A little look at… Blood Gear

First impressions count, and in my opinion never more so than when a game expects me to sacrifice anything from twenty to sixty hours of my precious free time to sit and play it through. So let’s look at the first few hours of PC Engine ARPG Blood Gear and see how things go.

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As it’s a Super CD-ROM game we are of course treated to a fancy introduction sequence with some lovely mechs-busting-into-somewhere-and-scaring-everyone art and the obligatory narration running over the top to help to set the scene. Then we get to the really exciting bit, when the credits show that Westone (Monster World) and Red (Sakura Taisen) were responsible for developing the game – real heavyweight names there, and exactly the sort of people you want to see in charge of a 90’s action RPG. Shortly after the movie-like credits roll we’re plunged into a frantic escape sequence, fighting for our life as we try to get away from the endless enemy forces swarming the facility…

Needless to say it doesn’t end well for our white-coated researcher friends, and the game picks up the story as Alef, a plucky young man who breaks not a single RPG mold by having a huge chip on his shoulder about the local evil empire and just so happens to have been gifted just the sort of giant deadly mech to go and do something about it.

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The strict sci-fi setting may look like it’ll be a refreshing twist here, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s all just window-dressing. Towns, which are viewed from a typical overhead perspective, have the usual weapon and item shops as well as an inn factory to recover your health after a tough action stage. The one real nod to mech-dom is that the factory is also where you can customise your Powered Gear’s stats if you have the money to do so. There’s no weight/speed/power tradeoffs to be considered though, it’s just a case of being a bit stronger/faster than before. Once Alef’s finished chatting to NPCs and sorting out his equipment it’s time to tackle the ‘A’ part of this ARPG and venture out onto the side-scrolling action stages.

This is sadly where Blood Gear falls apart, as you find the game lacks the hyperactive fizz of similar ARPGs such as Falcom’s Ys 3, while also failing to grasp the lumbering weight of the mechs seen in the likes of Assault Suits Valken. Alef plods along a perfectly flat level peppered with the odd perfectly flat bit of raised land, shooting in a ruler-straight horizontal line at the opposing forces that spawn at the edge of the screen who either shoot back in the exact same manner or simply fly straight into you. It’s quite hard for me to not get excited about any old 90’s Japanese mech action, but Blood Gear managed to pull it off.

Other issues rear their head as you continue through these action stages – to swap weapons you need to go into the equipment menu and scroll through a list, breaking up the flow of combat and making any attempt at situational play a chore. The energy sword you buy from the weapons shop should have been the coolest thing ever because this is a game about hot-blooded youths in giant robots battling evil people wearing techno-armour, but the slash-stop-slash-stop animation feels incredibly sterile and encourages a turtle-like ‘I’ll just wait for this guy to jump at me again so I can hit him safely’ robotic (ha!) behaviour. Also your entire defensive repertoire consists of ‘jump slowly over bullets’ ‘kill enemy before it fires bullets’ or ‘get hit by bullets’. You can buy shields, but they’re just something you equip as defensive gear rather than quickly raise to deflect enemy fire.

Then there’s the speed boost. This should have been a useful dash to safety or an exciting charge to close the distance on an enemy, but it takes so long to charge up that it almost completely outweighs the brief speed boost you get in return for your saint-like patience.

It’s not all bad though as on the whole things do pick up if you stick with the game - the stages become less flat and more interesting and your mech begins to move at a pace that isn’t outdone by a granny on a mobility scooter. But these improvements only raise Blood Gear’s stages to the base level you’d expect from the genre, dulling the sense of reward you’d expect to feel from spending hours battling away through forests, craters, and caves.

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Ys 3, quite apart from having one of the finest soundtracks ever to grace any game, had oomph. Little Adol mowed down enemies like it was going out of fashion, leaping about like a crazed grasshopper while he was at it. Assault Suits Valken had branching paths based on your personal performance and a plot delivered on-the-go while you were hurtling through an asteroid field and blowing up all sorts of things you shouldn’t. Front Mission had a build-a-mech workshop and stats coming out of every pore. Blood Gear fails to maximise on the potential of any of its possible strengths, missing out on the finer qualities of both the ‘A’ and ‘RPG’ parts of the ARPG genre. Chasing after a somebody who looks like an escapee from the Principality of Zeon and fighting things in huge mechs should automatically make this one of the coolest 16-bit titles around, but there’s nothing in Blood Gear that hasn’t been done better elsewhere in the same era – Elmknight is an excellent example of straddling being a ‘real’ RPG with all-out action, and if you need your explosions viewed side-on then EX Ranza and Assault Suits Valken can be found worldwide with very little fuss. The only thing these games lack are Blood Gear’s cutscenes and the voice acting, which are available in abundance in any number of other good PC Engine CD games anyway.

