It’s tragic that the flawless Neo Geo Pocket Color could never challenge the Game Boy Color, as it was undoubtedly the worthiest competitor on the market. Unfortunately, by the time of the former’s release in 1999, Pokémon had already given Nintendo’s handheld its altitudinous second wind. Any chance the Neo Geo Pocket had of survival was buried. Despite most of the titles being of high quality, its library faded into obscurity — but Faselei! sits at the pinnacle of this lamentably buried stack of treasure as a tactical mecha masterpiece.
The game takes place on our Earth, in the aftermath of a third world war. Specifically, it’s set in Ishtar, a fictional Middle Eastern country bordering Syria. The mercenary company Faselei has been hired by the prince of Ishtar, Kein, to depose his brother, King Aerbel, so he can take the throne.
You are Sho, Faselei’s ace recruit. With your colleagues, you work toward your goal by carrying out sorties in your Toy Soldiers — multi-ton customizable mech units — on a tactical map. However, this isn’t a typical turn-based tactics game. Between each turn, you must issue a set of orders in sequence. Once the orders are committed, they play out simultaneously with all other units on the field. We’ve seen this fashion of “we-go” tactical engines in later games, like Frozen Synapse, but Faselei! is among the earliest examples. It’s a shame that this style is so rarely seen, because it’s an ingenious concept that simultaneously allows for careful, considered planning while carrying the ominous weight of unpredictability and anticipation.
Faselei! executes this unique mechanic with elegance and flair. You must issue movement, attack, special, and other types of orders. These are represented as “chips” that you must purchase and equip on your Toy Soldier’s CPU in order to use them during a mission. You have a limited number of slots for chips, so you must make sure to equip the basics: the ability to step forward and turn, the ability to fire a weapon, and others. Later, more options become available, like the ability to dash two spaces forward in a single move or the ability to call in artillery fire/emergency supplies from your mobile command center, The Orchid.
The battlefield dilemmas this system sets up are profound. If you’re engaging a hostile unit, you can have a 100% certainty in your ability to attack them in the first few planned movements. However, in your last few movements, you would need to use your intuition to predict where the enemy might be and the angle from which they may attack. A successful pilot will use this intuition to attack, feint, sidestep, and melee their opponent while taking as little damage as possible. It is sometimes evocative of kinetic anime mecha duels, especially when going up against bosses.
Avoiding damage is important, because each mission is also an exercise in resource management. Your Toy Soldier’s backpack has limited space to hold reloads, repair items, and any other supplies for each mission. What’s in your pack is what you have available to you, and when you run out, you’re out. Managing supplies on sorties is critical for success. This isn’t to say the game is difficult, because aside from a few difficulty spikes during those devious boss encounters, it isn’t. Once you get the best equipment available, it is possible to brush enemies aside. I did find that a few missions which put me up against overwhelming numbers forced me to be honest in my tactics, but I seldomly had to think outside the box.
You only control Sho’s Toy Soldier, though you do often sortie with one other companion that acts autonomously on the field. To a surprising degree, they are effective in engaging and destroying enemies as well as taking the heat off of you. Of course, you occasionally see puzzling behavior, but the relative effectiveness and self-sufficiency of allies helps to avoid frustration.
Even if the friendly AI weren’t decent, one would still feel a bond with Sho’s colleagues because they are presented with the perfect balance of deftness and earnestness. Hummer is fun-loving and encouraging; Rico is brash, but good-natured; Agnes is modest, despite her connection to royalty; and Dorothy completely steals the show with her cool attitude and demeanor. She is resolute and tough, but also the nurturing heart of the combat team. She’s encouraging without tolerating incompetence (usually lazy Sho’s), and her voice is loud and clear. She is never disrespected in any way by the writers, the localizers, or any other character. Despite having romantic feelings for Sho, she doesn’t meekly wait around for him. For me, she’s the real protagonist.
The most amazing thing about the narrative is the very economy of it. There isn’t much text here since the screen is so small and the pixels are so few, yet somehow the script and localization drip with feeling and character. Furthermore, Faselei! clocks in at a crisp ten hours, so the writing has little margin in that regard. The cinematic, skillfully produced pixel art images help bring the plot to life as well. The high quality of these drawings, in conjunction with the text, leave you no choice but to be invested. The plot is not particularly ground-breaking, but it joins the long list of good sci-fi mech combat stories commenting on the cost of war.
For example, a young officer, embarrassed to the breaking point by his inexperience, tragically succumbs to frustration, botching a hostage situation by shooting up a bus full of civilians. At another point, a former ally challenges you, but your subsequent victory moves him to break himself over the jagged rocks of revenge. This eventually forces you to destroy him completely. There is great fear over powerful unmanned Toy Soldier units in this world, somewhat predicting our trepidation over drone warfare today. Overall, the plot almost never missteps and is satisfying to experience today.
Faselei! is a wholly unique and wonderful work that does not deserve to be buried under the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s obscurity or the greedy second-hand game market. It boasts a great tactical system, engrossing writing, and is further elevated by the likeable characters. The degree to which this game holds up is more than surprising — it’s positively life-affirming. This is not a case of mystique masking the flaws of a rare game that isn’t actually good. Faselei! is beautifully complete, and wherever possible, it must be played.