Monday, January 13, 2014

Another Century's Episode R - Review

When you hear the name "Banpresto," most people think of crazy crossover games featuring a wide verity of characters from a wide verity of series. From games like Namco X Capcom, to the Super Robot Wars series, Banpresto has really made a name for itself simply because of such fan service. They make people's wildest dreams come true, and they also created some of the best tactical role playing games out there. When one of their games comes out a lot of hype normally follows, but at times the company does fall short.

The Super Robot Wars series has always been one of Banpresto's largest franchises. It is a long running series which has been released on multiple platforms, and it is the ultimate mecha fan service game. Each entry in the series features different mechs and pilots from some of the most well known mecha anime series, and they are thrown into a massive battle against some of the major enemies from said series. The whole thing is nothing but a massive tactical role playing game, with non stop fan service, and crazy huge battles. The games test the player's skills, but it also allows them to live out their wildest dreams. Still, this isn't Banpresto's only mecha fanservice series.

While Super Robot Wars is a tactical game, Banpresto also has an alternative to it called "Another Century's Episode." In Another Century's Episode (or ACE as it will be called from now on), you actually take direct control over each mech, and battle it out in large open 3D spaces. Although the series was a "Banpresto" series, it was developed by From Software, which is well known for the Armored Core mech games, and it really shows in the gameplay. Each game features a wide verity of mechs, just like in Super Robot Wars, and each mission typically feels like a massive battle. Missiles fly everywhere, gun fire is seen non stop, and special abilities are activated non stop. Because of this crazy action, and the fan service, the ACE franchise has become just as well known as Super Robot Wars, and it has developed quite the following in Japan. So, it's only natural to keep it going right?

In 2010, Another Century's Episode R was released on the PlayStation 3. As the fourth entry in the series, ACE:R was a game with a lot of hype surrounding it, and fans were promised a much more refined game with new gameplay elements to greatly expand upon it. Along with the new features, fans were also told to expect brand new characters from animes such as Code Geass, Full Metal Panic, Aquarion, Macross Zero, Macross Frontier, and even Gundam SEED Destiny. The game was going to have an amazing cast of new characters, great gameplay, and it was going to be the first in the series to go HD. Everything was pointing towards it being a great game, but... Well, let's continue on with the review and find out, shall we?

The Story:

The main story in ACE:R is pretty straight forward. Taking place in the far future, humans have expanded past the Sol system, and they have begun colonizing other planets. In order to help themselves, humans developed androids called "Seasons" to help them with the colonization process, but things take a turn for a worst. The Seasons begin killing humans, the humans try to fight back, but hope is pretty much lost. That is, until a worm hole opens up to alternate dimensions/timelines and pulls some of the greatest mech pilots of all time into the fight. From that point on, each pilot joins the massive battle, and the story goes from there. Along with fighting the Seasons, the pilots face other enemies from their own history, and things become a mixed up mess of a war. Overall the story is very generic, but the story isn't the focus of the game, nor is it the only story that takes place here.

One thing ACE:R does not do with its story is explain who people are. The game expects you to know just about everything about everyone, and if you don't know why they are, the game itself becomes less enjoyable. Don't know who Apollo is, or what the whole "merge" thing with Aquarion is about? Well, that's too bad. Don't know who the Black Knights are or who Zero is? You won't be able to follow the Code Geass timeline then, nor will you be able to understand Suzaku's "Live On" ability. What about Sousuke? Not only is his character important, but the history and abilities behind the Lambda Driver in his mech play and important role for the game's gameplay. Not to mention Macross Frontier's storyline, which ties directly in with the main plot with the Seasons. If you don't know who the characters are, or how the series ended, you'll be confused.

Overall the whole thing just comes down to you understanding each of the anime series included in this one, and if you don't, you'll be missing out on a part of the story. Each series' story starts out during their own timeline, typically during a key battle in the story, and the game just throws you in and expects you to know what you are doing. In some cases the game may even rely on you knowing the anime for you to even beat an enemy or boss. In Full Metal Panic's case, the story starts out during the Behemoth fight from early on in the series, and the only way to defeat said Behemoth was to use the Lambda Driver. If you don't realize that, you'll never be able to defeat him in the game. Even so, this can be forgiven given the fact that this is a fan service game.