In spite of all this Blood Gear isn’t a bad game, but it’s certainly not bursting with the quality I’d expect from the 16-bit dream team of Hudson/Westone/Red. It does get better as it goes on, but when your high point can be described as ‘decent enough’ it’s questionable whether it’s worth the effort. Still, it’s on the cheaper end of PCE gaming and mech-based RPGs have always been a little thin on the ground so it might be worth a look if you’re in the mood.

The finest cel-shaded AIBO-supporting steampunk-detective game on PS2: DekaVoice!

There have been many great gaming detectives over the years, ranging from the more direct approaches of Blaze Fielding and Bruno Delinger to Chris Redfield and Aya Brea’s slightly more cerebral (or at the very least ‘less punch-y’) take on policework; then there’s Acquire’s (Tenchu, Way of the Samurai) DekaVoice for Playstation 2, which at first glance looks like it ripped off Atlus’ Radiou Kuzunoha series trademark style and then slapped some voice controls on top. These initial fears are thankfully easily dispelled by a quick Google search as not only did DekaVoice come out in 2003 - a full three years before Raidou - but also the voice command system actually works and is [gasps] put to good use.

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The game is set in an alternative 1920’s-ish era where steampunk-like technology allows people to use computers and send digital photos from crime scenes while still allowing gangsters in sharp suits to shoot up cabaret bars and make their getaway in some delightfully stylish cars. It’d be easy to question this clash of ideas if the game’s style wasn’t as strong as it is, effortlessly unifying the more typical aspects of the genre with well-designed technology that fits in like it was always there. Everything’s bathed in warm tones and strong shadows with cool tones used for contrasts and highlights, which reminded of another very beautiful game, and red petals burst out of gunshot wounds instead of the usual garish blood spurts - a delicate touch in a game already filled with great ideas.

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It’s time to tackle that unavoidable elephant in the room - that mandatory microphone. You issue voice commands using a push-to-talk system, with a light in the top-right of screen changing colour depending on whether it’s expecting a response from you, listening to your speech right now, or when voice commands are unavailable (this generally only appears if you try to talk when someone is already talking to you). The game is very good at explaining what it expects from you and lists all possible vocal commands when you encounter a new event (these commands are also listed in the manual) and I found in places several natural alternatives worked just as well as the expected commands (for example: ‘Hurry!’ instead of ‘Faster!’). The mic is sensibly not used to move Detective Hayward around or to urge him to fire his gun but for various situations where you’d expect someone to speak, such as issuing commands to your enthusiastic dog partner, Ryan, or when interrogating a suspect. On top of this are a few surprinsgly little touches that show Acquire really gave the idea their full attention, such as optional extra conversations with other people in the police station and the game expecting you to give direct responses to simple questions like ‘Did you rescue me?’ rather than passively watching a scene play out or selecting an option from a menu.

All this underlines what makes DekaVoice so special - it’s not a gimmick in search of a reason to exist, but a game that has chosen to integrate some extra technology into itself to try and improve the typical gaming experience. It’s a game you want to play just because it’s a good game, not because you’ve been duped into testing out someone’s voice recognition software. It also has the honour of being an action-adventure game that’s worth playing through more than once, as there are hidden items to find (including your doggy sidekicks private diary and AIBO parts to replace Ryan entirely with a robot equivalent) and the chance to improve upon your detective-ing score for each scenario. The only truly superfluous gimmick is compatibility with a real AIBO – allowing a connected unit with a special program downloaded to it to offer hints and general comments as you play – but I don’t see how anyone can consider that to be a real negative considering having AIBO support in a Playstation 2 game is really cool and oh dear lord I want an AIBO so bad.

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Even with all this praise DekaVoice still isn’t the ‘killer app’ voice-controlled gaming needs to prove its worth as more than an interesting sideline in gaming history, but it is the first one I’ve played where the vocal interaction felt like an essential layer of design and not an unreliable alternative to button commands (SOCOM’s team orders) or a cart-before-horse attempt to find a use for the microphone the hardware R&D guys made (Seaman, Hey you Pikachu!). Good job Acquire, you gave yourself the nigh-impossible task of turning new tech into a decent game and came out on top on your very first go.

I’m very happy to report the official website is still online here - http://www.acquire.co.jp/deka/

And while a lot of the images are broken the official DekaVoice AIBO page (the AIBO program file is still downloadable!) is archived over here - https://web.archive.org/web/20050912203332/http://www.jp.aibo.com/dekavoice/index.html