Akin to movie or television franchises in the US, games based on popular anime tend to be some of the worst in Japan. The Gundam series, as proletarian as they come, is no exception. It originated in the mid-to-late 70s and shows no sign of stopping with the most recent offering, Gundam SEED. No stranger to the mediocrity of the rough-ridden action genre, you'd be surprised to see that a Mobile Suit RPG, of all things, really isn't that bad. That said, its appeal is a conundrum of sorts. It's as cliché as it is complex and the latter elements are what's likely to make a play through worthwhile. Before getting to those, however, it might be best to get the rote material out of the way first.
Several years after the Great Fall (a calamity that wiped out the majority of the planet's population), the Dark Alliance is attacking cities and generally causing havoc. As the young and spunky amnesiac orphan, Tristan, you're initial journey to avenge the destruction of your home and friends at their hands soon turns into a world-spanning adventure (set on an alternate-universe Earth) where you'll have to use the enemy's technology against them in order to save humanity. There's the annoying and cheeky sidekick, the anorexic girl with mysterious powers, and other characters in a long line of time-worn cliches that unfortunately end up being just as bland as you'd expect them to be.
Gundam fans will no doubt find familiarity in the warmth of the favorite Suit's heat exhaust, but besides that, the MS Saga universe has nothing in common with previous stories. Most of the Mobile Suits themselves come from the Universal Century timeline, while the only machines to appear from the previous alternate ones are those from fan favorite Gundam Wing. That doesn't mean you can't have fun and experiment a little, though. In fact, you can experiment a lot, either modifying existing rigs or creating entirely new ones by mixing and matching accumulated parts. This is where the game gets a little complex, but it's also pretty fun. Customizing your Mobile Suit may seem daunting a first – you have a bountiful number of decisions to make spread across several different menus that affect the performance of your machine in battle. You can start by hitting up a G System in order to create new parts or entirely new units (assuming you have obtained the plans for a Gundam and the required amount of points to make it). If you lack the rare, but necessary, items to do that, then you can buy parts or apply ones that you've salvaged from the enemy. There are several different slots in which to equip them. Most represent a single body part, like an arm or a leg, but you also have four special slots dedicated to special pieces such as HP upgrades or Wings that make your Mobile Suit move faster in battle. All Gundams have a particular payload capacity and individual parts may also determine what weapons you can use. Besides that, there are no real rules governing the particulars of your arsenal. Like body sections, you can either buy arms, salvage them from enemies, or find them in treasure chests. Before you head out into the field, though, make sure to stop by the office of the local authority to upgrade the actual stats of your machine. Pay money and they'll tweak it in several different areas to add defense, attack, and health. Of course, you'll also be leveling up your characters at the same time, compounding customization ever further.
Juggling all of these different options means you'll spend a lot of time tweaking and finding out what weapons work for you, which is important because it figures into the way battles play out. The basic mechanics of the battle system are a little generic. Mostly random fights occur throughout the game and while you still might end up taking a fair amount of damage from them, there's little strategy beyond figuring out what pattern of attacks will get you through each fight in an area the fastest. Once you've got that down pat, it's more or less mashing X until you hit the results screen. However, there are many forced encounters (marked by yellow or red arrows on the map) and boss battles in the game that do test your limits and the strength of your customized Mobile Suits. Like your characters, the enemies have a prescribed number of EN points which govern what actions they can take that turn. Also, like you, they can choose to either spend them on attacks or save them up for greater techniques by using the "Boost" command or defending. You've got one advantage over them, though, and that's the ability to read their next move. In the upper-right corner, a display tells you how many EN points an enemy currently has and what kind of attack they're about to dole out next. Using this handy information ties into the strategic elements of battle that help raise an otherwise dull set of mechanics into an engaging one.
As mentioned above, the weapons and techniques that your Gundams are capable of also come into play. Certain character abilities can only be used in conjunction with specific weaponry and each type has its own advantages and disadvantages. For instance, while bludgeoning tanks and such with melee attacks might be safe, striking other Mobile Suits will provoke an immediate counter-attack. Small distance weapons such as machine guns don't come with this caveat, but they're weaker overall. Larger ballistic arms such as cannons can match or exceed the firepower of your close-quarter arsenal, but require more EN to use. Yet other pieces have special properties such as spraying acid on the enemies, so picking your attacks and paying attention to the provided information can really give you a leg up in battle.
As fun as it may be playing around with your customized Mobile Suits, the remaining aspects of the game are just as middling as the story. The music is alright – generally upbeat tunes that are even good in some places – but the sounds are weak and don't provide the full impact you'd expect from a bunch of gigantic war machines. Speaking of that, they aren't so gigantic and I was a little disappointed that they went with the big-headed SD Gundam designs instead of full-sized ones. They seem somewhat out-of-place in the environments and don't have any kind of presence on the battlefield. For a game that's trying to be serious, it comes off as more Power Rangers-esque than anything. Despite that, they are respectable modeled, and the modifications that you choose to make to them reflect on-screen in battle. You can even change the colors of certain parts to emphasize the effect. It's just a bit of a disappointment that even the most powerful attacks are generally unsatisfying to watch. The rest of the graphics are generally dull, washed-out, and just plain boring. I'd blame it on the generic Renderware engine the game uses, myself. Some towns do look kind of nice, but dungeons and the overworld don't offer much visual pleasure.
MS Saga is an interesting game, mostly for its customization elements and the few key areas in which the battle system really shines. This isn't one of those games that'd you'd pawn of for being an entirely wasted effort, but it doesn't really strive to lift itself above mediocrity. Though it may sound trite, Gundam fans should enjoy this and though it takes some time and effort to get the really cool units, they're generally worth it if you're dedicated. There's really a lot of things to fiddle with and multiple play-throughs may produce different results, but RPG fans looking for something a little less generic with a more engaging presentation overall would do well to seek out the new Shadow Hearts game instead.