I picked up Ring of Red with a great deal of anticipation. I hadn't had a good strategy game in a long time - the last one I'd played for any amount of time was Tactics Ogre a couple of years back. So I'd been awaiting Ring of Red for a long time now, and eagerly popped it in to the PS2 and started to play. Ring of Red, on the box, looks extremely impressive, a sort of more strategic Front Mission 3, big mecha, troops, and skills all helping the strategy along.
The main premise behind Ring of Red's storyline is a simple, believable one - what if Japan had not surrendered during World War II, but instead held fast to a policy of total resistance. The result of this is that Russia ended up smashing Japan, and divided it into three states - South Japan, North Japan and the Soviet Union-held section (the northern islands). A near-constant cold war is going on between these sections of Japan, making relationships strained and separating many families.
In the middle of this is Masami von Weizigger, a German-Japanese test pilot for South Japan. Poor Masami has had, in the tradition of these sort of things, an unhappy childhood, and as such he's rather the
silent and serious type, interested in his job and very little else. He tests AFWs - Armored Fighting Walkers, the large engine-driven mecha displayed all over the box. While the game's history doesn't quite explain how these came about, it appears that in the ten years since the Second World War ended, the uneasy state of alliance has caused more developments to be in the military field. Whatever the explanation, though, they're undeniably cool big hulking machines.
While testing a new model of AFW in the field, he and Ryoko Minakawa, his 'co-worker', get taken by surprise when an old North Japan war hero and expert AFW pilot, the Crimson Phantom, turns out to be piloting the new and improved AFW and declares that he's going to take it back home. Ryoko and Masami are instantly told to take him out, but against all their efforts he escapes. Thus begins the main plot - Masami is chosen to lead a covert unit into North Japan in pursuit of the Phantom and recover the new AFW at any cost. Along the way, the characters learn some lessons about themselves and about their other team members.
The first thing you'll note in the game is the war footage. Konami did an excellent job with the FMV - they took stock war footage and the like and modified it to include the mechs, doing the CG so well that it looks totally authentic, as if the machines were actually there. It's an excellent effect that you really don't expect, and really is quite a treat.
The second thing you'll notice is a lack of graphics within the 'intermission' sections of the missions - about the best you'll see are small portraits of whatever character is talking, and maybe a faint background picture behind the menus. This is, however, rather to be expected when the intermission section is effectively a menu with plot.
Entering the first mission evokes memories of Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics - a large section of land divided into squares, with one unit per square, square statistics in one corner, time in another, and your unit stats in a third. A unit's turn is as you'd expect from these games - Move, if you want, then Attack, Standby (i.e., do nothing) or Recover to let your mechanics work on the mech and your medics work on your troops.
Your mechs take some time to get ready for your next turn based on terrain, their Action stat and what you do in your turn - doing nothing will result in another turn in a very short time, while moving or attacking only will take longer. Moving and attacking or recovering will take the most time, potentially leaving you wide open to attack.
And wow, the attacks. Rather than just having your AFK fire upon the other AFK, you enter a whole new section of the game, controlling the skirmish itself. Within this mode, you can move closer or further from the opponent, fire, use skills, or order your troops around - all in real time. While there's only a limited amount of time for the skirmishes, the idea being that the AFW engines will overheat after an amount of time, there is nevertheless the scope for amazingly complex battles.
Let's start with the AFW itself. Primarily, your AFW will be your major attacking force - it can do the most damage to the enemy mech and decent damage to soldiers. You have to wait a while before you can fire - the loading time, displayed on a little dial in the top right of the screen. Upon reaching loading time, you can start to aim whenever you like - but firing right away will leave you on very little accuracy. The alternative is to hold your aim for a longer amount of time, which will slowly increase your accuracy. Spend too long aiming, however, and you could well get a shell in your face, which will not only hurt but also screw up the aim you've been carefully adjusting for the past minute.
Upon firing, the shot will fling across the landscape and (hopefully) impact on the enemy mech - or its shield, a nice idea where certain mechs get a small amount of high-defense hit points that can't be recovered as their shield gets blown off. However, it's not as simple as just firing - different mechs have different optimum distances, preferable to start the battle at or maneuver to. The light AFWs prefer a barrage of machinegun fire from short range, whereas the powerful four-legged AFWs prefer long-range bombardment. Standard AFWs tend to prefer Medium Range, while the hulking Anti-AFWs excel at Close Combat, which is done a little differently to normal - get into extremely close range and you can punch at the enemy if your mech has arms. The enemy will get a counterattack (again, if they have arms) but it will instantly end the battle.
In the middle of all of this, you can order your troops around. Troops automatically start behind your mech at the rear guard - here, they're relatively safe from attack, but they can't attack themselves. Likewise, draw them forward and depending on their type, they will start shooting at either the enemy mech or soldiers. The anti-soldier types are Infantry, Recon and Medic, while anti-mech types are Shooter, Supply and Mechanic crews.
