Insanity Prevails' Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars Review
Unique IAS Comabt System
Lacklustre plot delivery
Lacks actual strategy
Defence is way too easy
Causing carnage in giant mechs. Doesn’t that sound so wonderful? Why have a sword or a rifle when you can be pounding away with giant metal fists or huge cannons? Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars intends to bring this kind of carnage to the humble Gameboy Advance in the form of a SRPG. It should be awesome, and yet…
Well, let’s start with how it looks. Unfortunately, things aren’t looking too promising. From the moment the story starts something feels wrong, and it doesn’t take long before it becomes all too apparent - this game has no idea what presentation is.
Conversation scenes are important to delivering the story, but ZOTE’s conversation pieces are so poorly done that I honestly didn’t care what they were talking about. The textbox is some solid and ugly green slab that takes up almost half the screen, even when the dialogue is only a single word.
Of course, there’s nothing much to look at in the background anyway. There are a few nice backgrounds in here, but they are recycled to the point of annoyance. Okay, a lot of the talking occurs in the base of BIS, but does that mean we have to see the exact same room every single time? Equally, every time we’re taken to the enemy’s side of things at their base, we only ever see one room.
Sometimes it appears that putting in a background of any sort was too much to ask. Some talking occurs with a kind of map in the background instead of an actual location background. It might have been okay, except this map is incredibly boring to look at. There’s rock and more rock and… more rock. It’s just rock everywhere. Oh, and a flashing indicator which supposedly shows where the group is, but it’s not particularly informative or interesting. It’s like putting a “you are here” arrow on an otherwise blank piece of paper.
The whole concept of the portraits is equally poorly done. Each character has a number of portraits expressing various emotions. Generally speaking, some of these are well done while others are just questionable as to what they are meant to be. The main problem is that the game just throws them about without any care. In addition to portraits quickly appearing and disappearing on the screen (like they couldn’t decide who’s in on the conversation) but often throwing in an expression change for no reason at all.
There’s also some “shadowed” portraits, where characters are supposedly obscured by shadow to mask who they are, but this is done so ineffectively that by the time the “revelation” occurs the player had figured it out ages ago.
With such lacklustre performance one would hope the gameplay visuals would offer more of a treat, but this area received just as little attention as well.
The maps look decent enough, if lacking actual variety. All the cities look the same and every rock seems so similar. There is some good detail though and the colouring is rather representative of the environment.
The icons used to represent the onfield units are just poor though. Perhaps the biggest problem is that many of them look nothing like the mechs they are supposed to represent. Why do so many look like monkey heads when the mechs don’t look anything like that?
However, the icons also suffer from being boring in general. Pick up another strategy game. Go ahead. Look at the icons used. They’re animated. ZOTE’s icons might bob up and down but are otherwise static images. Other companies manage it, so I don’t see what the problem is here.
Battles are a somewhat mixed affair. When a player enters IAS mode to do combat they are presented with a screen displaying the blue environment (wait, Mars blue?), the enemy mech and a targeting cursor. It looks like it dropped in from an NES game. Low quality certain springs to mind. The actual environment lacks any sort of detail, and definitely doesn’t represent the areas you’re fighting in. The enemy mech, much like the map icons, lacks any animation. Here though it is a lot more noticeable as you’re up close. Instead you just get this static image floating around.
The one glimmer of light in the game’s visuals come from the actual attack animations. There’s never any visual contact between mechs, but still a mech slashing down or firing missiles off is pretty cool. The detail level is high and the animation is smooth. It’s often worth trying out every available attack just to see what it looks like. Unfortunately, the lack of contact makes even these grow old eventually, and pretty battle animations doesn’t prevent the package from looking ugly overall.
The game does poorly visually and also launches a similar assault on the ears. Needless to say, the game’s idea of audio isn’t a commonly accepted one.
Music tracks are rather limited in range, so be well prepared for a lot of repetition. That wouldn’t be so bad if they were great tracks, but that isn’t the case. Some tracks have a good rhythm to them but most of them are dull and boring. It doesn’t help that all of them sound very low quality. The tracks are rather fitting to the setting, but that doesn’t make them sound any better.
