-high fence that’s preventing access. Young Keith will nimbly hop over any moderately-sized railing that gets in his path. Hallelujah!

So the flaws…the most notable is the slowdown. Or the sloooooooooowdown. There is really a hideous amount of this in the game, with some sections slowing to a crawl so that your character seems to drift along in super-slow-motion. This really does become a nightmare, particularly when coupled with the gameplays requirements for you to move quickly to get out of the way of falling buildings; when the whole screen is shaking, it gets a bit difficult to make out where you’re meant to go, and to get there. The slowness of pace carries across to the cutscenes and talkie-sections; these cannot be skipped, or sped up.

Secondly, the game really does try too hard to be a master of all trades; it has the survival horror element, the MGS sneak-em-up element, and even some first person sections that see you crawling under smoke in a burning building, or through gaps in fencing. Some of these feel a little shallow at times, and although everything meshes together relatively well, it doesn’t feel like a well-polished piece of gaming.

Finally, some sections of the game feel vague and unclear, sometimes hampered by quasi-lateral puzzles that seem to be a staple of the genre. While these are thankfully few and far between (and never as obscure as some of Resident Evils puzzles), they can break up the gameplay a little and become frustrating.

Sound

There isn’t a lot of music to speak of; occasionally during a sequence of events some tense music will play to heighten suspense, but for the large part the background noise is made up of wind blowing and ominous creaking of structures that may collapse at any minute. This is most effective on the suspension bridge, where a slow, erratic groan of the support struts has you constantly on the edge of your seat. On the whole, this lack of noise is wonderful, as it keeps you in the role of Keith perfectly; there are no sounds that you wouldn’t encounter in reality, and this makes the experience all the more memorable.

The voiceovers are where this game really loses points. They are terribly poor for the most part, sounding unnatural and flat with excessively long pauses between lines of dialogue. Imagine the worst anime-dub you have ever heard and you probably wouldn’t be far off. Luckily, there is not too much spoken dialogue; most of it takes the form of text boxes.

Lifespan

Not the worlds longest game, although some sections may take some puzzling through to figure out. You may find that you have to die a couple of times before you figure out how to approach a certain puzzle, which may extend gameplay a little at the risk of breeding frustration. There are some sections of the game where you will have to make a choice as to how you will approach a situation; these may offer some interesting variation on the replay. You also get a photo album on the main menu; doing different things on the replay will earn you new photos to complete your collection.

Overall

Very few people would have heard of this game, which is really a great pity as its virtually unique amongst survival horror games. While it wont take you an age to complete, and the replay value is nothing spectacular, it really does have a compelling story and the addition of NPCs that you really do start to care about in your fight for survival does make a welcome change. The fact that you always have something direct to work towards – getting to the evacuation point – and the fact that you see other people escaping safely really adds a humanistic value to the game that you just don’t find in the isolated, highly individualised characters of other survival horrors. Well worth it just for the difference in experience, and something that we should just be grateful has made it to our shores; I was glad to have picked it up at full price, so getting it for a snip should make any gamers day. If you have any interest in this genre, then this really is for you.

7 out of 10
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