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Thursday, July 21, 2016

G-Saviour (the Game): The Final Men of UC Destiny

While we here in North America only received G-Saviour in the form of the live-action movie, at least until Yoshiyuki Tomino publicly disapproved of it, in Japan it was more than just a Japanese/Canadian co-production. Over there, Sunrise gave it a fairly notable push, conceptualizing it as a multimedia promotion truly worthy of being part of Gundam's 20th Anniversary Big Bang Project. Aside from the movie, though, the only other product that really gets any recognition is the video game. Developed by game studio/toy manufacturer Atelier-Sai (Cyber Formula ~Road to the Infinity~, Sunrise Eiyuutan, Sunrise World War) & released by Sunrise Interactive (Astro Kyudan: Kessen! Victory Kyudan-hen), G-Saviour was a PlayStation 2 game that saw release on September 14, 2000, a month before the system saw international release. In fact, the PS2 game was the very first piece of G-Saviour to ever see release in general, acting partially as a bit of promotion for the main attraction that was the movie, even though the game takes place after it. As time has gone on, the game has wound up receiving a much warmer reception than the movie, but now that I wound up enjoying the movie more than expected I wonder if the game can live up to the relative praise it has received. Only one way to find out, I'd say...

Universal Century 0223, Winter. It's been close to one year since the "Light of Gaea Incident", where Mark Curran helped Side 8 "Gaea" fight back the forces of CONSENT & declare itself a truly independent Settlement, which has started to cause panic among the other Settlements. Colonel Bais Bashing, loyal confidant to the late General Garneaux, has decided to put his secret "Project Raven" into action to enhance CONSENT's military power & quell any more potential rebellion. After finding out about Bais' plan, the Illuminati of Side 4 sends Lightning Squad to Earth to put a stop to Project Raven. With help of his commanding officer Ben Bolt & operator Asaka Field, Reed Fox pilots the same G-Saviour used a year ago to take the fight to CONSENT. To combat Lightning Squad, Bais sends out Gremly Sheep, his own elite squad lead by the shady Rysis, which will require the G-Saviour to be upgraded into the even more powerful G3-Saviour ("G-Third").

First & foremost, those who hated how loosely connected the G-Saviour movie was to the Universal Century timeline will find a bite more to bit on with the G-Saviour game. The game makes references to events that happened decades prior to the current events, with Chapters taking place in actual locations from previous stories. Chapter 2, for example, has Reed traverse the inner remains of the colony drop in Sydney that kickstarted the One Year War in Mobile Suit Gundam. When Asaka asks about what the ruins are, Ben calls it "old history" dating back to "The Great War", and acknowledging that "Space Colonies" are what the Settlements used to be called. The crew also visit Kilimanjaro, which housed a former base for the Titans in Zeta Gundam, & the ruins of a European city that was destroyed "some 70 years ago" by a giant satellite that fell from space, which may have been the Angel Halo from Victory Gundam.

There's also a giant focus on the Mobile Suits this time around, with the characters being nothing more than little portrait's during cutscenes. It's in this game that you get to see more of units from the movie, like the G-Saviour or the Bugu, but the real appeal is in the original units seen only in this game, all designed by Kunio Okawara. Stuff like the mass-produced J-Saviour, the G3-Saviour, & the transforming Raven are the real appeal here, and all look very sleek & cool. In fact, the G3-Saviour looks even more like a Gundam than the vanilla G-Saviour does, & it's sheer speed makes it feel like the real successor to the Victory Gundam than before. Overall, this G-Saviour, while keeping the references vague enough to fit the sheer amount of time between it & Victory, still feels enough like a true blue part of the Gundam mythos.

Sadly, the game doesn't sell itself well via still images.

