Often, it seems developers are very eager to adhere to well-worn premises and gameplay mechanics out of fear of alienating potential customers. This was obviously not a concern for Irem when it was developing Disaster Report, which has an original premise and some unique gameplay mechanics and takes inspiration from a myriad of sources. Disaster Report is a straight adventure game that's also a stealth action game and often a survival horror game, though you'll be fighting natural elements rather than flesh-starved zombies. All told, it's a unique and entertaining game that's over too soon and is shouldered with some unfortunate blemishes.
As the story begins, you're put in the role of Keith Helm, a newspaper reporter on his way to the first day of his new job. Keith has just moved to Capital City, a bustling metropolis on Stiver Island, which is a small man-made island. As Keith takes the train across the bridge from Airport Island to Stiver Island, the area is rocked by a savage earthquake that derails the train and knocks Keith unconscious. When he finally regains consciousness, he finds himself completely alone on this crumbling bridge, until he discovers a girl trapped in the far end of a train car, which is teetering dangerously over the water.
This is the first of many item-based puzzles you'll encounter in Disaster Report. If you try to walk down to help the girl, you, the train car, and the girl will go tumbling into the drink. But, if you do a little exploring, you'll find a length of rope on the bridge, which can be used to safely lower yourself to the damsel in distress. This is the most basic variety of puzzle you'll find in Disaster Report, and as you progress, they become more complex, often consisting of multiple steps and sometimes requiring you to combine some of the items in your inventory to create entirely new items.
One of the key pieces of inventory is the water bottle. Keith has a standard health meter, as well as a stamina meter. Any sort of physical activity will slowly deplete your stamina, and if that meter goes empty, simply moving around will start eating away at your health. The only way to replenish your stamina is with fluids, which is why staying hydrated is so essential. Water is also important because the sinks, spigots, and fountains you'll encounter serve as regular save points. The water flows pretty freely on Stiver Island, and as you progress you'll pick up plenty of extra water bottles, which makes this mechanic less punishing than it could've been.
But this isn't a pure adventure game. You'll be doing much more than just solving puzzles as you and your new friend, Karen, the girl from the bridge, try to make your way to the last rescue point on Stiver Island before the whole thing sinks into the ocean. You'll be running from all kinds of falling debris and the crumbling superstructure of Capital City, riding makeshift rafts down urban canals, and, as the game's intriguing story slowly unfolds, you'll find yourself evading armed thugs, going head-to-head with a rather antagonistic helicopter, and dealing with a wide array of seemingly natural disasters. What's most surprising, though, is that most of this stuff works well within the context of the game. What Disaster Report excels most at is setting up a scenario in a completely deserted city where something horrible can happen at any second, which creates a very real sense of tension. The story is punctuated with several near misses with potential rescuers, and just about anything that can go wrong, does. It's a satisfying self-contained adventure, but unfortunately it clocks in at around seven hours, tops. There are a few points where you can change the course of the game, but the action still remains largely the same, and it's just not enough to inspire multiple plays.
Disaster Report also suffers from an inadequate game engine. The game has a pretty cohesive look, using a nearsighted focus technique similar to that found in the Metal Gear Solid games, or ICO, where the foreground looks sharp, but everything beyond has a fuzzy, dreamy look to it. The color palette is consistently dull and gray, which works well considering the game's blown-out urban setting. No, the game doesn't look bad, though there is some pretty noticeable aliasing, but its visual scope is bigger than the engine can handle, and the whole thing will regularly come to a crawl for five or ten seconds at a time. This pervasive slowdown really takes you out of the moment and detracts greatly from any sense of urgency the game might try to evoke.
The game's sound design is very minimalist, but it's fairly effective regardless. The vast emptiness of Capital City is really accentuated by the lack of a perpetual soundtrack, with your character's footsteps being the only real constant sound. When the music does come in, though, your adrenaline starts pumping, as that's usually the cue that something huge and life threatening is about to happen. The rest of the environmental sounds help paint the picture of this shattered city. The crackling of a smoldering car fire, the rumbling of another aftershock, the pattering of rain, and the dull crack of a tall building losing its foundation all do their part to set the game's mood. The voice acting in Disaster Report occasionally works against this mood, and there's a good amount of voice acting throughout the game. The dialogue the characters are given is good enough, capably serving its purpose, but the delivery is off, often sounding stilted and unnatural, though, to be honest, more over-the-top campy voice acting would've been even more detrimental to the overall tone of the game.
Disaster Report is ultimately a flawed game, but its original premise and varied mix of gameplay create a refreshing experience nonetheless. It definitely could've benefited from a more robust engine, as well as a longer story mode. On its own terms, though, Disaster Report is a surprisingly engaging adventure game with some unique twists, and players who have half a day to spare and are looking for something different should have some fun with it.