Release Date: February 2006
Mobile Suit Saga is something the Gundam franchise has yet to bring to the US: a good video game. There are plenty of in-jokes for die-hard Gundam fans to get, since the unmodified mecha designs all hail from some other Gundam anime, manga, or other media spin-off. The characters, setting, and basic story don't require any knowledge of anything Gundam to sit down and enjoy the game, though. Shockingly, the game is actually enjoyable, with a surprisingly deep turn-based engine that's reminiscent of both Dragon Quest VIII and Xenosaga.
Mobile Suit Saga begins with main character Tresch and his sidekick Fritz at a hidden base that interfaces with a powerful supercomputer network called the G-System. Together they've brought enough materials to the G-System to create one of the giant robot soldiers called Mobile Suits, a fairly weak model specifically named a GM. They're attacked by an enemy soldier in a rival Mobile Suit, the Zaku, before they can leave, and barely survive a tense battle. After that they began searching for their real enemies, the soldiers that used Mobile Suits to completely destroy the orphanage where they grew up and murder everyone else who lived there.
Conveniently, the men they're looking for turn out to be heavily involved with the rogue army that's been dramatically escalating the number of Mobile Suits active in the world. Tresch and Fritz's plot for revenge is eventually swallowed up in a much larger struggle to try and stop this army from conquering the planet and instigating a reign of terror. Pretty typical RPG stuff, and also a pretty typical Gundam plot at the same time.
It gets interesting when it comes to the gameplay implications of the G-System. G-System locations are hidden throughout the world, and you can make new Mobile Suits and Mobile Suit parts by bringing certain items to it in sufficient quantity. Then you can visit various shops in settlements across the world and customize your robots with whatever parts you've found or bought, and you can see the look you've created both in battle and when moving on the world map. Parts are quite literally pieces of enemy robots and other designs, so you can turn the innocent GM and Zaku you start with into bizarre and powerful patchwork creations after just a few hours of gameplay. Later in the game you can begin creating Mobile Suit models that are outright more powerful, until you eventually acquire fantastically powerful Gundams for your party.
Adding parts isn't just an aesthetic experience in MS Saga, as each part reflects a trait of the original design. You can improve your GM's fighting power by giving it the shoulders of a Gouf, or its speed by adding the legs of a Rick Dom. You can also upgrade the all-around stats of each model, but only up to a certain upper limit. Chances are most players will find themselves abandoning the machines they start with for more effective models when they have the chance.
A lot of the rest of the game will be very familiar to veterans of Japanese RPG titles. You talk to people in towns, ransack their houses for useful one-use items, and need to amass "hacking tools" to unlock "protected" item boxes to get the really good loot. While you wander along the world map, you'll fight random battles with groups of roving enemy robots, and they'll sometimes drop useful items and parts after you've defeated them. You'll also explore deserted enemy bases and weird alien craft that serve as the game's dungeons, where you can find a lot of item boxes and fight particularly strong enemies. Winning battles amasses EXP for your pilots, which improves their stats and unlocks more of their special abilities. Your Mobile Suit doesn't gain EXP or level up by winning battles, but improving the pilot goes an amazingly long way toward making the machine more powerful.
The combat system is very simple but quite clever. Each robot has an EN value that represents how much EN it charges per turn; most Mobile Suits early on had a value of 2 and could charge to a maximum of 10. Taking offensive actions in battle consumes EN, while defensive actions or using a pilot's Techniques (spells, basically) won't deplete EN at all. You can also choose to do nothing for a round and hyper-boost your EN by an unusually large amount, although doing this leaves you unusually vulnerable to enemy attacks. When attacking, you can opt to use your Mobile Suit's equipped weapons, character-specific Boosts, or Techniques.
Equipped weapons come in two types, ranged and melee, and different characters tend to be more effective with one or the other type. Ranged attacks score multiple weak hits on an enemy, while melee attacks score a single powerful hit. Unless you carefully time a melee attack, then an enemy who survives will get to immediately counter-attack you at melee range. Each weapon has its own EN cost. Boosts are super-powerful moves that use your equipped weapons and consume extra EN to do tremendous damage, and show off a pretty attack animation. Techniques are usually abilities like buffs, debuffs, and healing spells, but a few characters have the ability to use their Techniques to do direct damage to enemies. Each use of Techniques consumes that character's TP, which can only be restored by staying at an Inn for the night. The upshot of this is that battles are short, brutal, and require quite a bit of strategy since you need to take what the enemy's about to do into account when picking your moves.
Music-wise the game is nothing special so far, but the light synth and electronic rock tunes are quite adequate. Our preview build was the original Japanese build, which had no voice acting, but Bandai has announced that the American version of the game will be almost fully voiced in English. Graphically MS Saga makes good use of the PS2 hardware but feels a little primitive next to Dragon Quest VIII; its look for the cut-scenes and human characters is comparable to the flat-shaded, carefully stylized CG used in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.
The overworld map and battle sequences have similarly flat-shaded but have a much more colorful, natural look to them than the occasionally stiff character models. Each pilot character and enemy type brings a unique set of moves to their robot, and some Mobile Suit parts also get custom animations of their own. Moving around out of battle can be a bit more awkward right now, as all of the game's environments have static, pre-set camera angles. It feels like a step backward after similar games like DQ8 and Nocturne implemented total camera control via the left analog stick. If Bandai could add something like that into the American build, it'd be a very welcome addition.
Still, MS Saga is shaping up to be the best Gundam game yet to hit American shores, and arguably the only really good Gundam ever to be translated into English. It hits store shelves in February 2006, just in time for you to pick it up after you finish Dragon Quest VIII.