Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Masoukishin - The Lord of Elemental - Import Review  

Heroes of Might and Mecha
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Interesting to see the series' roots
+ Lots of cool animation, which can be toggled
+ Well-crafted combat system
- Huge gaps in story
- Difficult for beginners to pick up
- Bosses will inspire prayer and supplication to the gods of the RNG for their benevolence
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Once upon a time, there was a very popular anime series featuring really big robots... Strike that. There were several dozen such series, in the 80s alone, and together they had one of the most sizable fan bases in the history of any genre. With such popularity comes the inevitable question of who would beat whom, in matchups that could never logically be. Somebody in Banpresto's marketing department must have smelled the opportunity for success, and thus was the Super Robot Wars series born. Within a few instalments, the developers had come up with an intricate set of interlocking game mechanics, and the next question became, would the public enjoy a completely original game using this engine, but without any of the mecha series characters that had spawned the concept?

   Obviously, the answer was "yes," because in 1992 Masoukishin: The Lord of Elemental came to the Super Famicom and the developers went on to create an entire saga based on the Original Generation concept. Almost twenty years later, Lord of Elemental got a DS remake with an extended title and a lot of major and minor references to later games added in. That's the version we're discussing today.

   Part of the game's original appeal came from the fact that it was a familiar system with fresh faces, and The Lord of Elemental does succeed with its large cast. The protagonist is Masaki Andoh, who is one of about a dozen people from various parts of the Earth who have been summoned to La Gias, a mystical world on the inner surface of the planet. All of these people have the innate ability to operate the masouki, elementally animated war machines. The four greatest of these are the eponymous masoukishin, the Machine Gods, which house powerful spirits with wills of their own. Masaki himself appeared in several games prior to this one, and The Lord of Elemental functions as much as the origin story of how he came to pilot the masoukishin Cybuster as anything else, as well as why he fights against a cult dedicated to the revival of an evil deity in a dreadnaught body.

Ready to mop up.

   The rest of the pilots represent an eclectic assortment of nationalities: American, Chinese, French, Hindi, Thai, Russian, Arabic, and Spaniard. There's a good deal of interesting conversation to be had between them, but very little depth. The characterizations are often spot-on, helped by the many portrait variations for each character. These portraits include the normal array of emotional cues, as well as a few weirdly specific ones like brainwashed, possessed, (very obvious) incognito, and so drunk that their clothes are about to come off. However, the majority of the characters are presented with no history prior to their arrival in La Gias, with no family connections or personal causes to explain their quirks. The main exception to this is Tytti, whose backstory is tragic enough for ten people, but the rest of the masouki operators oddly don't seem to care that they've been teleported to another world against their will to pilot giant fighting robots. The game still manages to keep a cohesive narrative going, with conspiracies and strained alliances, fifth column attacks and false-flag operations — not to mention the treacherous and charismatic Shu Shirakawa, whom fans of the Original Generation games should also recognize immediately. The plot comes to a head in its twenty-fourth chapter, which ends with Masaki racing after Shu to the world above, leading directly into their first major series appearances.

   The game might have done better to end things there. It even has a Japanese sign that translates as "End of Act 1," as a nod to the fact that it's the origin of a whole lot of material that came before and after it. What follows in Chapter 25, however, is a narrative scroll detailing the next two war-torn years of history for La Gias, sans any involvement from the player. The rest of the chapter is a long series of conversations between Masaki and a new character, in which the primary plot of the entire Original Generation trilogy (and possibly a few others) gets summarized, complete with cut scenes for important battles. Several characters from the first half of the game are dead from nonspecific causes, and others just seem to have vanished. The set-piece battle scenes are interesting for who lives, who dies, and who happens to join in, but without much context. There are entire sagas implied in some of those scenes, but nothing really said.

