Back in high school, a buddy of mine noticed that I had finally – FINALLY – gotten my grubby little paws on a Gameboy Advance SD. My weapon of choice at the time was Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones, and when I informed him that I was on what I roughly estimated to be my fourth playthrough, he gave me a little cartridge with a big red ‘M’ on it and said, “I’m done with this one; enjoy.”
That game, Zone of the Enders – The Fist of Mars, then proceeded to receive the same treatment Fire Emblem did; that is, two or three well-deserved playthroughs. Zone of the Enders is a franchise that was actually created by Hideo Kojima himself and originally debuted on the PS2 in the form of a game by the same name, a sequel, and a side story which is the topic of this article. While the games for the PS2 which have now been given the HD-remastering treatment for the PS3 were action-style flying robot games with a little RPG twist, the Fist of Mars is a turn-based strategy game right along the same lines as the Fire Emblem series.
Set in the same universe as the rest of the games, the Fist of Mars follows the story of one Cage Midwell, normal young man extraordi-not, and his adventures that take place in the middle of a war between Mars and Earth. This is true for the series in general but the Fist of Mars takes the route opposite of “space exploration is glamorous and astronauts are heroes” and instead has people living on the fringes of space referred to as “Enders,” a very derogatory term in the universe as those born on Earth are seen as the first-class citizens with the right to stand above the Enders.
We’ll get this out of the way quickly: this game is very very easy. It is entirely possible to play through every single one of the 26 missions without any of your units taking a single hit from the enemy (and we’ll discuss how in a quick minute). The attraction of this game is definitely the characters and their adventures; we mentioned 26, which is also the number of episodes in a half-year season of a TV show or anime, and the game very much plays like your very own saga from one mission to the next as the characters develop and grow.
Gameplay as you might guess is fairly straightforward. Every unit that is available for a mission participates in the mission, no exceptions. Often they will depart for some reason, or new units will appear but this tapers off towards the endgame. Battle takes place on a grid with the usual terrain advantages (when there actually is terrain). Orbital Frames and LEV’s make up the majority of your forces, with a tank or two here and there. Orbital Frames are this world’s flying robots that use the fictional substance “metatron”, while LEV’s or “Laborious Extra-orbital Vehicle” are less powerful mechs but still capable of putting up a good fight.
In this mecha world there are of course vast differences between each of your units. Each mech has their own set of strengths and weaknesses that typically match with the character piloting it. The sniper mech has a slew of long-range abilities but is very weak in close combat, another buff ‘n tuff character’s mech throws down up close, and Cage’s Orbital Frame “Testament” is capable of everything. Each frame and mech will develop special attacks that can be used in a limited fashion per skirmish, and the range and ability of these vary.
Battles between the forces of “Born in Space,” or BIS, and their many opponents take place in a one-on-one fashion. Unlike other tactical games, the player first chooses a weapon as this will determine his range of attack, be it melee or a ranged volley. After this is done red squares appear and one can select an enemy within them to thrash. A screen like the one directly above is then shown: the dial with red, yellow, and blue squares can be altered to favor power at the expense of accuracy, and vice-versa (defense and evasion can be modified in the same way; the bars also increase in length as the unit levels up). The “ANIME” toggles whether or not to show the attacking animation, and the IAS toggles what makes this game so easy.
The IAS is a feature in the Fist of Mars that allows the player to either manually try to hit his target as the attacker or manually evade an attack as the defender. Toggling it off puts the result at the mercy of the statistics. Using it results in a little mech sprite of your enemy which will either evade you or project red targeting reticules of size varying in how high their accuracy is in an effort to hit your fleeing blue circle. Each defending enemy has one or more red areas of varying size; hitting these results in a critical hit. Evasion is as simple as tracing the boundary of the screen, and the only challenge in attacking is scoring a critical, which only shortens battles.
Since the game is so easy it must have something attractive, right? Well, aside from combat being pretty fun as a challenge in scoring critical hits, the game’s story is particularly good. Stretching over 26 “episodes,” characters love, betray, inspire, and in general interact with each other with surprisingly well-written dialogue and banter. They are interestingly designed, and the themes of responsibility, human rights, death, and racism all play out on the stage. Cage especially manages to refrain from being a whiny little snot unlike the protagonist from the first Zone of the Enders game, and his counterpart Myona is anything but a damsel in distress.
Fist of Mars is definitely a classic, yet the combat system might alienate many. All I can say is that this game isn’t going to be your strategic fix, but it’ll definitely take you for a very entertaining ride.