It’s been a good year for mecha fans. Front Mission 1 and 2 remakes were recently announced, Super Robot Wars 30 surprisingly released internationally (and was quite well-received), and Kadokawa games undertook a new space opera mecha project called Relayer. In the months leading up to Relayer‘s release, the publisher Clouded Leopard Games released the occasional trailer to introduce characters and show off a handful of systems. Despite watching these trailers and reading interviews, I was unprepared for how deep Relayer‘s systems were.
Relayer is a strategy RPG in the vein of the aforementioned Front Mission series, or for the non-mecha fans, consider it more like Fire Emblem but with giant robots in space. The game’s presentation is roughly half visual novel, half tactical RPG. It has a grand cast of characters with extensive customization, an in-depth job system that ensures no two characters of the same job play alike, and it’s rife with fantastic and flashy action scenes for every attack in the game.
As expected, the story in Relayer deals with a lot of sci-fi concepts. As with our universe, rapid expansion via Dark Energy continues to pull the universe apart while gravity tries to bring it all back together. Relayer takes this idea and introduces the concept of celestial bodies having their own will and desire to continue living, creating, and observing. When faced with the threat of destruction, the stars, planets, moons, and comets impart their will onto humanity. These inheritors of celestial will are known as Starchildren, and they stand in opposition to the destructive disciples of dark energy: the titular Relayers. Thus, a fight for the universe’s fate occurs in the Sol system: the last line of defense against the malevolent destructive force.
Humanity does not fight alone, however, for they’ve found the remains of an ancient giant robot thought to be over a hundred million years old. This giant robot (or mech) served as the base template for new machines of war known as Gears, only to be piloted by Starchildren. People developed various offshoots of the mech as secrets were leaked, leading to a sudden influx of private military corporations (PMCs) with their own destructive mechs. While Relayer‘s primary storyline focuses on the fate of the universe, there are plenty of private corporations seeking to control and profit from the war. Of course, not to be upstaged, the United Earth Forces Government — a coalition of the majority of Earth’s nations — also seeks to gain power using the resulting conflict. Though Relayer‘s story is largely science fiction, there are a lot of elements that feel like they’re taking place in our world today.
Relayer‘s cast is relatively large, eventually topping out at 20 playable characters. However, the story follows the main protagonist Terra: the inheritor of the will of the Earth. As the game opens, she’s holding on dearly to her sister Luna (inheritor of the will of the Moon, unsurprisingly), who is slipping away into the sky thanks to a terrorist attack by the Relayers. Due to a nearby quake, Terra cannot hold onto her little sister and loses her forever — or so she thinks. After wandering aimlessly and suffering amnesia due to trauma and injuries received from the attack, Terra soon finds herself face to face with her sister once more. Yet this time, Luna is working with the Relayers. Even worse: she hates Terra for letting her go and wants nothing more than to see her dead.
Much of the story in Relayer revolves around the conflict between the two sisters. Though Terra and Luna are the primary characters, the rest of the cast never once feels like they’re shoved aside. Each character has their own ambitions, desires, and troubles. Sun is a former commander riddled with guilt from her past, yet she tries to move forward as a team leader. Mars is a toxic e-Sports gamer who has issues with her father and the mouth of a sailor, but she grows up quickly once she understands how childish she was acting. Uranus is a back-alley doctor with a sweet tooth, crippling debt, and a bit of a gambling addiction. (I feel those might be related.)
Simply put: Relayer‘s cast of characters is stellar. Each character has their own unique little spin that makes them a joy to interact with. I found myself laughing out loud numerous times at Mars’ audaciousness and toxicity, smirking at Terra and her companion bot Yodaka’s comedy duo antics, and misty-eyed at the themes of family, love, and redemption. While the overall storyline regarding the fate of the universe, the battles between PMCs, and interference from a greedy government are all solid, the character interactions elevate Relayer‘s writing and make it memorable. The cast is one I won’t soon forget, especially when it sticks the landing at the end.
Relayer is more akin to Front Mission or Fire Emblem than, say, Final Fantasy Tactics or Triangle Strategy. Rather than roaming around a map and making story-changing decisions, players simply select from a menu when to talk to other characters, where to buy new equipment and upgrade mechs, and where to move forward with the story. The story unfolds in a VN style with 2D character portraits talking to one another, yet combat takes place exclusively in 3D with finely detailed mechs. Battles are often on large grids, though players may immediately notice how flat these maps appear. Terrain and height don’t matter one bit, but given that battles are largely taking place in space, I felt such mechanics weren’t needed.
