Back Gainer (バックガイナー よみがえる勇者たち 覚醒編「ガイナー転生」）, released 1/29/1998 (PS1), and 7/30/1998 (SAT), developed by Ving
The SRPGs are back! In 1996, Ving released a game called Harukaze Sentai V-Force, which was an attempt to make a game that would do its storytelling through high quality anime cutscenes. The anime scenes were well done (they were essentially at the level of a TV show or OVA of the time), but the reliance on these expensive anime scenes limited the amount of story they could tell. And also, perhaps because they had to spend so much of their resources on the anime, the game itself was poorly designed and not much fun.
At the time, I said that I didn’t think Ving tried this again but I was entirely wrong — this game is another attempt to do the same thing as V-Force, and it’s basically has the same plusses and minuses of the previous game. Even before getting into the specifics of the game, there’s a huge problem with the way it was released. For V-Force, I think they realized the limitations of what they were doing, and they chose to tell a story that had a conclusion, but that contained significant foreshadowing for a sequel (that was never released).
In this case, they chose to make a longer base story, and release the game in three separate parts. However, each part was not a standalone complete game — the first game has only 9 stages and takes about 10 hours to complete, and the second game has (I think) 7 stages. The third game was never released, probably due to poor sales of the first ones. So essentially you are playing a game that is only 2/3 complete, and the conclusion to the story is unknown.
Obviously that is a big reason to avoid this game, although in theory it still might be worth playing if the gameplay is fun (especially now when you don’t have to pay full price for both games). Unfortunately, the gameplay is bad — at least as bad as V-Force, if not worse.
Each mech has a “synchro level” and a “burning level”. The Synchro Level affects various things, but the most important is that if it falls below 5, you can only move and use the Synchro command (which takes Burning points). Burning is what you get from being attacked and taking damage. You can use it for special moves, to increase your synchro rate, and you can spend 60 (I think) points to enter “burning mode”, which lasts for one turn and greatly increases your stats and move rate. The enemies also have synchro rate and burning.
That doesn’t sound too bad, so what’s the problem?
For one thing, all attacks except for map (multi-hit) attacks are 100% hit rate. There is also no “zone of control”. This makes it very hard to protect your units. Second, too many of the enemies have map attacks. Third, the maps usually involve a pretty tight time limit plus numerous waves of surprise reinforcements.
But all of this is not necessarily bad; it could still add up to be a challenging but enjoyable game. What I think really pushes it over into being tedious and unfun is that there is little to no way to upgrade or change your own mechs. You can level up the pilots, but the stats of the mechs never change (including HP). There was one time when I was allowed to shift around the weapons equipped, but after that, I never found a way to do it again. This means that while the enemies keep getting stronger and more numerous, and the stages more difficult, your party basically seems the same, which feels frustrating.
Being attacked reduces your synchro rate, and so you can also find yourself having to waste a bunch of turns on the synchro command.
As with V-Force, each attack comes with a little anime clip, but you can’t skip it or turn it off the way you could in the previous game. This makes the stages take a lot longer.
The basic story involves the high school students Shin and Natsumi. When they stumble in to a fight between some monstrous things and some people in powered suits, it turns out that they have an amazingly high synchro level with the suits and are able to pilot them well.
They join a special attack group of the Japan forces, who are dedicated to fighting these enemies (and who are all women). As the story progresses, it turns out that both Shin and Natsumi are reincarnations of warriors, and in some stages they are able to become “Gainers”, a sort of hybrid being that fights much better than the normal suits.
The enemies are also reincarnations from the same place — they recognize Raizetsu (Shin’s Gainer form) as the most powerful warrior of the previous age, although he hasn’t awakened to his full power yet. The enemies are looking for vessels to act as hosts for their own reincarnated warriors, and they are particularly concerned about finding one for Lucita, who seems to be their leader.
The story has familiar elements — it’s heavily criticized for being a combination of cliches from other mech series (particularly Evangelion and Sakura Taisen). I actually thought the story was fairly interesting and better than V-Force, despite the cliches.
I made it up to stage 8 out of 9, but that stage had unlimited reinforcements and starts you off with only one unit — I tried to rush the boss but a bunch of powerful reinforcements arrived, and it just didn’t seem worth it to keep playing an unfinished game. I also will not be playing the second part — apparently they added an Easy Mode, and if the 3rd part had actually been released I might continue just to see how the story ends up.
My impression from the Japanese blogs and such is that V-Force was already considered a kusoge (bad game) and that this game is considered to be even worse. I’m certain this was Ving’s last attempt to do this kind of game (and almost their last game before they exited the game market), but I’m not sure if any other company tried it again. I just don’t think it’s likely to work unless you get a situation where a company is willing to give the game enough of a budget that both the anime cutscenes and the gameplay development can be fully supported.