Sound effects are likewise rather repetitive. All swipe attacks seem to generate the exact same sound. Energy blasts and missile blasts also sound so samey that early on you just stop hearing them. They do sound right but you just don’t care past the start of the game.
The general gist of ZOTE’s backstory is that some people went to live on colonies away from Earth to ensure survival of the human race, but at some point those on Earth stopped considering those on other planets as human. Those people became known as Enders, and as such tension has mounted between the Earth and the Enders.
Cage, your typical clueless protagonist, is working onboard the Bonaparte III, a ship heading to Mars. He comes across a mysterious LEV (a mech, in other words) and an even more mysterious girl in the cargo hold. When an explosion rocks the ship the girl forces Cage into the mech and they escape before the ship is destroyed. A fight ensues between Cage’s new mech and a strange black mech that appears.
When Cage lands he runs into BIS, a rebellion group who fight those from Earth who intend to ruin the lives of those on Mars.
It’s your standard sci-fi mech story. It sounds pretty basic, and it is. The game attempts some plot twists and set pieces, but the problem stems from them being seen a mile away even by those paying very little attention. Being the generic plot twists doesn’t really help matters.
Character development is another issue, as in it doesn’t exist. Well, that’s not strictly true, but it seems Cage and Myona are the only ones who get the level of development you would expect. Again, it’s cliché, but at least it’s there. It’s hard to care about anyone else when they seem so one-dimensional.
However, the biggest problem with the plot doesn’t have anything to do with the plot itself. We’re brought back to a previous problem - talking. Much of the game’s story is delivered through conversations, but when the delivery is so terrible it is hard to pay attention and therefore much of the impact (well, what little it started with) is lost. The actual dialogue too is nothing interesting to speak of. There’s angry shouting, calm reasoning, thoughtful planning… we’ve seen it all hundreds of times before, but we’ve seen it better before too. Flat, lifeless dialogue doesn’t do the game any favours.
As mentioned previously, this game is a SRPG. Therefore you can expect role playing elements within a strategy world.
You have a group of mechs to control on the map. Unlike many other strategy games you’re not limited to deploying a certain number. In fact, they all get autodeployed anyway, allowing you to use them all fully.
Each of your mechs has different attributes and abilities, which affect where they can move, who they can attack and how resilient they are to damage. The concept being that they each have different strengths and weaknesses, but it doesn’t really work out that way.
Some mech abilities are gained through events or by sitting on a certain spot in certain maps, and have a bigger impact on things. Acting as a supply to other mechs or possessing a second move. All OFs (Orbital Frame) also possess a command to land, although I haven’t figured out why you’d want to. There doesn’t really seem to be any detriment to staying in the air, while grounded units have to navigate the terrain.
Balance is a dream no developer has ever managed, but ZOTE’s collection of mechs takes unbalanced to a whole new level. Some mechs, like Blade, have very little going for them. Why am I lugging this around again? Things get even worse when the OF mechs appear. These are just so much better than any others. The existence of abilities can further overpower some mechs. Where’s the incentive to use the others again?
Play is done via the typical phase system. During the player phase your blue units await commands. You can move them, attack or use items or skills. All the enemy can do is sit and get attacked. When this phase ends (by player command) then the enemy phase begins, and the roles reverse. Enemies move and attack while the player defends. This continues until one side loses.
Attack options consist of close combat and ranged attacks. Close combat moves can be used after moving on the same turn while ranged attacks can’t. However, moving may put you in range of other attackers so firing from a distance may be more beneficial. Additionally, these options may be further limited by the mech. Some mechs have poor ranged options while others have no close combat ability at all.
Attack options are further limited by the ammo or points needed to use it. Some attacks are free. Others may use up either energy (which multiple weapons may share) or ammo (ammo is exclusive to a weapon that needs it). The more powerful attacks also require Spirit, which is gained by defeating enemy units or through events.