Relayer‘s battle system appears simple at first, yet layers continue to unfold as the game goes on. The game borrows some mechanics found in online massively multiplayer RPGs such as Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft. First off is the use of aggro (also known as hate or enmity). Relayer assigns an aggro value to each action taken. Enemies consider this alongside total HP, role, and proximity to determine who they go after. Some roles and jobs can manage aggro more easily than others, which brings the importance of job selection into play.
There are four primary roles in Relayer. Tanks are your defensive powerhouses that generate aggro and control the enemy’s attention. They’re great at taking hits and ensuring they are the biggest threat on the battlefield. Assaulters are your melee DPS, though they can dip into machine guns for a bit of range if needed. They act as your hard hitters designed to take down enemies as soon as possible via quick strikes and backstabs. Snipers are your ranged DPS, focusing on hitting enemies from afar and piling status effects on the enemies. Finally, Scouts act as your support and healers. They can debuff enemies, put on status effects, buff allies, heal HP, and also deploy decoys to take the heat off themselves and others.
Each of Relayer‘s roles can fall into two job paths. When completing the current character’s initial Star Cube (a miniature Final Fantasy X-style sphere grid with abilities), they’re given the choice to pick one of two paths. This can lead to some choice paralysis early on, as the game tells you that you cannot undo this choice. While there is a two-sentence description to give you an idea of your future jobs, it’d be nice if there was some form of ability preview prior to making a decision. Thankfully, players can sit on the choice for a while and bank more job points. I’d recommend stockpiling points before jumping to an intermediate or expert class given that many abilities are exclusive to the job you have equipped.
In battle, mechs are flying all over the place when attacking. Every animation is a treat for the eyes, with mechs somersaulting while sniping, throwing gigantic swords, and clashing blades amidst a backdrop of stars. While the animations are certainly exciting, they can get a bit stale over time. Thankfully, anyone who has grown tired of seeing the same clash of swords or dramatic slow-motion countersnipe can speed up or turn off these sequences. This makes the maps’ flatness stand out, but fortunately, the backdrops are often rife with debris or cities glowing in the distance.
Outside of battle, the game is completely 2D. Characters present as generally static portraits with an array of expressions and a few pose changes. Despite their static nature, the characters have a lot of life thanks to the creative use of character placement and movement to simulate actions. Characters getting yelled at slowly sink down into the bottom of the screen while characters pranking one another may have the portraits zipping about with cute little sound effects. Above all, however, is the character design. Every single character has a fantastic design. Despite the majority of the cast wearing the same uniform, the color accents and coat design tell a lot about the character’s personality just by looking at them.
While the character design and visuals are top-notch, the audio side of things (unfortunately) doesn’t carry its weight. The music in Relayer isn’t particularly bad; it just feels like too much of the same. The majority of the soundtrack is a blast of drums and horns that feels adequate for the paramilitary sci-fi themes of the game, yet none of it feels very exciting or interesting. The music often fades into the background and does little to stand out. There is the occasional jazzy theme for interactions on the ship, and every now and then, there is a more upbeat or motivational song for dramatic moments. Again, the music isn’t bad. It’s just there.
Relayer is, on most fronts, a fantastic game. It does a lot with its cast, and I applaud the complete lack of fanservice in the wonderful character designs. The cast is incredibly charming, the mecha action is a delight to watch, the strategic elements around aggro management are intriguing, and the job system leads to many unique and fun interactions. While the game is visually and systematically great, the game does start to feel a bit long in the tooth near the end. Some of the battles in the last quarter of the game start to take an hour or more. The final battles, in particular, took me nearly two hours. SRPG fans will be no stranger to this, though.
Throughout my Relayer playthrough, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, even the overly long battles near the end. It’s a challenging, fun, and charming game with a lot of great systems and unit design. Relayer is a game that I’d recommend to anime, mecha, and SRPG fans alike. Though it’s a little on the long side, it feels completely worth the time investment. The game has a solid ending, and after the credits roll, an entire post-game opens up with 35 more episodes of content covering the aftermath of the game’s events. Relayer is a game that continually upended my expectations. It ended up being far more vast than I thought, and I eagerly look forward to a sequel.