   The game continues for another nineteen or twenty more chapters as a jumbled and disjointed epilogue that largely fails to explain itself or account for most of the social interactions it contains. Aside from this, actual game progression is ramrod-straight, as is usual in this series, with little control over who appears in which battle for most of the game. This can and does result in situations where an underleveled character pops in during a major fight, only to get squashed flat almost immediately. Even when it's possible to select who joins the fight for that chapter, it's difficult to overcome large experience gaps. Some characters will obligingly jump in level between major appearances before they join for good, while at least one will stubbornly stay in the single digits even after the big plot gap of Chapter 25. With at most a third of the total party capable of being fielded in a single fight (and often fewer than that), it's hardly worth using many of them. The only real way to bring them up to par is blind luck, if they just happen to get in a fatal shot on some big enemy.

   Mecha, unlike their pilots, are easy to level up. All it takes is cold, hard cash. That said, bringing even five units up to the max on everything by the end of the game is difficult without abusing the Game Over features. In the event that the party is destroyed, or otherwise fails certain scenarios, it's possible to start over from the intermission segment with all previously gained cash and experience. With the right battle and skills, this can add up to a lot later in the game, but like much of its series, Lord of Elemental also tracks the total number of turns spent on the entire game, including those do-overs, which in turn enables or locks out certain endings. It's up to the player to determine if it's worth the trouble.

   As the fourth game of the SRW mold, Lord of Elemental has inherited a lot of game features and mechanics, the sum total of which can be quite overwhelming for a beginner. Arsenals come with huge stat blocks and conditional requirements, including fuel expenditure, prana (magic force), and the morale stat, which increases as the battle is waged. The biggest attacks require large numbers in all of these, and some other salient details, such as whether or not an attack can be used after moving or if (in the case of area attacks) it's capable of friendly-fire damage, aren't directly mentioned. On top of that, the operator characters all learn special abilities as they increase in experience, gaining both passive piloting skills and active powers that require a completely different (and non-replenishable) expendable point pool. Learning what does what takes a while, and the biggest consolation is that after one has played a single SRW game, then the rest are much easier to work with.

The Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Robots. About to get Cy-busted.

   The original Lord of Elemental was notable for introducing two new mechanics to the fray: elevation and forward positioning. For the first time in the series, attacks from above or behind actually mattered, and the developers' success rate with the application of this was rather mixed. Elevation mainly affected hit percent ratios, and the static design of the battle maps made major differences in elevation a rarity. The game also completely lacks flying units, for whom the usual barricades of forest or building would have provided interesting tactical opportunities. As for the back attack mechanic, the developers may have tried too hard to make it important in the later stages. A few of the major boss enemies near the end had unspecified damage reduction piled upon stupendously high defense stats, so few units could do more than scratch them, and to add insult to injury, by that point regeneration rates of up to 50% were the norm. The only real way to defeat them was to use a damage-boosting pilot skill (of limited use, and not available to all), in combination with a super attack (requiring major morale build-up) to hit them from behind. Even then, with high levels in tactical awareness, deflection, and evasion, these bosses stood an incredibly good chance of simply not taking damage. The final battle requires more luck and prayer than actual tactical prowess.

   In the visuals department, this game has everything a fan of the series could ever want. The robots are all colorful and varied, and everything has big, flashy animations that can be toggled during attack confirmation if one gets tired of it. As mentioned, the character portraits convey a wide range of emotions, and the early-mid 90s anime aesthetic still looks decent today.

   While Lord of Elemental is theoretically beatable in under twenty hours, the extreme difficulty spikes of the final few bosses represent a major issue. Instead of attempting something tactically creative, the developers seem to have gone for boosting stats to titanic levels and encouraging the use of Hail Mary plays. The two-year, four- or five-game gap in the middle of the story is likewise another major issue keeping this from being a better game. In the attempt to tie this game to everything that came before and after — not to mention whatever direct sequels were already in the planning stages — the developers of both the original and the remake left far too many random loose ends for comfort. This is an obvious game for SRW fans to pick up, but otherwise it's a pretty hard sell. There's simply too much requisite knowledge of the series, both for the plot and for basic gameplay, for a true beginner to make sense of it all.

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