Note: This article is also available at DPAD Magazine
This game embodies the psychedelic excess associated with video games in a way which few games – even the landmark destruction orgies of the Call of Duty series – match. It is a game where robot samurai ride robot horses to attack giant aliens, a schoolgirl and her pet talking moles (note: actually platypi) launch boulders at the enemy while quoting cartoon shows, and a red-and-gold robot can take an orbital laser shot full on and receive no lasting damage. Everything about it is larger-than-life, primary-coloured and loud, a very exuberant sensory overload which comes as quite a surprise set as it is in a fairly in-depth strategy RPG framework.
This entry in a long-running (22 years old now) franchise, the first on the PS3, does not make any major gameplay changes compared to previous ones, instead marking the move to HD home consoles with increased emphasis on graphics and length – taking the Super Robot Wars games that keep players returning and simply expanding on it in every aspect. This is, generally speaking, a good thing; two lengthy campaigns (which intersect for some missions and then diverge again) and more available units than a player can ever use at one time, plus unlockable difficulty levels, challenge modes, secret units and other bonuses, in addition to a New Game Plus mode, mean that even though a single runthrough is likely to take a good few dozen hours there is incentive to return and have a largely fresh experience.
Since the franchise’s inception on the Game Boy, its emphasis has been on the sort of school-playground power level comparisons of cartoon heroes – could Batman beat Superman, could James Bond beat the Terminator – but drawing on classic anime heroes and giant robots. Many of the games use as a kind of baseline an “Original” unit – the protagonist, drawn from none of the licensed series and generally used to provide a central conflict around which different factions interact. Many of these units and characters – early examples including the Black Gespenst, the Elemental Lords and Fighter Roar – became popular in their own right and a number of sidestory adventures focusing more heavily on them were released (for example the Lords of Elemental games on SNES and PSP, and the Gameboy Advance Original Generations titles) and then in a display of impressive transmedia savvy, these homages to existing characters got their own cartoon series in time; Divine Wars, Lord of Elemental Cybuster and The Inspectors. Thus, one can play 2nd OG without any knowledge of specific anime or indeed knowledge of previous entries in its own continuity; the characters are broad-strokes cartoon character homages embodying different hero archetypes and mashing together the whole gamut of giant robot cliches, grouping together in teams based on which subgenre they represent. Such a disparity in units and styles works; many SRPGs like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars have little more than cosmetic differences between most of their units – you may have a green axe knight or a red sword knight, but they look largely similar. In 2nd OG, however, your units range from flying brick-like battle fortresses and avatars of Chinese gods to huge armoured mechanical women. This absolute chaos of disparate units clustering together in sub-plots becomes a little hard to follow in some ways if a player is not fluent in Japanese, but again the roots of the franchise – in children’s cartoons – make it comparatively easy to follow. Heroes and villains are easily paired up and identified, much of the plot is simple and can be worked out by context of who is fighting who and where. All that is really lost – and this is something of a shame – are the personalities of the characters. The voice-acted attack animations give an idea of these but some of the non-plot-relevant interactions between missions are amusing but hard to follow without some language knowledge.
In gameplay terms, though, 2nd OG is very friendly to a player importing it. Menus are largely self-explanatory and those which are not such as the upgrade system are explained in great depth on a fan-made website for the franchise (akurasu.net). In missions, the UI is heavily standardised, with core options like movement, attacking and ending a turn always using the same quickly-learned symbols; indeed, to help remember these the game’s hand-holding (yet thankfully optional in a move many modern games could do well to imitate) tutorial systematically explains each of them with visual examples. Even those specific game mechanics which are not so easily explained – such as the “Maximum Break” special move – are not vital to completing the base game and really only needed for advanced play such as completing the EX Mode unlocked after successfully completing the campaign. Obviously, learning the idiosyncrasies of an import game does require a period of trial-and-error and effort – and unlike a game such as Another Century’s Episode: R which had entirely English menus, 2nd OG does require some more memorisation of menu options.
2nd OG has a refreshingly well-balanced difficulty curve; playing the game relatively capably will allow a player to make good progress, with the in-mission difficulty adjusting according to how many “SR Points” they can get (awarded for completing missions under certain conditions or destroying bosses which are supposed to be avoided) and increased difficulty giving more experience and money per mission. What is more, there are very few, if any, completely worthless units; even the weakest generally have some value in being used as healers or support units. As a result, the player never feels penalised for using their favourites – although it is worth noting that a number of missions specify which units must be used and can be very difficult if those have been neglected. However, the game provides for this; mandatory units are highlighted before the next level begins to remind a player to upgrade them, and failing a mission allows the player to keep all their money and experience (but lose the SR Point for the level). There are also far fewer (in comparison with some series entries) missions where it is possible to completely stall out and render the game unwinnable; only a few bosses recover health (which can, when combined with the limited resources available to the player, lead to them failing a mission as they cannot harm the enemy).
In terms of graphics and soundtrack, the game is hard to fault; the sprites on a 3D background are highly detailed and the missions now have 3D maps and animated models for units rather than static ones as PS2 entries in the series used. The majority of cutscenes are still text and static images, simply to account for the number of them required (at least two for each mission over two 40-mission or so campaigns as well as the shared missions), but this is not a major criticism. However, while the mechanical designs and attack animations are all top-notch, a good number of the character animations are going to be inherently divisive in how sexed-up they are; much of the sex-appeal in the game has been toned down from past games but it is still ultimately a defining feature of the series.
Overall, 2nd OG is a very polished and fun game, a good refinement of a long-running series and a strong debut on the PS3. It stands well enough alone and has intuitive enough controls and mechanics to be a good game for importers, and for diehard Super Robot Wars fans it is among the best entries in the series after the slightly disappointing 2nd Super Robot Wars Z: Regeneration Chapter. A player not familiar with Japanese loses out somewhat in the game’s humour and characterisation moments, but the plot is simple enough to follow by context and visuals for the most part that this does not count too strongly against it. As a result, it comes highly recommended for fans of strategy RPGs, those gamers who never really stopped wondering which superhero was strongest and anyone who likes anime. Absolute diehards can also consider the deluxe editions, which for a fairly staggering price offer the game as well as bonuses like a model kit and the The Inspectors animated series on Bluray.