By Alex Kierkegaard / February 24, 2008
Note that, thanks to the tireless efforts of the localizers, the trailer posted with this review contains a massive spoiler. You've been warned.
If someone had tracked me down while playing R-Type in an Athenian arcade in the late '80s, and told me that twenty years later I'd be playing an R-Type-themed strategy game on a handheld device a hundred times more powerful than all the machines around me put together, I'd have undoubtedly asked him two questions. First, "What are the specs of the device?", and second, "Why strategy?"
Why strategy indeed. The idea of slapping the title of a popular game onto a completely different one, and then dressing it up in the original's theme in an attempt to "pass on" its popularity, was not one we were accustomed to back then you see. Another idea we were even less accustomed to is that of a company losing its know-how. Kazuma Kujo, the director of R-Type Final, has stated that one of the reasons he worked himself in a frenzy to get that game done was because the know-how of making shoot 'em ups was fast disappearing from Irem, and he wanted to make another R-Type before it was completely gone. Alas, he was too late for that, but at least his revelation would have answered young Alex's question. It would have saddened him.
But this is the reality of things, companies lose their know-how but not the desire to exploit the popularity of the IPs they create, and this is why I now find myself, two decades later, trying to make sense of this strategy game that's masquerading as one of the most iconic shoot 'em ups of my youth. What am I to make of it?
It's not a bad game. In a market flooded with piss-poor, piss-easy "Tactics" titles -- games that require practically no use of tactics whatsoever -- I found its complete lack of handholding and relatively steep learning curve (for a modern game, that is) refreshing. As with Fun Unit's Itsuwari no Rondo (another recent Tactics game worthy of your attention), once I failed three times in a row to clear the first mission I was hooked. This misled me to an extent; at first I was ecstatic to have found another Japanese strategy game with actual challenge, but it turns out this challenge was mostly due to the unfamiliar units. You see there are no warriors or archers or spellcasters here, each with strengths and weaknesses by now hard-wired into our brains, so until you figure out exactly what the various units do, you'll be in serious trouble (and, naturally, enjoying yourself all the more because of it).
I was, at least, glad to see that in one respect the use of the R-Type theme was beneficial to the game, and I soon discovered many others. I loved how an additional layer of strategy was introduced by limiting the fuel and ammunition in each ship, requiring you to constantly resupply them. I loved how, instead of dreaming up some sci-fi equivalent to potions or spellcasters, the designers force you to dock your ships into a capital ship in order to repair them. I loved how all of R-Type's signature elements -- the side-on view, the Force, the charge shot, the different weapon types, the giant bosses -- were intertwined with the mechanics of the game in meaningful, and sometimes even brilliant ways. I loved the brisk, serious tone of the campaign, free from anime clips of emo transsexuals blabbing endlessly about the fate of their nonsensical and boring universe. I did hate the ugly and insufferably slow battle animations (whoever was responsible for those needs to play either a Fire Emblem or a Wars game asap), but I turned them off and promptly forgot about them. And I absolutely loved the hex-covered little maps, with swirling dust clouds or slowly drifting space junk in the background, and with excellent music setting the mood for atmospheric confrontations.
And yet despite all that my enjoyment lasted barely a third of the way through the campaign. Part of it was that the second third is so cheap it's simply unacceptable, while the last third merely recycles ideas from the first, completely failing to build up the scope and challenge of the missions to some sort of appropriate climax. Not to mention *MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT* the unlockable Bydo campaign I didn't even bother with. They should have put the extra effort into designing more, and much better, human-side missions.
