Choice of Games offer a wide selection of choose-your-own-adventure stories in a variety of genres, and were among the first to embrace the genre’s popularity on mobile. While the package on offer in their titles is significantly less polished than a title like Eighty Days or the Fighting Fantasy titles available, the variety of topics covered is refreshing. Mecha Ace represents a foray into animé pastiche, and arguably succeeds.
Much of the appeal of Mecha Ace is to players who would understand why an androgynous character called Camille is inherently funny, or why the game’s suggested player names are Johnny Rico, Alexsandr Kerensky and Yoshiyuki Tomino. It is absurdly packed full of puns, in-jokes that require greater or lesser amounts of science-fiction trivia knowledge and often straight homages to specific works – and this is arguably both to its credit and a failing. A good comparison within a similar genre is recent free-to-play Steam title Sunrider, a similar Gundam homage. Sunrider is scattershot in its writing, full of out-of-date memes and awkwardly translated dialogue, but while it contains references it does not lavish in them. Mecha Ace is shot through with referential humour in its character names, its scenario and its achievements – and to someone who can spot them, there is a lot of entertainment to be had. But for someone who does not spot the references, what is left is a largely generic science-fiction story that glosses over, it sometimes feels, events and more crucially consequences that the reader almost feels expected to fill in based on their genre savviness. In many ways this evokes the old Xbox 360 game Project Sylpheed; that too had a very Gundam-derived story and archetypal characters, and was similarly uninspiring when taken outside a fandom context.
Most problematic with Mecha Ace is the quality of the writing and dialogue; for a paid title that has to compete with very high quality rivals (including Eighty Days’ somewhat pensive steampunk), flat dialogue and over-reliance on a few images and idioms does not really pass muster. It tries so hard to be the knowing, fourth-wall breaking lampshaded homage that often this gets in the way of the story. That said, genre-awareness will not win the game; there is a cynicism to its seemingly slavish adherence to predictable plot points where trying to simply ape the situation’s resolution in a known inspiration will probably fail. With some tidying up of the dialogue there is the potential for a story that could appeal more widely to audiences looking for a science-fiction choose-your-own-adventure; the Gundam stories it apes are so classic within the military-SF genre that they have a universal appeal. Outside of the giant robot genre, space opera is enjoying something of a revival with Guardians of the Galaxy and the enduring popularity of Mass Effect, so a spacefaring quest seems an easy sell. Yet in a game as barebones as this, a pure multiple-choice novel with a largely hidden stat system, the player engages almost solely with the prose, and Mecha Ace‘s prose is only passable in comparison to similarly-priced options. It is not unreadable; indeed, it rattles along quite entertainingly – but there is the sensation that it would be far less enjoyable to a player not used to the stilted, melodramatic dialogue of subtitled animé.
These issues accepted, it is otherwise hard to fault the construction of the game and its mechanical tuning. A first runthrough will probably present a series of apparently insurmountable obstacles and lead to a terrible fate for all the characters – almost necessitating a second playthrough to try and not fail so incredibly. The decisions are punishing and – even if they sometimes seem it – not illogical, with details of how to succeed present in the text. The stat system is cryptic and hidden in a status menu and the obscuring of the exact mathematics of progression makes it more of a suggestion; the player knows what they are strongest at but not told directly what options in a scene correspond to what skills.
Choice of Games have something of a niche within a genre that is rapidly evolving – providing simply-presented, straightforward stories and choose-your-own-adventure games. Mecha Ace is really little different to their other titles in quality control or writing quality, but it is questionable whether this approach will remain sustainable at this price point. The “value” of a computer game is hard to quantify absolutely, but given the competition within the interactive fiction/visual novel field on mobile – let alone compared to even modestly-produced titles on PC such as the free Sunrider – their games seem increasingly less appealing choices. That said, for someone who is an avid giant robot fan, Mecha Ace is certainly an entertaining slice of more easily forgivably hammy science-fiction, and is probably more of a recommended purchase than to a more general audience who will be lost in its puns and references and find little else that stands out.