Photos and terrain courtesy of Adam Isherwood at Iron Forest Games, models my own.
The much-delayed Kickstarter-funded wargame Robotech RPG Tactics has finally begun to be delivered within Europe, and as my copy has arrived I have had the opportunity to play two limited-scale games of it. These are sufficient to form general opinions about the rules design – although more detailed examination of unit selection and faction play-style is currently impossible as many of the more interesting and different units are not currently available. Overall, as a wargame attempting to recreate the combat style of Robotech/SDF Macross – a translation of theme into mechanics – it works well. Using a system of named pilots adding thematic abilities to stock units like X-Wing forces can be given more flavour, while the weapon system rules emphasising mass missile attacks and divided, inaccurate fire versus enemies concentrating to bring one hero down creates a strong aesthetic element to mechanical design.
Kickbeat is marketed as an “innovative rhythm game with a Kung Fu theme,” but its level of innovation, when games like Final Fantasy Theatrhythm have explored adding combat and RPG elements to rhythm games in well-developed ways that closely tie licensed music to game theming, seems quite limited. Kickbeat is a straightforward rhythm game dressed up in theming that impedes play to an extent, and with a selection of music that is small compared to most competitors (Theatrhythm Curtain Call, which came out on handhelds around the same time, has a significantly larger and more varied song library – and even free-to-play rhythm games on mobile like Cytus and Love Live School Idol Festival have comparably sized or larger track lists.)
Kapsula is a puzzle game combining the reflex-testing of an endless runner with the block-matching of a game like Columns; the end result is something a little like Audiosurf but without the soundtrack element. It is well-suited to mobile formats, requiring only minimal inputs and – with a simple failure state and an interface designed to make repeat play as efficient as possible – being built from the ground up for intermittent play sessions. The mobile puzzle and skill game market is gaining a well-established set of ground-rules for designing a good mobile game – it should be as minimalist in terms of getting to play the game as possible, and as easy as possible to try again after a session, since mobile games are often played for short periods of time to fill a break. In this respect, Kapsula works well.
Strider, the 2014 update of the established series of the same name, is a largely unremarkable and unpolished exploration platformer in the vein of Super Metroid. It has several strong features, but at the same time they feel underdeveloped and are rarely used in ways which innovate the genre. Its short length in terms of initial exploration means that the open-world exploration comes surprisingly quickly, but by the same token it comes before the player has really had much opportunity to use or master any of their newly-acquired abilities. This is in part due to the reliance on long chases and linear level design; the progression of the story drives the player through numerous areas without much opportunity to explore. Rather than acquiring an item and then returning through the area to use it, often the game will throw the player into a new area they may only visit a small part of with their current suite of upgrades immediately after making a first trip through one.
Transistor, Supergiant Games’ follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Bastion, can be seen as a refinement of its predecessor; it is a similar isometric action-RPG, with similar mechanics, challenge rooms, modular upgrades and difficulty mods. It even has a similar aesthetic/narrative design, with an omnipresent narrator making up for a mute protagonist. Yet calling it a simple science-fiction themed refinement of Bastion’s theme is underselling it significantly; it is a more ambitious, more tactical and much more challenging title.
There is much to like about 2014 animé Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro; its first episode is a frenetically-paced, rude comedy about an immature lout leaving a trail of wreckage behind him as he chases his childish goals, which ends, reassuringly, with the authorities catching up to his procession of crimes. There is not specifically a moral to this beyond “don’t commit crimes” – that he is ultimately held accountable for all his mistakes is punchline enough. The opening recap of the second episode makes this very clear – it calls the protagonist a lout, pathetic and criticises him for “doing what he wants, when he wants.” As a comic setup, this works; the humour is in how the rest of the world, people trying to get by in what is implied to be a fairly poor town, deal with a local bumpkin who causes mayhem because he is, apparently, bored.
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.
Gigantic Army is marketed as a return to the side-scrolling mech game popularised by Assault Suits Valken and Front Mission Gun Hazard on the SNES; functionally a 2D platformer, the emphasis is far more strongly on combat (evoking something like Contra or Metal Slug) but with a more ponderous, weighty physics engine. This sense of nostalgia shines through in advertising – which uses a mockup SNES game box and logo – and in the game’s use of achievements (names of which are a series of puns on other mech-game classics) and even the pared-back cutscenes of moving stills and scrolling text. Whereas a game like La-Mulana takes the mechanics and design ethos of retro games and builds on them into something new and ambitious, Gigantic Army is slavish in its use of past game design. Entire level concepts are lifted from the games which inspire it – given an original spin aesthetically, and designed around its core mechanical changes from the formula, but nevertheless there is a significant familiarity to it that is both a virtue and a reason for criticism.
Hoplite is a puzzle-RPG in the vein of 2013’s hugely renowned 868-Hack, mixing board game like fixed piece movements with roguelike-esque survival dungeon crawling. Much like Hack the aim is for the player to complete a certain number of floors of puzzles, all the while collecting abilities to allow them to better challenge the enemies. However, the emphasis is more on clearing floors efficiently than survival; enemies do not respawn, but instead are deployed in fixed numbers and known positions.
Saint Seiya Brave Soldiers is a tie-in to one of the iconic superhero animé from the 1980s; a team of ancient Greek themed heroes fighting mythological monsters with magic and martial arts. The series has earned a strong position within Japanese pop culture, as well as limited popularity overseas, and was recently remade with the ongoing series Saint Seiya Omega. That the recent video game tie-ins choose to ignore this modern remake – which is widely available streamed legally online in English – and focus instead on the 1986 original series makes them of somewhat more limited appeal overseas. There is not the same nostalgia – and nostalgia is vital in enjoying many of these kinds of game tie-ins – for the series among Western audiences, meaning the game must stand much more strongly on its own merits.