And I'll form... the head! - Review By BenT
Licensed anime games are a huge sub-industry in Japan. If a new TV show finds moderate success, you can bet your favorite joystick that you'll be able to play it on the current console of choice six months down the road. Indeed, certain companies exist almost solely to feed this profitable little niche, churning out license after crappy license. Since there are so many mediocre anime games, it's always a pleasant surprise when one is done right.
Tech Romancer is an unusual twist in Capcom's huge fighting game lineup. The game is a fully 3D polygonal fighter, but unlike the third-person Virtual On, here the action is presented in the traditional side view, Virtua Fighter style. The characters are all original creations, and not officially affiliated with any particular anime. However, they draw *heavily* from many of the most popular giant robot series. Pulsion, for example, looks a heck of a lot like an EVA from Evangelion, and some of its moves have a bit of an Ultraman flare to them. In addition, its weapon arsenal is pulled straight of Evangelion, right down to the Longinus Spears(!) it throws. Other robots are similarly inspired by the likes of Gundam, Macross, Transformers, Virtual On, Mazinger Z, and a whole bunch of others I probably have no idea about. As you'd expect from a fighting game, the premise is quite simple: each of the nine default characters has to defeat the evil being known as Goldibus. Of course, the devil is in the details...
Capcom has designed some great characters over the years (Street Fighter II or Mega Man, anyone?) but Tech Romancer's varied cast of mechs truly stands out. As I mentioned, most of the robots are directly derived from other anime, but this form of tribute actually adds to their charm. It's fun for the anime fan to pick out and be surprised by the various references, and these in-jokes just gave me the warm fuzzies all around. But don't worry that the characters are derivative; they don't lack originality in the least. Take Bolon for example. This mech is an eclectic-looking conglomeration of buildings, yachts, train cars, and random construction equipment, all of which is piloted by a preteen girl with magical powers and pink hair. That, folks, is sheer brilliance.
Bolon, meet Wiseduck.
The actual gameplay is not quite as inspired, but is still quite enjoyable. You have four buttons with which to control your mech, comprised of two attacks, a jump, and a block button. The first twist is that there is not a traditional life indicator -- each character has a damage meter which starts out empty and fills up as the match progresses. When an opponent's meter reaches the half-way point, your Final Attack becomes available. The Final Attack is activated by pressing all four buttons simultaneously, and if it connects the enemy is instantly KO'ed amid an entertaining display of pyrotechnics. While the Final Attack may sound like a rather cheap and skill-less tactic, this is balanced somewhat by the fact that these attacks are easily blockable, and may only be attempted once per round. Personally, I enjoyed the chance to end fights early, although conquered opponents didn't always see it that way.
Another interesting twist is the addition of weapons and power-ups. While the specific weapons vary by character, the mechs always start each fight with three weapons in their inventories. Pulsion, as mentioned earlier, has an Evangelion-inspired arsenal that consists of a spear, a knife, and those cool double-bladed swords that the evil EVAs wielded in End of Evangelion. Weapons expire after a few uses, but more can be found on the battlefield by stomping on buildings and other bits of the landscape. Also available are status-boosting items, such as Offense-Up, Defense-Up, and the rather uncommon "Hero Mode". These items can only be activated once, and last for 10 or so seconds. The Hero Mode item is particularly interesting, as its effects are different for each character. Some mechs gain the ability to fly, some obtain new moves, while Pulsion goes into a hunched-over berserk mode, complete with savage, unblockable new attacks. (Ok, sorry... enough about Pulsion. What can I say, I'm a bit of an Evangelion nut.) Overall, these weapons and items add a welcome new facet to the gameplay, helping to keep things fresh and unpredictable. While they would have felt out of place in something like Street Fighter, they fit right in with the slightly experimental nature of Tech Romancer's gameplay.
The hand-drawn teasers between levels are simply stunning.
When you strip away all of the above gimmicks, you're left with a solid little fighting engine. Attacks have logical hit detection, and the characters are fairly well-balanced. There's some pretty crazy moves, but few are overly dominating. At first, playing defensively seems extremely effective, as merely holding down the block button will protect you from any and all moves. However, every time you block your robot's armor meter will decrease, and your defense will break when it reaches zero. An armorless robot takes greater damage from every hit, and cannot block. Hence, it's definitely not in your best interests to sit back and play turtle. In Tech Romancer, a steady offense is rewarded.
It goes without saying that versus mode is where this game's replayability lurks, but Tech Romancer's single player features are also surprisingly robust. Each battle is presented like an anime episode, complete with story scenes/dialogue which set up the fight, and a beautifully drawn lead-in shot of your robot of choice. Most of the characters' stories are interesting enough that you'll want to go through the game with each, just to see what happens. In addition, each robot has one or more "branch points" where the story will change if you meet certain conditions. The conditions to get the story to branch are largely arbitrary; an example might be to beat the third opponent with a Final Attack. If you do that, the story branches. If you fail, the story continues on its usual course. What's more, some mechs let you choose between pilots, leading to even more possible storylines. You'll have to play the game dozens of times before you've seen everything.
Next: More Good, The Bad, and The Final Word