Getting to the game itself, it's a rather simple third-person shooter that both works due to its simplicity, yet has a couple of flaws due to the time it was released. In terms of controls, it's a rather simple layout. By default, the left analog stick controls movement, you attack with X or R1, block by holding Square or L1, use your special weapon (if you have one) with Triangle, fire your SMA/Circus Motion Attack (an self-controlling weapons barrage) with O, change your lock-on with R2, perform a slight dodge with L2, & hover by clicking in L3. In fact, having attacking & blocking be double-assigned is interesting, because I think it's best to rely on L1 & R1 when playing. Holding L1 to block while moving around & firing with R1 (which you have to press for each attack) just feels so much better & easier than having to rock your thumb between Square & X to do the same thing; you can remap buttons, though. Both special weapons & the SMA (it's an "S" because they just went off of the katakana) have limited uses, while your shield & hovering are both regulated by gauges that are by your health; not using either recharges them. Shields cannot guard against explosions, however.

The main flaw comes in camera control, which is mostly a product of its time. Instead of a free-floating camera that you position into place, like what would become standard, the right analog stick instead swings the camera around your mech; you can lock the position in with R3. Likewise, going left or right with the left stick doesn't sidestep, but rather pivots, but that doesn't mean that movement during battle is needlessly annoying. Instead, it emphasizes hovering, because when you hover you gain the ability to strafe side-to-side, with a slight turn to accommodate advancing through the stages; you also move much faster than on foot. Overall, though, combat becomes more about managing your hovering to maximize maneuverability without draining it completely, as it then takes a few seconds for your hover to recharge. Some stages do work best on foot if you don't have quite as much room, but overall it's a fun mix of fast-paced hover combat & slower-paced on-foot shooting, and that's easily G-Saviour's best thing going for it.

There is some bit of pre-stage planning once you unlock G3-Saviour's other forms, though, because each has its advantages & weaknesses. Vanilla G3 has a nice, long hover & a rapid fire special weapon, as well as being the fastest form. Intensive-Attack Mode, which is the Full Armor equivalent, has the most health, but doesn't move quite as fast. Also, it's special weapons, shoulder-mounted cannons, require two buttons presses (the first sets them up), & you can't use your shield to protect yourself when using it. Finally, Ground-Attack Mode has infinite hover (since it has wheels on its feet), as well as two different sets of weapons depending on if the mech is walking or hovering, but has the least health of the three & uses up its special weapons (homing missiles) the fastest. You also use the G-Saviour in the first two Chapters, but you only have access to Space Mode, which is fast but has the least health of any playable unit in the game & is without any special weapons. That being said, Intensive-Attack Mode is easily the best, mainly due to the high amount of health & the fact that its special weapon can be used 30 times. When combined with how powerful the cannons are, destroying grunts in one hit & being able to juggle bosses around, the fact that you get 30 shots kind of negates the risk inherent in using it. The other forms are great, no doubt about that, but Intensive-Attack Mode is simply the strongest.

Sadly, that's really all there is to it. The game is a paltry eight chapters long, each of which is made up of a single stage & a boss fight. While the game starts off rather easy, it does become trickier as you go on, with the last three stages really requiring that mix of speed, defense, & offense I mentioned. The stages themselves are fast & exciting to play through, though extremely linear, & you get graded at the end based on how many enemies you take out, how much health you have remaining, & how accurate your shots were; it's easy to fire like a madman, but clever shooting gets you a higher rank. In another nice touch, nearly every stage features different responses from Ben & Asaka depending on the rank you received, which means that it's literally impossible to hear everything they say on a single play. Still, the entire story can be played through in about 2-3 hours, & though there are three difficulties to choose from & an art gallery to unlock (which requires beating the game on each difficulty), replayability really depends on how much you like the gameplay. You do unlock more units to play with (like J-Saviour & G-Saviour Terrain Mode) after beating the game, though. Personally, the mix of twitch-style gameplay with early Armored Core-style touches is enough to make this feel like a game I could see myself go back to one day in the future, but I'll concede that the lack of length can be a major turn-off.