The Gameplay:

The gameplay in ACE:R is, to say the least, sadly lacking. While the past games in the series had spot on controls, Episode R has issues with its camera, movement feels slippery, and it can often be hard to actually aim at the target you want to shoot. The camera itself always stays at a semi-above the shoulder view, and it faces whatever enemy you lock onto. Most of the time the game will auto lock onto an enemy for you, but this may not always be the enemy you want to fight. Sometimes you'll just want to move across the area, but the game will constantly be forcing you to turn around and look in another direction. Sure you can turn off the auto aim by holding down a button, but it does like to kick itself on, and when it is turned off it can become even harder to see. The game doesn't actually give you control over the camera, as it is always facing the way you are facing, so it can cause issues at times.

When it comes to the controls, they too take a lot of getting used to. While some mechs can fly up into the air, or lower themselves to the ground freely, some cannot. In these cases, in order to attack enemies in the air you actually have to lock onto them, and mash the "grab" button, which will send said mech flying toward the enemy. Since this is your main way of moving in some cases, it can be hard to actually get your mech to go where you want it to, and mechs move so fast that it is very easy to get disoriented with the camera moving around non stop. The same thing can happen when dashing, and in this case it really doesn't matter if your mech is on land or in the air. Dashing is required if you want to dodge bullets and stay alive in this game, and it too causes you to move so fast that it is easy to lose your footing. While you do get used to it after awhile, some people may not have the will to fight with the game's camera and controls, so they may just give up. As for the movement itself, walking and flying does feel nice and smooth, but it can move a bit too fast on the ground, and a bit too slow in the air. Some mechs also feel like they are walking on ice while they're on the ground, so that's another thing you have to get used to.

The main gameplay of ACE: R, is also a bit lacking. Basically each mission in the game comes down to you locking onto an enemy, mashing your strongest attack button, and then finishing everything off. Sometimes there are bosses or enemies that require you to do something special to take them down, but this is a rare case. Even with these enemies however, there is always an easy way around it, thanks to the level up system.

Just like in most RPGs, whenever you use a mech or pilot in battle, you gain experience points. While the mech pilot themselves become better from actually being in battle, the mechs earn building points, which can then in return be spent on upgrades for whatever mech you want. There's a wide verity of mechs, and pilots, in the game, so leveling them all up will take quite a bit of time, but by doing so you are also breaking said game.

Overall, the game is actually a challenging one. Playing on harder modes will cause you to die a lot faster, and it will also make it harder to earn  higher scores on different missions. Since the game plays a bit like an arcade shooter, one where you do nothing but shoot everything you see, scores are quite important, and playing on harder modes may prevent you from getting the score you desire. Then again, if you level up your characters enough, the only way you'll have fun with this one is by playing on such modes. Especially considering Sousuke's Lambda Driver moves can few hit kill any boss.

While in battle there's actually a bit more to the game than just shooting, but a lot of these features won't even be used. Each mech has a few weapon pallets to pick from, with the final pallet being where most specials are found. Typically each mech has a standard shoot button in the first pallet, followed by a few other mech specific moves, but as mentioned above, most of these are useless. For example, going back to Sousuke again, the "hook shot." Although Sousuke's mech cannot fly, in Full Metal Panic they did have the ability to shoot wires to pull themselves up walls, or latch onto sides of buildings. While you can do this in ACE:R as well, there's no reason to use it. Rarely will you ever see a building you need to hold onto, and even if you do need to get up higher, you can just use the grab to fly through the sky. Even so, the special abilities are useful.

As any mecha fan would know, in most mecha animes characters receive some kind of special ability to push them over the edge. They become better pilots, their mechs become stronger, and sometimes strange things just start to happen. It's something that most mechas have, the story behind it is almost always different, and it is something that also made its way into ACE:R.

In the last pallet, next to other "super attacks," is where you can find each character's specific "special." In Suzaku's case, the "Live On" command kicks into gear, and Suzaku becomes a better pilot because of it. Just like in the anime where Zero orders him to "Live On," Suzaku loses control of his mind, and does everything he can to survive; even if it is against his own will. This is the sort of ability most pilots have in the game, but there are a few exceptions (as mentioned above, Sousuke has the Lambda Driver which allows him to use special Lambda based attacks). Either way, the special for each character is mostly the same, but the background story behind it does differ from series to series. Once again, the game expects you to know this.

To go along with the special attacks, you can also use your teammates as well. At the start of each mission you are asked to select up to two pilots to go with you into battle. Each teammate has their very own special ability to help you in battle, but using them will lower their health. It is a high risk high reward like system, but it doesn't add too much to the gameplay itself.

