Gundam Battle Universe and the other Artdink Gundam games on the PSP are still considered to be some of the best entries in the franchise. The issue is, it’s been over a decade since the developer stopped making them. When I saw it was attached to SD Gundam Battle Alliance, this quickly became one of the games I was most hyped about this year. I imagined what Artdink, which made great mecha games with extremely weak hardware, must be capable of with modern tech. But after playing the game, I mostly just feel disappointed. This isn’t a bad game, per se. But it’s a far cry from what the dev achieved on much, much weaker hardware and it doesn’t offer the satisfying game feel I was hoping for.
SD Gundam Battle Alliance has an awful lot of dialogue sequences. Too bad the story is just kind of there. Juno Astarte and a random commander are pulled from a simulation of the EFSF’s war against Zeon in the year 0079. An AI representing G:Universe, a repository for Gundam-related war data, has pulled them out of their simulation to help repair “breaks” in the simulations. These breaks cause the data of unrelated Mobile Suits and their pilots to manifest in the simulations of other histories. There’s, naturally, a deeper mystery behind all of this, but it’s never interesting.
Truthfully, I read the story sequences as quickly as I could. They’re all fully voiced in Japanese, but the few characters are so banal and the narrative loop is so dull and repetitive that I couldn’t stand any of it at times. “Why are you still talking?!” I would ask the characters as they continued to prattle on (a sentiment some of you may share after reading my many complaints about this game). They’re all archetypes, from the bland AI Sakura Slash to the arrogant bespectacled Hermes Mercury who randomly shows up to annoy the other characters. I did find some amusement in the characters directly comparing the Kamille/Four scenario from Zeta with the lazily identical Shinn/Stella one from Seed Destiny. God, I hate Gundam Seed.
Better get used to those combos, kid
There are three categories of Mobile Suit in the game: melee, ranged, and balanced. There aren’t a huge amount of Suits included, and many of them play similarly. The melee and balanced ones tend to have just a three-hit combo and a strong attack that you’ll need to chain to get a combo going. You can also use a launcher to knock enemies into the air. The combat usually feels identical between a lot of suits. Plus you can’t upgrade or change out any of your weapons or skills, so the gameplay for each Suit never changes. If you played any of the Gundam Breaker games and want more of that fast, satisfying, accurate action, you also won’t find it here at all. The combat here is much, much worse, featuring tedious, repetitive action.
This is compounded by the fact that, when you unlock new Mobile Suits in SD Gundam Battle Alliance, they start at level one. It’s true even if you unlocked them from a level 30 mission. This means you have to dump a massive amount of currency into them before you can use them in your most recent missions. I played as the Exia for nearly the entire game, as it was just too much of a pain to level a new Suit up to the level I needed. Not that the new Suits would play all that differently, mind you.
Artdink’s other games don’t really have this problem. The Suits you unlock in those games are typically strong enough to take into battle immediately. You could also switch out weapons to keep things fresh. It’s a strange misstep.
You also bring along two AI companions which you’ll need to have at the appropriate level. But they level at the same speed as your pilot level, meaning that you’ll also need to grind them up from scratch, so I stuck with Mikazuki and Tieria.
You gain access to new pilot skills that you can equip every two levels. Almost all of these are either underwhelming or borderline useless. All of this would be considerably less of an issue if the combat was fine, but it’s mostly just mediocre. The combos and action can look suitably flashy, but the movement is horribly slow, even when boosting. Pressing the standard attack buttons doesn’t see you attack right away. Instead, it moves your Suit into a boost and sends you careening toward whatever enemy you’re locked onto.
This has the added effect of giving melee attacks stamina, which you’ll run out of if you attack too much. The lock-on is automatic by default, and made me feel like I was barely in control. Things improve some when it’s turned off, but the hacking and slashing still feels too much like its on rails for my tastes.
What’s the deal?
But that’s not the only issue I have with the lock-on. It’s strangely slow, as it’ll swing around a beat later than you’d probably expect. It’s also horribly inaccurate at times. I can’t tell you how often I went to attack an enemy, only to watch as my Mobile Suit went zooming past it, missing entirely. You have a super attack with a two-minute cooldown, and I’ve used it only for it to completely boost off in the opposite direction from the boss I was facing. It almost reminds me of the shoddy lock-on from 2001’s Journey to Jaburo game, which was the first 3D Gundam game we got in the West.
I also felt like it was necessary to almost exclusively use melee attacks, which is weird for a Gundam game. All Mobile Suits have a gun, but it only has five or six shots before it has a lengthy reload. Ranged Suits can immediately refill your shots and skills, but it requires half of a skill bar. You won’t be able to make use of it regularly during boss fights. Ugh, the boss fights. The regular enemies that populate the levels are basically fodder. You walk up to them and hit them until they die. It reminds me of a Dynasty Warriors game.
But the bosses are worse. They do a lot of damage and can’t be flinched. Instead, there’s a weird break gauge that depletes when they use skills. You need to wait until their break gauge is almost empty and attack with a skill of your own to get them into a vulnerable state. But they have a ton of health and don’t stay down for long. It gives the fights a weird start/stop rhythm that I couldn’t get into. You can do extra damage to enemies by hitting them in the back, plus you can perfect guard to block all damage and use a counter to do extra damage of your own. There are options, but the combat they’re part of is unchanging and boring. It doesn’t necessarily do SD Gundam Battle Alliance a lot of favors.
No need to jump
There’s online multiplayer, of course, which the game is built around. But I couldn’t get it to work when I tried it. It’d time out with an error instead. SD Gundam Battle Alliance is locked to 60 fps by default despite being made with Unreal Engine 4. You can screw with certain config documents to remove this, but it has to be done every time you go to play the game. Regardless, the levels are mostly a bore. Invisible walls are everywhere and the Mobile Suits can’t jump high enough to make it to higher ground, so movement feels constrained and the spaces feel almost claustrophobic.
Most of the time, you go into a level, fight some mindless peons and then fight a boss. Some levels make you fight three bosses. These fights are rough solo as your AI compatriots aren’t useful and you can’t give them any orders beyond “use your super” — which may or may not hit. The particle effects when you and your AI companions hit enemies are also often so large and flashy that, during boss battles, I couldn’t even see the boss half the time, which made it hard to dodge or block many of their attacks. I’d just be looking at a ball of light before being hit by an attack I couldn’t see coming. The camera also mostly sucks, as it wouldn’t let me see when I got too close to geometry, or it would start wigging out making it impossible to get my bearings.
SD Gundam Battle Alliance can be worth playing for big Gundam fans who just want another hack and slash. The combat and customization are sorely lacking compared to Gundam Breaker 3 from 2016 and the game design can’t even hold up to Gundam Battle Universe from 2009. This is probably the most disappointing game of the year for me and I’m just honestly shocked at how much Artdink missed the mark, considering how it developed some of the best games in the franchise.