Pacific Rim is a film that almost begs to be a video game: It's a story that's straightforward and simple, a backdrop for explosive action and glorious destruction. It's a story about empowerment, about protagonists donning suits that make them as gods of destruction. They fight, alone, a threat that the whole of humanity is powerless to defend against, using technology and weaponry that is as absurd as it is awesome. And what do we get? Well, a $5 mobile phone app that's an Infinity Blade ripoff. Luckily there are a lot of mecha games out there—but finding one that fits the mood of the film is more difficult. Well there's one, all the way back in the PS2 era. I'm not going to lie though—there's a lot to suffer through to get to the enjoyable parts.
There are plenty of games that have come before it that try to, for better or worse, have tried to capitalize on the appeal of giant robots. Indeed, the 'Mecha' gaming genre is ultimately about that—being in control of something so much more powerful than a single person can be. One could argue most games feature empowerment of some kind—the protagonist gunning down waves of mooks, or fantasy heroes slashing down hordes of Goblins and Orcs and ultimately the big bad. What makes Mech games unique, both the walking tank style of western mechs and the warrior-avatar mechs of Japanese animation is a sense of scale. You're not a hero prowling the streets or inside the base. You're a mechanical god of destruction towering over the landscape. And honestly—not many mech games are good at that. The mountains simply become hills, the enemy robots or monsters are just abstracts—a lot of games struggle to make you feel truly giant. That is not true for this particular game. In fact, I'd venture to say that as far as re-creating the fictional idea of piloting a giant robot, this game has hands down created the best experience of doing that. Ever. Which is good, because the rest of the game? Well, the rest of the game is less so. More on that later.
Robot Alchemic Drive was developed by Sandlot studios, which these days is mostly known for the Earth Defense Force series—a budget series of third person shooting titles. They were formed from Human Entertainment, who's probably best known for Clock Tower, a title that's earned some cult status these days. It was produced by Enix—this was before they were eaten by Square and had a reputation for niche but truly quality titles, including oddballs like ActRaiser and the Star Ocean RPG series. It was developed in about 18 months, and supposedly the main focus and challenge was creating a sense of scale.
They achieved this in two unique ways. The first was it's control scheme, which was absurdly complicated and strangely intuitive at the same time. The second was player perspective, which they handled in a unique fashion. Rather then shove you into the head, or chest compartment of the robot like most games do, players actually controlled their character directly (you'll see in the video), and must position themselves safely during combat with whatever bad monster/robot is threatening you for the level. This created some interesting challenges for the player provided they could get over how frustrating it could be. The best perspectives were often on top of buildings (the hero could fly because... well, Science), and often close to the action—but both the robot AND the player could be injured. Indeed, straying too close to the big monster might risk them breaking off to attack you instead, and even collaterall damage was an issue. More importantly though, it gave the entire thing a sort of squirrel's eye view—you got an understanding of how big everything was around you, and it created a sense of threat you just don't see in more conventional cockpit views. Which was good, because it could also be insanely frustrating. Remember how bad camera issues could be in the PS2 era? Will, imagine instead of just awkwardly swinging the camera around, you had to physically move to a whole different location. Every time. Plus, monsters and robots knocked each other around a LOT in this game—having to re-position every three or four engagements because the battle is now a few hundred yards from it's original location got tired after about three levels—there were about fifty, by the way.
As for the controls I mentioned earlier, well, I can honestly say without a doubt they've never been tried before and probably never will again. Rather than most games, which give you a set of actions mapped—the analog sticks mapped to movement and camera, the face buttons and triggers set to actions, etc, R.A.D (Did you all see what they did there? Okay, moving on) in fact mapped each part of the robot to a different set. So, picture a PS2 controller—here, if for some reason you HAVEN'T ever picked one up, here's a picture: PS3, but same difference:
The two analog sticks, traditionally providing movement, instead control each arm independently. Each leg is mapped to the triggers—L1 moves the left leg forward, L2 moves it back, same as right—if you press both L1 and L2 down it pivots both feet left—and yes, before you ask, if you do this wrong your mech will trip, straight up fall on its face. Very embarrassing. Your D-pad controls the torso, and the face buttons fire a series of weapons—missiles and lasers and the like. Yeah—remember that camera perspective from earlier? Now picture trying to line up a shot from missiles that fire from each shoulder, lining it up with truly funky controls. Throwing a punch was a matter of pulling the left stick left and swining it right for a cross—or pulling it back and then throwing it forward for a straight (rolling the thumbstick did an uppercut). Want to block? Push thumbsticks towards one another. Oh yeah, and you could also jump by pressing the leg buttons at the same time—L2 and R2 first to crouch, then L1 and R1 to leap. Landing on a building resulted in you faceplanting again. It's kind of tough being a robot warrior, turns out.
If that all sounds confusing well—it was, but mastering it created a sense of power not felt in many robot games at the timing. It was the rhythmic joy of timing each step your machine took and winding up for the devastating hit that shoved whatever it was you were fighting into some random office building—all the effort to that one moment that made it feel so incredibly sweet. It was learning, bit by bit, to take this awkward hulking brute and make it into something to be feared—a powerful machine that took on it's enemies. It was those moments that made the rest of the game worth it—because the rest of the game was objectively bad.
R.A.D's story, such as it was, was driven largely by cutscenes and they stand out as some of the absolute worst voice acting ever, EVER produced in a video game. Now, there's some debate as to whether or not this was intentional—an homage to the cheesy voice acting done in most games. The problem is none of it is actually funny, it's just bad. The highlight however is the news reporter that follows you throughout the game—rather than voiced over, instead a native Japanese speaker narrating things with a heavy accent. It stands out so weirdly from the rest of the cast—flat, emotionless monotones that it's hard not to cackle laughing. The rest probably will just make you scream for the mute button. The story is of course, complete nonsense, not that you were ever playing it for that, although interestingly gameplay could effect it in unique ways—for instance, you could make Nanao's story much worse by destroying certain buildings during gameplay. And after watching that video up there you understand why I made a point to do that every time I played. The game had flaws—camera issues, and not just from the unique gameplay, marred the game everywhere. Despite controlling multiple mecha and trying to change things from battle to battle the gameplay got repetitive very quickly. There was a token versus multiplayer mode, but the split screen wreaked havoc on the game's strange perspective and scale, making things utterly incomprehensible. Still, it was a unique entry into the mecha genre and in many ways was probably the closest we've ever came to a giant robot game that made you FEEL like it.
So, hopefully by now I've made you curious to give the game a go. Well, unfortunately, that's going to be difficult. Despite gaining solid reviews, the game managed about 18,000 sales in Japan in it's second week, and almost entirely bombed out in America. Heck, finding it at launch was a challenge enough when I was a teenager (those heady days before Amazon was a sold thing), today it's probably almost impossible. I'm sure there are ways, but largely the game has passed from history, which is a shame, because some of the ideas the game played with were truly good.
Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed hearing about it and are at least curious about trying it out—god knows I enjoyed writing about it instead of sleeping like I should. I've been playing mech-based games since I was a kid—probably damn near every one that's been out. Provided people enjoy it enough, I may write about some of the others. In fact, the next one I have in mind is Robotech Battlecry, an enjoyable sim/shooter hybrid with an eye for detail. Provided I don't wake up tomorrow morning, read this and regret the last hour or so I spent writing this, I'll see you guys later.