All that being said, there are some annoyances that I found, especially when you get to the endgame. For the most part, the controls do their job just fine, but the boss for the final Chapter really showcases the major flaws with the way the controls were designed. The biggest fault comes in the fact that camera control is mostly useless, since it snaps back to behind your Gundam when you let go, & locking it in only does so much. This is a little annoying with the double Reid fight in Chapter 6, but really becomes a problem with the final battle with Rysis & the Raven. Unlike all of the previous boss fights in the game, which can be outright cakewalks once you catch each of them in an infinite hitstun loop (the double Reids negate that slightly, though), the Raven fight is the complete opposite by being a total pain in the ass. While the hitstun is still there, the Raven actually dodges about & uses a beam shield to negate your shots often, making it impossible to infinite loop it. Also, it's speed can make it tricky to really keep on screen at times, which is where the camera issues become paramount.

Finally, in regard to Raven, it's a three part fight, with the last part having it fly around in jet mode. It circles about way too fast to keep up with it, & the best chance you have to hit it (when it charges at you) is made useless because of the beam shield. Essentially, you have to continually get lucky with your shots & hope that they hit the flying Raven, either in the side or right before it puts the shields on. The special weapons can help, but there's a fair chance that you'll have already used them all up by that point. This is compounded by close-quarters combat, which is too annoying to really use in battle. Instead of a separate button, it only works when near a foe, but it's so awkward to tell who has the advantage that I tried to never rely on it. If you can get it just right you can beat the Raven's first two fights via CQC only, but it's useless for that last fight.

"What about the SMA?", you ask? Sadly, it's effectively useless, because rather than be an area-clearing attack where you shoot all around you, or even circle around a specific point, it instead simply sends you flying forward uncontrollably, with a zig-zag sway that doesn't help at all. While it did help me out in extremely rare instances, & the damage each hit does is high, it's the execution of the attack itself that makes the SMA more of a liability than anything. The last real annoyance, though, is that you can't recover health in any fashion during a Chapter. It may not sound that bad, but enemy shots really sting in this game, with even Intensive-Attack Mode only being to take about four or five good hits before getting destroyed; you better make sure your shield is constantly charged. This extends over to the bosses, so if you get hit during a stage, then you have even less health to fight the boss with. Due to missteps of my own accord, I had to fight numerous bosses with next to no health, including the twin Reid fight in Chapter 6; it felt awesome winning that fight with barely any health, but it was annoying nonetheless. This also applies to Chapter 8, which has a decently tricky stage, followed by three straight boss fights, all on one life bar.

In terms of the story that's told in the game, it's relatively simple in execution but gets the job done. You don't get too much character development with the cast due to their only chances being found in the scenes between the stages themselves, but little bits of character manage to squeak by. Reed is always ready to go & fight, but not in a suicidal sort of way; rather, he knows he's the best they have, so he has to push forward. You get a small sense of a relationship between him & Asaka, but mainly in how she hates how Reed is always the one who has to do these dangerous missions on his own; she always welcomes him back with a "cup of coffee", though. Ben is easily the least developed, mainly staying the dedicated yet understanding leader; he agrees that constantly putting Reed out isn't ideal, but there's no other choice in the matter. There's also a mystery regarding Rysis, as well as how the AI-controlled Mobile Weapons of CONSENT remind Reed of his old student Race Patrick, which admittedly has an extra twist to it that makes not quite as blatantly obvious. Gremly Sheep itself is given very little, mainly comprising of its members (Rysis, Wynn Curtis, & Richard Rite) being bosses in the second half of the game, with the others (CONSENT pilots Klaus Barrod & Kite Goldman) being the same, if not simply being AI-controlled Mobile Weapons for you to fight. In fact, Race & Colonel Bais aren't even shown in the game at all, only being referred to. It's a bare minimum that keeps the game going, but I guess some might find it more appealing than the movie's story, since it does feel more Gundam-ish in general.

