Giant robots, especially those piloted by humans, have been an anime staple for decades. These giant robots are often referred to as mecha or mechs. Even the most casual anime fan can effortlessly name at least a half dozen anime series that involve mecha. As expected, video games have followed suit in the trend and there have been a decent amount of mecha-based Japanese RPGs. Some, such as Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, contain original stories and characters while others are based on established franchises. MS Saga: A New Dawn is part of the latter and is based on the immensely popular Gundam series. In Gundam, the mecha are referred to as “Mobile Suits” hence the MS in the game’s title. MS Saga tells an original tale with original characters never before seen in the Gundam universe. Therefore, knowledge of the Gundam universe is not a prerequisite for playing this game. In fact, my knowledge of Gundam is cursory at best.
The Gundam anime series has been known for its complex characters and strong, well-written storylines dealing with the moral ambiguities of war. Unfortunately, MS Saga’s plot is a watered-down, simplistic, trite, plain vanilla, by-the-numbers RPG plot we’ve seen a million times and has none of the aforementioned trappings that make Gundam so interesting. The main human characters are horribly one-dimensional, have almost no development, and are subjected to cracker-thin dialogue and some of the most laughably bad voice acting I’ve heard in video games of late. To put it bluntly, the story is incredibly weak.
Your avatar in this game is a red-haired kid named Tristan whose orphanage was destroyed by Mobile Suits from the Dark Alliance. Only he and his friend Fritz survived and have been working hard with a well-connected lady named Marie to build a mobile suit and avenge their lost home. On the day the mobile suit is completed and Tristan is about to take it for a test drive, the base is attacked by an enemy mobile suit. With some coaching from Fritz, Tristan wins the fight. Fritz then salvages the bad guy’s Zaku mobile suit and uses it to accompany Tristan. Basically, the story is like that of any RPG: Young kid’s home is destroyed and he vows revenge on the people who destroyed it. Of course, in this quest, the kid and his friends are drawn into an epic conflict beyond their wildest nightmares and find the fate of the world in their young hands. Basically, the world is still recovering from the Great Fall- an apocalypse that occurred 60 years ago. However, the Dark Alliance is unleashing Mobile Suits all over the world and instilling the fear of a repeat apocalypse in everyone in a bid for world domination.
The graphics and sound are nothing special either. The polygonal backdrops and the townspeople within them look rather blah with drab, washed out colors and plain textures. Key characters in the story have more brightly colored attire and hair, but look just plain goofy. I know RPG characters tend to stick out like sore thumbs in the game worlds they occupy, but the cast in MS Saga really stick out. The battle screens don’t look anything great either. The mobile suits have a chibi (read: cute) look to them and though they have decent detailing, the plain textures look rather drab. The graphical highlight is the introductory sequence, which utilizes rather good toon shading. Too bad none of the other cutscenes look that good, likely because they tend to use the in-game engine.
In terms of sound, the music is also quite mediocre; no exceptional tracks and nothing ear-bleedingly bad. Just standard, innocuous RPG music. I mentioned before that the voice acting is terrible. Every voice acting faux pas is in this game. Badly done ethnic accents? Check. Excessive whining? Check. Improper enunciation and emphasis on the wrong words and syllables? Check. All the voice actors sounded very amateur and none seemed like they were having fun with the roles. Thankfully, segments featuring voice acting are quite sparse.
Gameplay is good, if unremarkable. All your standard RPG trappings are here: overland, town, dungeon, lather, rinse, repeat. The overland and towns have a decent expanse to them, but the dungeons feel very on-the-rails linear and are not very long. Ninety percent of the game is spent in mobile suits; the only time you’re not in mobile suits is when you’re in a town. A nice thing about the towns is that Tristan’s party is scattered around town so you can talk to each party member, almost like the Private Actions in the Star Ocean series. It can be rather easy to get lost in the overland and enter areas you’re not meant to go into, so be careful, because enemies can be pretty strong.
The turn-based battles occur randomly in the overland and in dungeons, but dungeons also have fixed battles marked by yellow or red diamonds on the field. These fixed battles are tougher than the random encounters. The random encounter rate is high in some places and low in others, but in general I’d say it’s medium-high. A radar on the top left corner of your screen indicates how close you are to a random encounter. The battle engine itself is your usual turn-based engine with three characters on the field and all the usual options: melee attack, ranged attack, limit-break style boosts, techniques (magic), item, defend, retreat, charge up your EN meter for boosts and advanced attacks, and switch-out. The option to switch out your characters without any sort of turn penalty is quite nice. What is also nice is that while switched-out characters are in the back line, they recover HP and build up their EN meters for boosts and advanced attacks. There is no combo system, attack linking system, or anything like that, and after a battle, everyone in the party gains experience regardless of whether or not they were on the front lines.
The best part about the game is acquiring and customizing mobile suits. You can mix and match a wide variety of parts to make mobile suits more versatile. For example, putting some Gyan (melee oriented mobile suit) parts on a Guncannon (range oriented mobile suit) can enhance versatility, should your Guncannon’s pilot find him/herself against enemies immune to projectiles. There is a staggering array of body parts, weapons, and shields for your Mobile Suits, but oftentimes these accoutrements are expensive and money is not that easy to come by in the game. Customizing your mobile suits is important as the right set up can be the difference between winning and losing a boss battle. Another nice feature is that you can change the color scheme of your characters’ mobile suits to your liking.
Anything else? Well, the controls are a tad loose whether you’re moving a mobile suit or a human. Saving feels a tad clunky too; the only places you can save are at a town’s inn or at a save point in a dungeon. The save points in dungeons restore your mobile suits’ HP, but won’t cure status abnormalities or restore characters’ TP (technique points.) You’ll need restorative items or a stay at the inn for TP and status abnormalities.
The game is also rather long. I know 40-50 hours doesn’t seem that long for an RPG, but this game feels really long. The game feels long because of the tedium, and because the already thin story is spread out over the course of game time. Twenty five hours would have been plenty sufficient for this game, but as it stands now, it feels like one can of paint was used to coat an entire house. There’s also quite a bit of loading. The load times aren’t oppressive, but they are noticeable.
All in all, MS Saga is as mediocre as mediocre gets. I had fun with the game for a little while, but the only thing it really has going for it is that it’s a Gundam RPG in the US. However, it doesn’t represent the Gundam universe very well. It could have served as a decent kiddie RPG, were it not for one female character’s outfit being a bit too fanservice-y (booty shorts that only cover half her tushie) and the often challenging boss battles that often require strategy and depend on how well you’ve equipped your Mobile Suits. In general, the game reeks of wasted potential to me. Everything about the game could have been so much better. The bottom line is this: if you want an RPG with futuristic or post-modern mecha action, get your fill elsewhere. MS Saga ~A New Dawn~ is not worth it, unless you find it for $5- $10 in the bargain bin.