The final aspect of the gameplay is the "rail shooter" sections. At different times in some of the stages, the game will give you a fixed camera angle, your mech will start moving forward on its own, and you will be tasked with the job of dodging bullets, and shooting enemies as they come at you; just as you would in an arcade rail shooter. While on paper this sounds like a nice idea, the in game controls are actually some of the worst you'll ever see. Since you aim and move your mech with the left analog stick, it becomes near impossible to dodge bullets and actually try to shoot the target you are aiming at. The controls are also very slippery, and the sections are often filled with cheap deaths. It is easily the worst part of the entire game, but luckily there are only a few moments like this.

Besides the main missions, and on rail sections, there are a few "mini game" missions as well, but these aren't even worth noticing. They are plagued by bad controls, and they really aren't worth your time. They are challenging because of their issues, and you'll just waste hours of your life.

On top of the other short comings, one of the biggest disappointments in this game comes from its actual length. When you start up the game you're given the option to pick between any one of the series, but it doesn't matter much in the end. Once you pick which series you want to start with, you're thrown into three short missions based on said series, and then you are thrown into the main game; where just about every character meets up at the start. From there on out, you play the same old missions time and time again, with the same old characters. Now sure, you can unlock more characters and mechs by beating the game over and over again, but it becomes quite the grind. One minute you'll be starting the game with three new missions in front of you, but then the next you'll be doing the same few missions you have already completed countless times. Most missions also don't take that long, so you can blow through the entire story in no time, the only thing that takes a lot of time is the unskipable cutscenes  near the end.

The Soundtrack:

One of the greatest and saddest parts of the game is the soundtrack. While the game does feature a lot of really nice tunes from each of the anime series, there's no vocal versions of said songs. You'll hear a anime's theme song start to play and expect to hear the lyrics, but nothing will ever come. Although this really isn't a bad thing, after all the songs are quite nice, some fans may be disappointed. That is, until they realize there's a full custom soundtrack feature!

Another Century's Episode R features something not many games do, and that's sad. It has a custom soundtrack which can be fully customized. If you really want to, you can add in every one of your favorite anime songs, and then you can actually control when they play, and in which stages. Each cutscene, and section of a stage has its own song playing, and the game freely allows you to change that. Want FLOW's Colors (Code Geass' first opening) playing during the start of a level, and then have World's End (Code Geass' final opening) play during the boss fight? You can do it! Just as long as you have the MP3 on your PS3 that is.

Really this is a nice feature to include in the game, but it's too bad some of these songs weren't just in by default.

The Good and the Bad:

Another Century's Episode R is a great game when it comes to fanservice. It has a wide verity of characters from most of the major mecha anime series out there (as well as the Super Robot Wars Original Generation games), it has some great music, a customizable soundtrack, a really nice level up and customization system, almost every menu is in English so you don't need to know Japanese to play it, and every mech and character stays faithful to how they were in their anime/game. If you're a fan of a specific series, you will have fun playing as your favorite characters and mechs. Have you always wanted to dash along the ground at high speeds in the Lancelot? Well, here you can do it. When it comes to the fanservice department, this game was spot on. Still, that's the only area where it was so.

The game's gameplay is very lacking, and is filled with issues. You have to fight with the camera, you have to fight with the controls, and you will often either get yourself killed, or fail a mission just because you couldn't attack what you needed to. It becomes quite the pain, up until you can make your character's strong enough to just flat out destroy everything. At this point the game becomes too easy, and it becomes a grind just to beat it over and over again. The on rail sections are also very bad, and the mini games aren't even worth bringing up.

Besides the gameplay, another major flaw comes in the graphical department as well. While everything actually looks fine, and you can see what is going on (which is very important), there is no scale to the world what so ever. Only a handful of objects were made, for specific maps, and then reused over and over again. In some maps your mech's foot will take up both lanes of the road you are standing on, but then the street light next to you will be almost as tall as the building, and the building's door and windows will look like they are made for someone who is 30 feet tall. Then, on top of that, if you look over at the trees, some will be smaller than you, while others will be larger. Objects have no sense of scale, and it just makes the  maps look bad. It is very lazy design.

Overall, Another Century's Episode R isn't a "bad" game per-say, but it is a very flawed game. Now there is some fun to be had, battles are fast paced, and get very heated at times, and it is very fun to play as all the different characters; however, that's the only reason someone should pick this game up, but only if you care about specific characters. If you're a Code Geass, Full Metal Panic, Aquarion, Macross Zero, Macross Frontier, or Gundam SEED Destiny fan, then you may like this one, but if you could care less about these series, you might as well stick with the PS2 games, or the PSP release which came out a year after ACE:R (although the PSP version did retain some Code Geass characters).

In the end, I give Another Century's Episode R, for the PlayStation 3, a 6/10. Personally I do like the game, but it is flawed, and I can only recommend it to die hard mecha fans.