Thankfully, the game actually performs well on a technical level. While it was one of the earliest PS2 games ever released, it still looks pretty good to this day. Sure, it won't go down as a visual masterpiece, but the models look nice, the textures are detailed enough, there are some lighting effects for things like explosions, & the game runs at a very stable frame rate; I'd imagine it's locked at 30 FPS, but I'm no expert on that stuff. It's the absence of any slow down that really helps the game out, as it never really loses the excellent sense of speed that makes this such a joy to play. Gundam fans will also notice some iconic sound effects in use here & there, which is another point in its favor over the movie. As for the music, however, it's easily one of the absolute best things about the game. Composed by the mysterious nkis, the soundtrack is an outstanding mix of electronica, techno, dance, & even a little orchestral, delivering both hard hitting beats as well as some rather soothing & mellow tracks, none of which feel all that out of place; even the calmer music used for some stages & boss fights somehow fights fine. Quite frankly, it's a stellar soundtrack that helps seal the deal, & I wish that the actual OST release wasn't so absurdly expensive now; it easily goes over $100. There's also an ending theme, "Dear Mother" by Lovable, which is a really soothing ballad sung in complete English that works very well as a winding down sort of ending, especially if you had some trouble with the Raven.

Finally, we get to the voice work, which is in complete English & performed mostly by gaijin talent, i.e. English-speaking actors who live & work in Japan. To be honest, it's not going to win any awards, with a fair bit of stilted performances & some awkward lines that are just a little too literal & obviously written by Japanese people who don't normally speak English. The actors do try their best, though, which keeps it from being unlistenable. Matt Lagan (Lind L. Taylor in live-action Death Note, Leonard Wold in Silent Hill 3) is probably the most solid actor of the bunch in his portrayal of Reed, making him likable & a workable lead; he's also liable to let out some foul language, both of the "S" & "F" variety. Asaka is voiced by native Japanese actress, & DJ, Mai Tsuji (Kim in Hellsing TV, Osae in Samurai Gun), whose English is overall excellent, making her fit in with the native English speakers just fine. At first I thought that the actors themselves were photographed for their characters' in-game portraits, but after seeing that Guy Perryman (Steve Fox in Tekken 6, Toasty in Lunar Knights) is a white guy, while his character Ben is obviously a black man, I guess I was wrong on that front; Perryman's performance as Ben is okay, though. Of them all, though, the cheesiest (but probably most enjoyable) performance comes from Dennis Falt (Death in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Walter Sullivan in Silent Hill 4: The Room), who plays up Rysis as a crazed psychopath of a pilot; considering the reveal his character gets at the very end, it's appropriate. Overall, the voice work suffers from the same awkwardness that generally comes from English performances via Japan, but it's also endearing in the same way.

I've generally read that the G-Saviour video game for PlayStation 2 was the much better product than the G-Saviour movie that most are familiar with. After finally watching the movie & then playing the game right afterwards, I have to full-heartedly agree with that sentiment. While I wound up liking the movie way more than I ever thought I would, the game is still simply the more enjoyable, more action-packed, & (most importantly) more Gundam-like title. Even though it came out so early in the PS2's life, it still holds up rather well as an action game, though there are some nagging annoyances. The camera itself is generally fine, tjough controlling it can be another thing entirely, while CQC is awkward, the SMA is mostly useless, & the various forms of the G3-Saviour are not entirely balanced; the final boss can also be all sorts of annoying. All that being said, however, the general gameplay is fun, fast, & relatively easy to get used to, & it definitely gives a better feeling that the Mobie Suits here are actually proper successors to what came before them than how the movie portrayed them. The best thing of all is how import-friendly it is, as the only Japanese you ever see is for the subtitles, & the story itself doesn't exactly require one to have seen the movie first; remember, this was the very first product of the G-Saviour multimedia project. You can also grab the game for dirt cheap, as it's presently available for less than $20 almost anywhere. If you're a Gundam fan (hell, even if you're not) & can play import PS2 games, then this is honestly a worthy addition to your library.

With a quick epilogue happening in UC 0224, the G-Saviour game marks the end of the Universal Century timeline, at least in terms of whatever story there has been to tell. While it promises that the G-Saviour's legend is only just beginning, I'll take this as a finale, of sorts, for the Universal Century. At the very least, it's not as bleak & kill-crazy as Victory Gundam was. Still, there is more to G-Saviour than just the movie & game, so check back in a few days for a general overview of what else came about from this much-maligned experiment from Sunrise... And where exactly it stands in the pantheon of Gundam.

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