Playing Strike Suit Zero is an education in the physics and motion of giant robot combat; it teaches the player that, unlike something like Zone of the Enders where the humanoid machines can coast around like aircraft, in space the virtue of transforming from fighter to mech is being able to stop and line up shots methodically. If anything, this shows the main limitation of humanoid robots – they are slow, less capable of rapid evasion while remaining accurate than a fighter and have a huge target profile that leaves them easily attacked by capital ships. Yet even so, Strike Suit Zero makes its mech combat a viable strategy, and indeed a very enjoyable one – setting it quite apart from its natural points of comparison in Project Sylpheed or Freespace 2.
The slowness and vulnerability of humanoid form is set against its significant power – the player’s guns will track automatically and are more powerful, and the missile launcher has infinite ammunition and multiple target capability rather than being single, slow shots that home in. This feels right – one only has to watch something like Macross (or Robotech as it is known in the UK and US) to see this is how plane/robot transformers fight. Dogfights in Strike Suit Zero involve the player hunting down high-priority targets in fighter form, using the single-shot missiles to deal strong spikes of damage and the rapid-firing machine gun to down incoming missiles, and then switching to robot form in the midst of an enemy formation – or in front of a capital ship’s bridge, underneath its guns – to do the equivalent of area-of-effect damage, launching dozens of missiles to bring down weakened fighters or suppress enemy guns. The machine gun becomes a powerful rifle that fires slowly at short range, reversing the roles of the player’s weaponry. It is a stop-start kind of combat that is very unusal for a space combat game or flight simulator – usually the disadvantage of air combat (or the pseudo-air-combat that most starfighters use) is constant motion and a poor turning circle. With the Strike Suit, the player can turn on the spot, unleash a volley of heavy weapon fire to clear a path and then boost off towards the objective. This maneuverability is vital, because the missions have the player constantly outnumbered and chasing multiple objectives at once. Capital ships – the most common large-scale enemy – launch constant waves of missiles at the players’ fleet and home base which must be kept in check between attack runs on the launchers. Indeed, actually dogfighting – stopping the constant defence to actually chase down and hunt fighter-craft like a cocky animé ace pilot – is a welcome respite when “permitted” by the omnipresent officers.
A late-game mission with the sole objective “Destroy Fighters (0/180)” feels like a reward rather than a chore – in a campaign with such a strong narrative focus on obeying suicidal orders and trying to be the ace pilot, the singlehanded saviour of the fleet, finally being in a position where one can just destroy is more cathartic than a whole game of overpowered destruction. It manages, in a short campaign, to get across the narrative progression of mecha animé – from the initial stages where the powerful prototype is all that stops the heroes from being destroyed, to the end where it comes into its own against vast numbers of weak enemies. The campaign itself is perhaps too short to fully develop its more interesting aspects, which are dumped in the course of the final mission giving the impression of a very awkwardly-paced story, but it is thematically strong, evoking well the sorts of plot beats and key points that its inspirations relied on. With some more space to tell the story, there would have been a very interesting plot – the revelations of the final mission provide a quite different kind of moral choice to some larger-budget games’ efforts. Yet the problem is the game’s missions – and the variety of gameplay it offers – would not have suited a more expansively-told story. It is a quite restrained game from a gameplay perspective, which allows the smaller library of abilities and enemies to be well-realised and developed, and there is enough of each gameplay mechanic to stay interesting. If anything then the story is too large in scope to match the scope of the gameplay – perhaps in some ways staying too true to the compressed, unclear storytelling of the films that the story evokes such as Do You Remember Love and Be Invoked. Strike Suit Zero is to be admired for trying to take the predictable storyline of loyal Earth soldiers versus rogue colonies (the grandfather of such mecha stories, made first famous by 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam) and turn it on its head, but the way in which this story is told is poorly laid out.
In conclusion, as a small downloadable title there is much to like about Strike Suit Zero; its story is interesting if awkwardly told, and its gameplay is finely-tuned and worth revisiting. There is a strong score-hunting aspect to the missions, which makes the quite perfunctory storytelling a necessary thing – were it more scripted in its narration, returning to missions to enjoy the actual action would feel like a chore. Yet simultaneously, the story tries to go beyond the usual theming that most score-attack games choose – it does not simply provide a thin reason for waves of featureless enemies and instead tries to make something of its characters. In a way, a good comparison is the recent film Pacific Rim – its draw is the retro-feeling robot action and theming, but its efforts at doing something more – capturing the iconic characters that are the obverse of the mecha story coin – are worthy, if not quite perfect.