I’ve never been a fan of anime, so a videogame trying to replicate the style of one isn’t going to do much for me. I actually can’t even remember why I grabbed this off Ebay – perhaps reviews saying how uncommonly strong the story and characters were. I’d love to know where that game they played is.
Shogo has you controlling Sanjuro, a mech pilot for the military. An extremely valuable substance called Kato has been found on a particular planet, leading to a three-way Battle Royale between the military alliance, the planet’s rebel government, and a powerful terrorist group out to gain a Kato monopoly. You serve under a cold and distant admiral. You and his daughter used to be an item, until you lost her, your brother, and your best friend to a previous mission gone bad. So, in between feeling sorry for yourself and being outcast by your fellow soldiers, you find solace in the bed of the admiral’s other daughter. A sassy, maverick pilot who’s a sex machine to all the ladies? Can you pander to nerds any harder?
It’s possible that the story might be more involved, but it wasn’t covered in the manual. The game doesn’t fully cover these points either, and I’m not sure if it’s supposed to feel like you’re dropped in the middle of an ongoing serial, or if some exposition was just dropped. This is definitely an issue, because the allegedly epic plot was lost on me. Cutscenes and dialogue choices reference a past I’m not aware of. I never felt for the characters, and thought they were strictly stock. The love triangle was never expressed that well, Sanjuro came off as a bit of prick, and when the Big Narrative Choices came up, I wasn’t clear on why I should vote one way or the other. I don’t think it’s because I wasn’t paying attention. Shogo, the game itself, doesn’t tell a great story. I might have been led wrong to think this was a fantastic story game, but after playing it, I can tell you it feels like any other shooter.
In-game, the story results in a few non-interactive cutscenes and a shit-ton of radio messages from command and various deus ex machinas (everyone on the planet apparently has your frequency). Terse mission objectives point you around to where you will find an exit, or interact with certain consoles. Pretty basic stuff, and it follows the new standard for “story-based gameplay” since Quake II. There are also supposed to be decision points that radically change the story. For example, one decision point has you picking a side between two factions. However, the rest of the mission plays out identically, with the same exact units in the same places; they just swap the colors based on the group you’re now fighting.
As promised, you will switch between infiltrating bases on foot and stomping through cities in your mech as you make your way down the list of levels. Fighting on foot is no-frills FPS action. Offices, military bases, and various parts of the city are your targets, and you’ll shoot your way past faceless guards and soldiers with a variety of weapons. There are no key hunts, but objective-based barriers will have you searching around for the right computer, the right item, or the right power box to blow to open up a new area. Despite all the mech hype and packaging promises, these on-foot levels are actually the bulk of the game. Every one mech level leads to three or four foot levels, and usually that mech level is just based on getting you around the city and to the next docking station.
Meanwhile, those mech levels aren’t anywhere near as exciting as you might expect. If I had to lay blame at something, it would be a lack of a crucial sense of scale. Yes, some attempt is made here. Many mech levels place you inside cities where you stomp around at about the three-story level. Small cars, tanks, and even enemy soldiers run around your feet in futile attempts to stop you. However, it never feels like you’re commanding a giant robot inside a regular world – instead it feels like the world has simply shrunk.
I think it’s because you never get a proper sense of height. If you were piloting a mech, the size of your eyes wouldn’t increase, so things would only look smaller based on the height you were riding. But here, cars and tanks simply look like minature models (and they are). Tiny human soldiers spout two windows worth of blood onto nearby buildings. The mass of convenient robot-sized tunnels and lifts look just like their man-sized counterparts in other games. And while the buildings are towering, there are levels in Blood II where you run around the edges of buildings that are the same scale.
Furthermore, the on-foot levels give a built-in comparison. It’s pretty easy to see the that the game, and the feel of the game, are identical in both sections. The controls don’t change either, and you are just as agile in the bot as you are on the ground. True, there is precident in anime for robots that move as lithely as humans do, but running around exactly as you just did on foot doesn’t help the illusion of controlling a giant robot. More importantly, it means that the only practical difference between the levels are the weapons you can field. Like the story, the mech sections seem gimmicky and tacked-on.
Enemies simply aren’t that impressive. There are a few interesting soldier and mech designs, but they get reused across all the factions. The only difference will be the color of their armor plates. Likewise, you can select from one of four different mech types with allegedly unique stats. One is heavy but slow, one is light but fast, one is a balance, but all tend to play the same. There’s not a depth of playstyles to be had in any of the levels – you point, you shoot, you collect powerups and have access to the same weapons in every one. I ended up settling on the mech with heavy armor, and saw no critical reduction in movement. I shudder to think of playing this with the light armor variant, but more on that in a second.
