Review #1 by Neil Nadelman
Well, it's only been a few months since the arena combat-based Blue Knight Berserga (aka - The Blue Sabre Knights) game was released, but Takara has released a new Armored Trooper VOTOMS game to celebrate the series' 15th aniversary. Unlike the last game, which was based on a series of side-story novels, this new game is based on the first half of the actual TV show. You take the role of Chirico Cuvie, renegade soldier of the Melkian Army, who walks the lonely road to hell (but who DIDN'T in early-80s Sunrise mecha shows?) as he searches for the truth behind his betrayal.
So, what does this game offer that Blue Knight didn't? Well, it's strictly a one-player affair, with no options for head-to-head battle or link mode play. It's mission-based, rather than strictly arena combat-based, so your missions involve a bit more tactical and strategic skill than simply "shoot the other guy". And it's much more story-driven, allowing you to relive all the major battles that Chirico experienced in the TV series.
Oh, and one more thing. It's about a zillion times harder than the other one. You see, the guys at Takara decided to be a little evil and introduced the concept of resource management into the game, so this is much more of a simulator than the last one. Besides having to worry about being outnumbered and outgunned, you have to actually learn what it takes to fine-tune your Armored Trooper (AT) and how to use it effectively in combat.
The AT uses a fluid called Polymer Ringer's Solution (PRS) to drive its mechanical muscle cylinders (MCs). PRS is pumped at high pressure through the AT's body and any action you take will break it down. The AT's cardio-pulmonary generator will regenerate the PRS as it breaks down, but it doesn't do it fast enough to allow continuous action. What this means is that you have to watch PRS levels as you try to complete a mission. Overwork a particular system and you'll trigger an overheat, and that can really ruin your day when your enemy is, say, shooting at you. Think of it like Battletech's overheat meters, or like X-Wing's power management system.
When you select a mission, you get to tweak four major AT settings: upper muscle cylinder activity, lower muscle cylinder activity, generator metabolic rate, and armor load. The upper cylinders affect shooting accuracy and how fast you can adjust your camera angle. The lower cylinders affect turning and walking speed. The generator metabolic rate affects how fast you consume or regenerate PRS. The armor load determines how much damage you can take and how heavy (and slow) your AT will be. How you set these will determine how efficiently your AT will behave in combat. For example, if you give the lower MCs higher priority and lessen the armor load, you'll wind up with an AT that can maneuver quickly but won't be as accurate or take as much damage. Pouring the resources into the upper body will give you enhanced attack power, but will cut down on your speed and dexterity. Set your metabolism too high and you'll overheat more quickly. Oh, and if you just decide to set everything to maximum, you'll wind up with a slow, accurate AT that will overheat if you look at it the wrong way. The key to this game is finding a balance that works for you.
After you determine how your AT will perform, you also get to select which mission disk you'll use. A mission disk allows you to customize an AT's programming, and you get a new disk for each stage you clear. Think of it as a special move. You start off with a kick being your special move, but as you advance you earn better maneuvers, such as the loop turn, the all-round burst (spinning while shooting), and auto-targeting. After you make all your choices, you start the mission.
Okay, so you start your mission and you notice the PRS gauges on the right side of the screen. Yes, that's plural, since you allocate PRS between primary and secondary functions. Primary functions include walking, shooting, punching, and looking up or down. Secondary functions involve the roller dash wheels you use to skate around on. By hitting the triangle button, you change the allocation levels between your primary and secondary functions, depending on what you need to do. For example, if you need to dash through a dangerous area quickly and avoid shooting, pump everything into the secondary systems. This allows you to keep moving for a long time, but doesn't allow for any actual fighting. Conversely, if you need to do a lot of fighting and little dashing, pump more into the primary systems. Simple, huh?
Well, actually, no. You see, AT combat isn't like Armored Core. For one thing, ATs can't jump. They rollerskate instead. And these things have wheels on their feet for a good reason: they're slow, clumsy machines. You need to be able to dash AND fight if you expect to survive. The first mission, in which you face Lt. Conin from your old unit in Uoodo's Battling arena, demonstrates this very well. While you stumble around trying to get a bead on him, he's roller dashing left and right and generally running circles around you. The moral of the story is that, to be any good at this game, you MUST learn to maneuver.