But the poorly designed campaign is not the main issue here. I guess, in a way, this game was bound to disappoint me from the start, and the better it turned out the greater the disappointment was bound to be. See, the Japanese can make two kinds of good strategy games: the fairly complex kind that only Koei and a couple of lesser-known companies still make on occasion (and God bless their souls for it), and the simplistic, fast-paced, high-on-charm kind that Intelligent Systems has been practically monopolizing since the release of Famicom Wars in '88. Irem doesn't quite have the know-how to make the latter, and the R-Type theme doesn't lend itself to that type of game anyway; nor is the PSP a very suitable platform for the former; so R-Type Tactics was bound to end up stuck somewhere in the unsatisfying middle: not complex enough to attract the serious strategy fan in me, nor polished enough to serve as a quick, pleasant distraction between more serious games. To be more specific, there are two elements that should have been different in order to turn this into the must-play masterpiece it easily could have been. Once past the initial difficulty barrier, I spent the rest of the game absent-mindedly tapping buttons and thinking about them.
R-Type Tactics needed, above all, a system with which the player could acquire new units during a battle. Due to the fog of war it is very easy to lose some of your best units early on in an engagement (even if you fully exploit your stealth-capable and decoy-planting ships), without which wiping out the enemy becomes practically impossible. You are therefore forced to resort to quicksaving and reloading, and once you start down that path there's simply no return. You then get into the habit of saving at the start of every turn, and what little challenge was left in the game goes immediately out the space bay, with enjoyment following soon after. The fog of war missions in the Wars games also introduce this problem to an extent -- i.e. you usually have to first find out exactly where enemies are placed on a map, and then replay the mission taking advantage of that knowledge -- but at least in those games if you screw up you still stand a chance, because with a bit of luck you can keep rebuilding whatever forces you lose during any cock-ups. Not so in R-Type Tactics.
The second thing this game needed was greater, much greater scope. This game should have been made for the PC, with huge 1080p maps filled with hundreds of ships (just like in the opening cinematic!), and a mouse-based interface to simplify the issuing of orders. I can only imagine how awesome such a game would be, and how unforgettable the experience of sitting in a dark room in the center of a 5.1 sound setup while directing opera-worthy space battles on a gigantic screen in front of me. Of course someone will now jump up and tell me that this is the kind of game a Western company would make, and right he would be. But the point is that Western developers may deliver the scope that strategy fans like me crave, but they rarely if ever deliver the charm, while the opposite is true of Japanese developers. My point is that a fusion of the two approaches would be awesome, and I can't think of a more appropriate game to accomplish it than this. It's half-way there already anyway, with more nuanced mechanics than any small-scale Japanese strategy game bar Nectaris, not to mention the fantastic concept of slowly building up a fleet of ships as the campaign progresses. If only you were allowed to use the whole damn fleet at the same time, instead of being limited to a handful of units per mission, even as far into the game as a couple of missions before the end...
But enough with dreaming of what might have been. The current game has several other problems worth pointing out, including half-assed mining of resources (which is simply gratuitous, adding nothing to such a small-scale game), and pointless turn limits for every mission (what is the justification for those anyway? Does God intervene in the middle of a space battle, putting an end to it if someone hasn't won within 35 turns?) Most annoying of all is the "immortality syndrome" which many Japanese strategy games suffer from. Having your pilots gain experience and being able to assign the veterans to fly the newer, fancier ships was a brilliant touch, but making the pilots immortal while at the same time miraculously repairing destroyed ships after every mission was lame, lame, lame. As for the local wireless versus mode, it's true that the game's most serious problems (i.e. the poor campaign, the quicksaving/reloading shenanigans and the immortality syndrome) vanish when you play against a human, but if your versus mode in a strategy game in 2007 is not online with solid matchmaking and leaderboards, I am sorry, but I don't want to hear about it.
I'll close this review with a thought that struck me once I switched off my PSP after my last session with the game, and shelved it for good. R-Type Tactics will make you feel as if the previous R-Types had never existed, as if the R-Type theme had been created with strategy in mind instead of 2D shooting. That's how expertly the old theme has been draped over the new mechanics, and that is Irem's greatest achievement with this game. I'd like to see a sequel, and hope its designers will read this review and heed my advice... Fat chance, I know, on both counts, but hey. One can still hope.
R-Type Tactics will be released in North America on May 6 as R-Type Command. No word yet of an EU release.