Sounds nice, but many of the maps aren’t long enough for the ammo system to have any effect. Chances are you’ll wipe out enemies before you’ll even run out, or basic weapons will work fine anyway.
Enemies are the typical strategy enemies you’re used to seeing. Yeah, that means they just recklessly charge your position. Their mechs tend to come in a variety of generic types but ultimately it’s hard to see much difference in performance. This may come largely down to the way the game handles combat, but I didn’t see much difference between earlygame enemies and those I fought later on.
Bosses also appear to cause havoc, but again we’re faced with a “you seem familiar” syndrome. As far as I could tell, bosses are just more durable enemies. They tend to move and attack the same. Even then, their defences didn’t go up that much, and it’s way too easy to lure them forward and wipe them out.
When you’re not on the field you’re in the garage area. Here you can spend money earned by defeating enemies to boost up the mechs, as well as alter the balance of mechs.
Money can be spent on increasing the stats of the mechs or making individual weapons stronger. That said, the differences tend to be minimal, so it’s hard to notice any changes regardless of what you spend the cash on.
Balance affects how the mech performs. You have two balance meters - one controls power and hit while the other controls defence and avoid. As you increase one side of a meter you decrease the other. So you can sacrifice hit for power, for example. Sounds like a nice idea, but because of how the IAS system works there’s no real reason anyone would opt for Hit and Defence. The combat is just too generous for that. Pump the gauge to max power and you’ll still have a simple enough time hitting targets.
The game has an item system, but it is rather ineffective. The problem comes from an actual lack of items. You might sometimes pick up a one use booster. Mechs either don’t need it or want more uses out of it. An actual item shop might have made it work better, but right now it feels more like an unfinished idea.
While everything else seems pretty straightforward strategy stuff ZOTE does approach combat in a completely different manner. It’s a daring move and certainly makes the game more than just another drop in the GBA sea, but it’s not entirely successful.
In all cases the screen switches to a first person view from the cockpit of the mech you’re controlling. A moving image of the enemy mech appears in front of you. A timer is ticking down until this feature ends. Here’s where the differences are.
When attacking you have a set period of time to align your targeting cursor with the enemy mech and fire. You don’t have to have the mech entirely in the cursor for this to succeed either. An arm would do just as much damage as a headshot. To add a little extra spice all enemies have a smaller dot on them to represent a weak spot. Hit this directly for a critical hit.
Of course, the enemy doesn’t stay still, so you have to chase him around the screen. Misfire or run out of time and he dodges you. The size of your targeting circle depends on the mech settings and weapon used, but honestly it always seems pretty big regardless.
When playing defence your targeting cursor now represents your mech, and the enemy mech will launch its own targeting circles on the screen. Dodge them all to succeed in avoiding the attack.
It’s certainly an interesting way to go about it. Indeed, shooting down enemy mechs takes some getting used to and is pretty fun at that even if overly generous. A nice idea, but it’s also slightly flawed. The problem mainly comes from when playing defence - as in it’s too simple. Dodging an attack amounts to no more than running the cursor in circles around the screen. Even against bosses. The game is also far too forgiving for those people a bit slow in escaping a targeting circle. This removes a tremendous amount of strategy from the game as there’s no longer any consequence. Why bother thinking where to move when you know you can dodge whatever comes at you?
IAS mode can be turned off, making ZOTE more like a traditional SRPG by having attacks based on generated random numbers against mech stats. However, this then shoots things off to the opposite end of the scale. No terrain. No mech type advantages. No bonus boost system. No healing unit. The game just lacks so many elements needed that playing with the IAS off becomes near impossible.
If you can bear with the game then you’ll find quite a lengthy game here. There’s a lot of missions to go through, as well as the game offering a split path to encourage further playthroughs.
Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars has some interesting ideas, but these ideas drop it into the awkward middle ground. For strategy fans there’s not enough strategy. For action fans there’s not enough action. As a result it falls short both sides, and the game is further hindered by a poor delivery. It’s a shame, because this could have been a rather solid game otherwise.