If all of this is scaring you, don't be. The controls for the AT are easy to remember, and the AT is actually a fairly good machine. You can roller dash in all four directions and change your heading very quickly with your turn spikes. A common tactic Chirico would use on the show was to overshoot his opponent and then use the turn spike to quickly turn around and stop, allowing him to pound his enemy's exposed back.
Exactly one: the standard Scopedog. And no, you can't change its color or its insignia. You'll have to play Blue Knight for that. And the Scopedog's armament is pretty basic: one 20mm auto-cannon (120 rounds per clip, but you have infinite clips) and your arm punch function (which uses explosive charges to do more damage than a normal punch would). Later in the game you'll have access to the Red Shoulder Custom, which adds missile launchers, a vulcan cannon, and a rail gun to the AT, but most missions will see you in the standard Scopedog.
Okay, I'll get this out of the way first: this is no Armored Core, but, then, very few things are. While the missions are very challenging and a definite step up from the strictly arena combat of Blue Knight, seasoned AC vets will probably find these a bit simplistic. For example, the first mission is a simple Battling tournament, in which you have to simply kill Conin to finish it. The second one is a flashback to the battle to invade the Lido asteroid base, in which all you have to do is wade through all the gunfire and get to the designated rendezvous point. The third mission is the theft of a jijirium shipment in Uoodo, in which you must capture a transport trailor and then protect it until you escape from the area. As I said, fairly basic missions, but hard nonetheless. Even the first "easy" mission took me several attempts before I managed to make it through. Remember: use the dash function and watch those PRS levels!
Graphics are fairly impressive in that most of the cut scenes are generated in realtime. This leads to everything (and everyone) looking as though they just stepped out of a game of Tomb Raider. It's not quite as polished as the highly animated ATs of Blue Knight, but you'll be too busy trying to avoid gunfire to really concentrate of the scenary. The only downside is that everything has that flat, texture-mapped look, so I can't say it's incredibly realistic. However, you are treated to some truly impressive reenactments of famous scenes from the TV show.
Sound is a VOTOMS fan's dream, with all the original sound effects and (unlike Blue Knight) lots of the original BGM.
Playability? Frustrating at first, and I really wish they gave you a practice mode (like they did in Blue Knight). Learning to fight in the middle of combat leads to a lot of losses early on. Still, it's much more challenging than Blue Knight was and puts the emphasis on learning to use your machine properly, so you really do feel as though you've accomplished something when you make it through each mission. Unfortunately, you do need to know Japanese to play it properly, since some mission objectives aren't clear from simply diving in and playing. For example, if you do what seems natural and try to actually kill all the enemies you face in Lido base, you'll just end up dead. The mission objective is to reach the rendezvous point, not to murder everyone in the area, so the winning strategy is to avoid fighting and race through the complex to the end. Similarly, I imagine most people would have trouble realizing that the third mission requires you to shoot the armored cars guarding the jijirium trailor and then protect it from fire as it escapes. I suppose someone will have to make a FAQ for this game...
Armored Trooper VOTOMS is a treat for fans, although casual mecha gamers may be intimidated by it. The learning curve is steep at first, but you eventually get the hang of tweaking the AT settings and maneuvering in combat. The lack of a two-player option may annoy some, but you can always buy the much easier Blue Knight game for that, and Blue Knight offers you the chance to pilot nearly every AT in the VOTOMS universe. This game, on the other hand, is for the VOTOMS fan who wants to jump into the story and see if they have what it takes to be a Perfect Soldier. If you've seen the subtitled version put out by Central Park Media, then you really don't need any of the cut scenes translated as they're basically all redone versions of famous scenes from the anime. If you haven't, I recommend you rent or borrow the tapes from someone, as it really adds to the game's depth to know what the overall story is. I recommend this game, although I must keep on warning you that it can be very frustrating at first. I've had it for several days now and I've yet to make it through mission three.
Oh, the game's available both by itself and in a limited edition box that includes a 1/24 scale Red Shoulder Custom AT toy. This is a high- quality toy that I normally see advertised for at least $50-$75 new, so you may consider getting the limited edition for that special bonus.