Type of game: Text / interactive fiction
Written by: Paul Wang
Published by: Choice of Games
Played on: Steam
Stop and think rationally for a minute and there are so many reasons why doing battle from inside giant war robots is daft idea. We all know this, and yet it’s a trope that surfaces again and again in anime, sci-fi and fantasy. You ask why? I ask you why are you even asking that? It’s the Rule of Cool! It’s because mecha are spectacular!
So I’ll admit I was simultaneously excited and doubtful about picking up this choose your own adventure game by Paul Wang. “Step into the cockpit of a giant robot in an interstellar civil war!” The blurb entices… “Customize your mecha to duel against enemy pilots with “monosaber” plasma swords.” Who hasn’t yearned to do this? Personally, I’ve spent so long fantasizing about being a mech pilot that I spent months sewing costumes so that B and I could cosplay as crew of Pacific Rim‘s Cherno Alpha. But you see the thing there? My first response to just how much I adored Pacific Rim was to do something visual: to make costumes. Mech war is a hugely visual genre. Yes, there are some great stories woven in there too but generally mecha are loved because they look awesome. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from a text only interactive novel on the subject. When so much about mecha combat doesn’t convince – if, that is, you ever you get past the awe-inspiring visuals enough to actually consider this fact – then just how will a story hold up where precisely all you do is consider?
The answer? It holds up surprisingly well. Indeed, it’s a testament to the world building skills of game writer Paul Wang that Mecha Ace: Heroes of the Vedrian War manages to create an enjoyably tense and tactical textual experience within this usually most visually-reliant of genres.
What’s it all about?
In Mecha Ace you play the lead in a Lance (squadron) of mech pilots fighting for the rebel cause against a tyrannical galactic empire in war that has become increasingly desperate and wearying for both sides. As even this brief synopsis shows, the game can have a definite space western Star Wars kind of vibe but this is only one of the influences it embraces. There are inevitable nods here to Evangelion, Gundam and the aforementioned Pacific Rim as well as some imaginative flourishes that are distinctively the game’s own.
This being a ‘Choice of’ game, just how pronounced any of these influences become is very much down to you. Early on you choose just why your character is involved in the war, and the game gives a decent list of varying motivations (although ”I just wanted to drive a freaking awesome giant robot” is noticeably absent).
This really helps to establish your character, not just thematically but also statistically since, as the game progresses, your relative skills as a warrior or diplomat are recorded, as well as your passion vs deliberation, biases which can hugely influence not only the outcome of your battles but also how you interact with other characters, allied, enemy or unknown.
The game’s clear love for the mech genre is partly why is succeeds even without visuals. In-jokes aside, the story never questions why mecha are being used and the action is fast paced enough that I simply didn’t have sufficient pause to question it either. Wang has built a hugely detailed world: this is the first CYOA game I’ve played that comes with an extensive additional database of information: detailing the different models of mecha and ships you can encounter as well as providing a lengthy history of the ”interstellar era.” The result of such depth is that throughout the focus remains on what you’re going to do with the tools you have, rather than why you have them in the first place. And it works.
This is first and foremost a war strategy game. Although there are opportunities to befriend and romance some of the other characters, the action revolves firmly around a series of set-piece skirmishes. During each you have to think tactically and make careful decisions, long range or melee? Protect the civilians or pursue the Imperials? Parlay or pummel? You also get the chance to test pilot an advanced prototype machine, dual your nemesis, engage a super-weapon or cope with capture and even interrogation. Although the overall story always follows the same arc I was impressed by just how much impact your combat decisions could have on the ensuing action, a fact which hugely increases the game’s replay value.
The romance options are definitely not tacked on, but carefully intertwined with the war narrative. Despite the huge scale of the story the named cast is very small and the relationships you can form feel quite organic, developing slowly in the ship-bound scenes between missions. Indeed, it took me several attempts to ‘woo’ one of the NPCs as their interest is determined not only by your conversations with them but also by your behaviour in battle and general attitude to the war. And here’s a pro tip that I learned the hard way: accidentally killing a character’s parents does not further your efforts to befriend them. Ooops.
Mecha Ace also lets you choose the gender of its NPCs which I thought was a really nice touch.
There is a lot of text here, with chapters and paragraphs generally being more lengthy than in other games of this type that I’ve played. I felt like the game needed to do this: it would be hard to make the sort of tactical decisions Mecha Ace requires without a clear overview of the state of each battle. I soon picked up the basic jargon of the setting – such as the names of the different mecha models and their relative abilities – but at times it was still difficult not to feel bogged down by tech specs and I can easily see how this element could be off-putting to some.
The game is solidly written and brilliantly imagined but – perhaps unsurprisingly given the subject matter – the language is generally strategic rather than emotional. I’m not sure that this is really a criticism because it felt like the game struck the right tone for its content but I really love the moral and philosophical aspects of interactive fiction and while Mecha Ace does pose some interesting questions – of the ”war, what’s it good for” variety – it never stirred the intense feelings that, for example, Choice of Robots did.
If you like mecha then you really ought to give this a try. If you don’t like mecha, (a) why are you still reading? (b) what is wrong with you? It’s an incredibly brave move to pitch a text adventure in such a visual genre and while I wouldn’t say the game is 100% successful its ambition is certainly to be applauded. Mecha Ace offers an enjoyably detailed combat simulator in a sweeping sci-fi setting. The game presents a satisfying range of outcomes, some predictable, some surprising, and one that made the Pac Rim fangirl in me whoop with joy:
And while I didn’t experience the emotional connection that has kept me so addicted to Choice of Robots I’ve certainly enjoyed 5 0r 6 solidly engaged and varied play-throughs, making it well worth the £2.79 I spent to buy this on Steam. To conclude, let us consider the lesson of Schrödinger’s Mech: if you can’t observe the giant robot, is it still awesome? The answer is a resounding yes, although perhaps also a reminder of just how much I do enjoy a good mechanical spectacle too.
So what’s next on the interactive fiction front? I’m still a newcomer finding my way in this fantastic genre of gaming, so the answer is I’m just not sure. If any Choose Your Own aficionados would like to make a suggestion or recommendation for me I’d love to hear from you!