As well as an effect in combat, troops have two other uses. The simpler of these is an effect on your AFW stats - for example, having a Shooter troop on board your mech will increase your power against other AFWs, while a Supply troops will significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to load a shell. Secondly, troops have skills and special shells - troops not on your mech will, while in the back row, 'charge up' their skills. When they're ready, move them forward and they'll do the skill in question - for instance, throwing a grenade at the enemy mech, focusing concentrated fire on the enemy soldiers, laying mines, or firing a wire around the enemy mech's legs to stop its movement.
In addition, certain troops have 'reaction' skills - skills they have while in the back row. These are all defensive skills - cleaning up mines, wire, conducting repairs of broken parts, etc. Special shells are usable by the unit riding on your mech, and are mech bullets with special effects - the armour piercing shells that do more damage, the shrapnel, which severely damages troops, etc. Each mech gets three troop units, one of which is on the mech and two on the ground, selected in the intermission sections.
Finally, your pilot themselves have a number of MAX attacks - effectively special moves. For instance, Masami has three different MAX attacks gained throughout the game (experience is given to the pilot based on how many fights they have, how many mechs they kill, and how much they survive), comprising of Quick Fire - a skill where a shell is instantly loaded and fired at base accuracy. It may not be very accurate, but it's useful when time's running out. He also has Straight Punch, a close combat maneuver that destroys the enemy weapon, and Accurate Fire, which gives him a 100% accuracy as long as the shell's already loaded. You only have a number of MAX attacks per mission, and some of the missions are extremely large.
All in all, this complexity, coupled with the limited time you have in skirmishes, creates an absorbing strategy game but one that is definitely not for the beginner. It's an extremely difficult game and extremely easy to lose a character while you're learning - and losing a character is generally worth restarting the current campaign, as you will lose not only the experience for staying alive the whole mission but also every troop that was connected to that AFW. Since you're generally using the best troops available, this is a Bad Thing.
New troops are gained after every mission, and also by liberating towns and bases, whether enemy or neutral. If the enemy gets to neutral territory first, you've lost the troops, or if you give the enemy time to heal up, you've lost the troop. As a result, troops you liberate are generally very impressive stat-wise and skill-wise.
Graphically, the map and the intermission sections are definitely not impressive, but then, you don't tend to expect them to be, much. They are, however, made up for by the excellent FMV scenes and the skirmish scenes. The AFWs in this game aren't your shiny pristine mechs here, oh no. They're dirty, camo-painted, great big machines with huge smoky engines on their back, and it shows. The areas are war-torn, with buildings that are half-rubble, dirt tracks for roads, and the like, all very appropriate for the setting. As mentioned, though, cream of the crop are the FMV, which can be both moving and impressive.
The sounds Konami used in the game are perfect - while the menu has the usual array of sound effects you'd expect - standard move-the-option and select sounds - the in-game sound effects couldn't be better. The gritty, industrial feel of the mechs is reinforced by the juddering of the engine, the heavy stomp-stomp-stomp of the mech's feet, and the hefty explosions of the shells.
The music is not so good - while there's nice, tense tunes for when you're in skirmishes, the rest of the time there's only a very light ambience track that really didn't do much for me.
The control is immensely simple - in battle, up or down will set which way you're moving and everything else is selected from one main menu of only five buttons. For such an impressively complex system, it's a very intuitive control method, and a breeze to use... although it would have been extremely useful to be able to choose the position of your troops while aiming. More than once I've attempted to change troop formats while aiming, only to fire off a round at 15% accuracy.
Story is advanced a number of ways - there's the obvious intermission sections, which offer the plot-based storyline, and there's also a large number of little conversations that occur on the battlefield - more often than not, moving Masami next to one of your other units will trigger a small cutscene where they have a talk about something, occasionally including a Yes/No choice for Masami, although some of the choices you're asked to make are blatantly not Yes/No questions and a little guesswork is required to get the answer you want.
Despite the large amount of speech in the game, though, translation is often terrible, sounding like something out of a Hong Kong action movie. Nevertheless, these little snippets of conversation help to highlight the way the characters change and grow through the game, and as such the translation can be more than forgiven.
Overall, however, Ring of Red is an exemplary strategy game. While it's definitely not for the casual player - some of the later missions take many hours to get through (they've helpfully included a save slot for during a mission rather than between missions, although they've included the rather sneaky trick of deleting the save file whenever it's loaded, meaning no cheating) and the difficulty will put off many players. If you're able to get past the initial surprise and dislike at the high difficulty and long missions, then you'll have a blast of a time and definitely get your money's worth out of it.