Over the past few days I’ve been replaying my way through Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3, the PSP exclusive sequel to Irem‘s great but questionably localised (and now sadly expensive) Raw Danger. It’s a playable disaster adventure shot through with an unexpected dose of chilling realism, the game’s opening transitioning from a conspicuously ordinary bus ride into the city as other passengers chat about the retail therapy session they’re about to undertake and swap dark rumours about a plot-relevant company to your chosen character (male and female options are available, renamable but not physically customisable) waking up hours later at the back of the same bus and made to crawl along the floor in first-person past the dead bodies of the other passengers, past rows of unmoving hands and a child’s teddy bear. From there you’re taken through all sorts of pulse-pounding (and stress raising, as per the game’s new central mechanic) scenarios over the course of several in-game days, always working towards one of five endings (per character) that depending on a deliberately hazy and largely unmeasurable set of conditions and decisions you might not even survive.
Central to the series’ identity is a sense of respectful balance: The game never shies away from showing the human consequences of extreme natural disasters – how unfair and sudden it all is, how much of a role pure luck plays when the damage is at this scale – but it never allows itself or you to wallow in the misery it could have so easily mined from the setting. There’s a positive, can-do attitude perpetually bubbling away beneath the surface, the belief that if you can just stay safe, keep going, and help out anyone you meet along the way then you’ll all get through this. There’s also a knowingly silly, “game-y” side to it too, found in the amusingly absurd compasses you can find along the way (you always have a plain compass on-screen to help you get your bearings – these are purely for fun) as well as the astounding quantity of outfits (more than some games make you pay extra for) you can collect, encompassing everything from fashionable ensembles to a full set of armour and flowing dresses, and all of them capable of being further accessorised with whatever shoes, gloves, hats, glasses, and so much more you find along the way. Both sides of this oddball coin coexist with surprising ease, the joy you feel when you stumble upon a compass shaped like a ballerina or a nice pair of boots as real as the dangers you face and the corpses you sometimes find.
And just like always I had a lot of fun playing the game, but what struck me this time around was how linear it all is. The backdrop for this adventure may be an entire city-island on the brink of collapse but every PSP-sized portion of the map is a neatly ordered fragment of a tightly controlled experience, you approaching every location from one specific point and coming out of it the predefined other. Every shop you’re not supposed to go in is either closed, locked, or its entrance has been thoroughly destroyed. Vehicles are technically present but never behave as anything other than climbable (and rarely, pushable) objects – there are no glove boxes to rifle through for snacks, no tools in the boot/trunk/[your regional name for the back end of a car here] to take. Neatly clipped waist-high hedges function as impenetrable barriers, and every unnecessary side street and corridor has already been blocked off before you set foot in the area whether by a (in)conveniently placed pile of rubble, an impassable gate, fire, or a broken chunk of road. You don’t need to be there so you’re definitely not going – not ever – and Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 isn’t going to waste anyone’s time pretending that was ever an option.
You’d think these obvious restrictions would be irritating and unbelievable: It’s supposed to be a city! If one route to the evacuation shelter’s blocked the most sensible thing to do would be to walk down a nearby street until you found a path further down that wasn’t, and surely nobody in the game or out of it could have any serious objections to someone smashing down a locked glass door with a nearby chair if the road ahead to the only known place of safety had been turned into a yawning chasm?
The truth is thoughts like the above don’t even occur to you while you’re holding your PSP and afterwards, when you’re turning the events of the game over in your mind, you can see exactly why it’s been made this way. By breaking everywhere down into discrete linear chunks, where area four always precedes area five and you can never go back unless you are given a very specific reason to do so (such as finding a delicious Calorie Mate snack – coincidentally the game’s official sponsor – in the store you passed just now for a child trapped in the next area over), you know for a fact that every apparently nondescript crumbling street and schoolyard has been built with a specific purpose in mind, and so you approach concrete passageways and hospital receptions with curiosity and interest. There is a point to being here even if you don’t know it yet, something will happen in this space and whatever you face you can’t backtrack or find a way to cleverly slide, slip, clip, and ignore your way down a more blandly safe path towards to your overall goal.
And those points manifest as a variety of scripted events: The person you must meet, the unexpected danger you must run away from, the sudden downpour of heavy rain in the only area you can pick up an umbrella. Because Irem always know exactly where you are, who you’re with, and where you’re headed these scenes are always tailor made to not only that specific place but that point in time too: Whole buildings can slide into rubble, areas can flood without warning, the warehouse you’re in can burn while you’re inside it and crawling along a metal beam overhead. Your NPC companions are just as tightly woven in to the plot, insisting they help someone even if you’ve already offered to go yourself or choosing to leave for a while to pursue their own agenda (it’s worth mentioning that both Saki and later occasional NPC pal Ayumi are invincible whenever they tag along: If you’ve survived whatever’s going on, then they’ve survived too). The developers could only do this because they knew for a fact that whatever happened here will never be seen again, they never had to create an awkward workaround for a crucial item you may have missed in a place you can no longer reach. The knock-on effect is a palpable finality to the devastation, the barrage of do-or-die set pieces always pushing you forwards – whether you feel you’re ready or not – rather than hemming you in.
These strict boundaries give rise to a different sort of freedom, perhaps best shown by the vast number of dialogue choices offered at almost every turn. They’re something of a series’ hallmark and always far more interesting than the expected choices between being nice or nasty, silly or sensible. Four or five possible responses to a conversation or situation are commonplace and the game will even go beyond then at times, eager to allow you to decide the sort of character you’re playing as at every opportunity, perhaps conscious of the fact that under such extreme circumstances being a little internally inconsistent is the most normal behaviour anyone could express. It’s possible to show concern for one person over another, be an insensitive jerk at the worst possible moment, and apologise to a dead body before taking their rucksack for yourself. You can react to running away from huge explosions as cars plummet from the edge of a nearby building with adrenaline-fuelled excitement rather than fear or relief, flirt with and even vocally declare your love for the game’s singing NPC star and almost constant companion Saki regardless of your chosen gender, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3’s short leash enabling these conversations to have the breadth they’d lack if the game had opened up its roads and presented players with a less controlled experience.
It’s a game that understands the key to creating an interesting illusory city isn’t down to the raw quantity of streets you can walk within it but the stories and scenarios you weave for the people that live(d) in them, so even though there’s virtually no exploring to be done here (bar a few minor detours in your current area for some fresh clothes) and barely a handful of named characters all game long this place still feels complete, and if not full of life then definitely full of the absence of life, the buildings almost completely hollowed out by tremors and the long cracks running through roads and up walls all helping to make the ordinary – a hospital, a car park, a shop on the corner of nowhere in particular – feel as though they’re brimming with an almost claustrophobic emptiness. It’s a virtual city made from a person’s point of view; someone else’s car an object that must not be touched, a locked door a socially impenetrable barrier, a building visible in the distance not somewhere you live, work, or ever need to go anywhere near. Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 never loses sight of the humanity that makes these places special, and by doing so every concrete slab, overturned empty shelf, and uneven stretch of path becomes one unmissable part of your adventure.