Weapons break out into rocket launchers, energy pulse weapons, and instant-hit guns like lasers – the only reason you’ll need to switch around is variety. Both sides of the game have their single all-purpose gun (the assault rifle on foot, the pulse rifle in the mech) and they’re both perfectly capable of taking you all the way through the game. Many of the others are also simply redundant copies. While I like the scatter-launching Bullgut, I couldn’t find a real difference between the other three rocket launchers. There’s absolutely no reason to use the submachine gun when the silencer doesn’t actually work, and it hits just as hard as the assault rifle. Same for the laser gun vs the giant machine gun on the mech side.
Enemy AI is exactly as expected. Basic charging, shooting; no dodging, no fear. However, enemies do enjoy lighting reactions as you enter the room, flawless aim, and high-damage attacks, just like in Blood II. One particular time that I was paying attention, I notice I jumped from 1000 health to 200 in only a few shots, and this was not against any kind of special mech or tricky weapon. Your health will rollercoaster unbelievably throughout the levels. The situation actually gets worse as you go along (nuke launchers instant-kill mechs, most explosives instant-kill you on foot). You most definitely will take damage in every fight. Luckily, this is offset by a ridiculous abundance of health and armor powerups, both laying around, and hidden inside ubiquitous objects like boxes or cars.
You’re also helped by the critical hit system. Seemingly at random, you’ll score a “critical hit” against man and mech alike. A critical hit creates a little purple explosion on your enemy (complete with a “zowwiee!” sound effect) and gives you a moderate health boost each time. I never got good enough to trigger them on purpose (it’s not headshots or pinpoint aim), but they happen frequently enough to keep you going and make the game playable. The downside is that enemies can randomly, but far less frequently, score crits on you.
Then there are the bugs. Escort missions are present, and they suck. Naturally, if your brain-dead cohort gets killed, you magically drop dead yourself. In this case, the person who was supposed to follow me got stuck and killed on the edge of an elevator; close to the end and through no fault of my own. Quickload and restart the whole section. There’s frequent clipping issues, like doors that will gib you instantly if you get caught when they open. There’s also some just stupid design. My favorite was a boss fight that began with the boss atop a tower shooting rockets down at me. The intro cutscene ended, I didn’t move an inch, and the boss started shooting rockets. He would have hit me, if the beam he was standing on wasn’t in the way. Undeterred, the boss keeps firing rocket after rocket into his feet, and quickly killed himself with the splash damage. I won the fight without even touching the controls. That’s pretty sad.
Characters are all fully voiced, and I think they missed a step here. First of all, no big names. While that isn’t critical, this is a game that would have significantly benefitted from some classic anime actors – especially if that’s the audience they’re playing to (even, God help me, Cam Clarke would have been appropriate). Instead, the actors here are relative newcomers with little work under their belt; and it’s probably no coincidence that the majority have more than one Monolith game on their resume. Oh, there’s a good one or two lines there, but most are direct “videogame” dialogue telling you where to go or tersely what’s at stake. It’s a shame because the intro’s great, complete with a perfectly goofy bubblegum pop song (and in Japanese, no less). The game itself just doesn’t match.
If I had to put my finger on it (and it’s the last paragraph, so I do) I would say that Shogo feels like a game for anime fans made by people who really didn’t think much of anime. “Anime” here seems more like a license for goofy camp. There’s very little emotional impact to the story, and so many plot twists that you wonder if it’s supposed to be farce. Even Monolith themselves blow off the story in the ending credits (by way of a flippant summary of its events for street cred – watch the credits, you’ll see). Whatever the reason, it doesn’t tell a story well, and while I appreciate that it does at least try, it’s far more focused on being a generic shooter. The game powering this plot is further flawed, with short mech areas that fail to impress, and on-foot corridor shooting that could have come from any other FPS on the market. Tries to be different, ends up being exactly the same.
Some attempt at both telling a story and playing to anime. Lithtech can crank out some really nice graphics and effects. Dynamic soundtrack a neat technical addition. Decent shooting action throughout.
Doesn’t seem to believe in its own story. Little difference between the mech and foot levels. Fairly unpredictable difficulty. Some critical bugs. And put it this way… this is a game about a classic Japanese genre, and no one in Japan had anything to do with it.
Kathryn – “They know you’re coming.”
Sanjuro – “Good. Then they’ll know who killed them!”