Who can resist 90’s style sci-fi tactical action stuffed with fantastic FMV sequences, cool mech battles, character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto (Macross, Gunbuster) and mechanical designs by Kazumi Fujita (Zeta Gundam)? Not me, that’s for sure.
And that’s why I bought Quovadis 2 many, many, years ago. Probably. But until the other week I’d never played it, distracted as I am by all the other cool strategy/mech/both/neither games I’ve got lying around the house – it’s not you, Quovadis 2, it’s me – and I really wish I’d got around to you sooner because even though you’ve been out for almost twenty-one years (help, I’m so very old) by now you still feel as fresh and exciting as the day you were pressed.
Another good bit of news is that while this is part of the same universe as the original Quovadis (unlike the sequel, Quovadis 1 came out on both the Playstation and Saturn, although the Playstation version came out several years later) there’s little meaningful crossover between the two of them. Think of it like Shining the Holy Ark and Shining Force 3 – there’s a clear connection between the two if you know where to look but they are designed as and can easily be enjoyed as entirely separate experiences.
The game itself is a real-time strategy title in the literal sense of the genre label, as you have a small squad of up to a dozen units under your direct command and battles play out in real time. There’s none of the material collecting or base building you’d expect to see in a typical Command & Conquer-like RTS so it’s really more like… Cannon Fodder, sort of? If Cannon Fodder had mechs, and much larger squad sizes, and… wasn’t a lot like Cannon Fodder, I suppose? But Quovadis 2 is definitely a strategy game, in real time, but it’s not a “real time strategy” game either. Clear? …What do you mean, “No”?
Just as the gameplay doesn’t match usual genre expectations the storytelling carves out its own unique little niche too, dishing out key plot points via short mission briefings (literally a few sentences each) or, more significantly, played out in “live” radio chatter during the mission itself rather than bookending each skirmish with live-action cutscenes or extensive “What happened next” logs. Saturn stablemate Burning Rangers may be the go-to example game for vocal responses tying directly into the action but Quovadis 2’s dynamic speech is at least its equal: Everyone in your “Red Scorpion” mercenary group has unique names, portraits, and personalities; over time you’ll get used to Sid falling to pieces when he’s under heavy fire, Neil getting all fired up as he attacks, and Neri calmly reporting in when she’s reached her destination. In addition to this there’s oodles of mission-specific dialogue where pilots will chat amongst themselves (you play their captain, largely silent outside of the impressive but infrequent FMV sequences) or when certain events occur. Hearing the leader of the friendly squad you’ve been ordered to rescue desperately call out the main character’s name while under fire as you slowly wade through desert sand to reach them is an emotive experience, as is hearing one of your own pilots begging you to hurry up and help while seeing them visibly recoil in their cockpits when they take yet another a hit. It all comes together to create a certain tension and connection that could easily be lost in a game that revolves around ordering tiny 2D sprites to shoot at other tiny 2D sprites.
Other small details keep popping up as you progress across the solar system that continue to challenge your expectations of how personal an RTS experience can be: Casually waltz through some village or city terrain while pushing back enemy forces and a small comm window opens up showing the locals abandoning their homes and screaming in terror. You aren’t punished for this in any way and nobody on your team even passes comment (they’re too busy saying things like “Enemy sighted!” and worrying about the rockets hurtling towards them anyway), but in many ways that only makes the contrast all the more noticeable; an uncomfortable reminder that the area you brazenly treated as yet another mission map is considered home for some, even if within the game’s framework (and the grand context of a system-wide war) they don’t even matter enough to name.
So without intruding on your game time or interrupting the action you’ll learn a lot and have a few favourite characters that you’ll find yourself taking extra care to protect. It’s all very immersive and exciting – if you can hear them, that is. One considerable drawback is Quovadis 2’s complete lack subtitles or summaries of spoken dialogue at any point in the adventure, and has meant that at times I have missed out on significant details if I’ve been playing with the sound on low or I’ve had to talk to someone/let the cat out/generally behave like a human being. Luckily the game’s linear Briefing>Set up mechs>Mission>Repeat until the planet’s liberated> Pick next planet structure means there’s no real struggle with progression, but it’d be nice if people didn’t potentially lose out on the why’s and the how’s just because they don’t live in a silent distraction-free bubble. It may not the first or the last game to have this problem by a long shot (Koudelka, Thief, Doom 3, and Blade Runner, are all excellent games that suffer with this same issue) but it never fails to be an avoidable irritation.
All of this thoughtful dialogue (when you can hear it) and exciting strategising would mean nothing if the game itself wasn’t up to the same standard, and historically RTS’ on consoles are rarely a natural fit. Fortunately Quovadis 2 really excels here so even when you’ve been ambushed and have to organise a dozen units to suddenly retreat or are setting up a multi-waypoint route through dense jungle terrain you never long for a mouse thanks to the streamlined control scheme that makes everything possible just a couple of button presses away, helped considerably by a movement system that works a lot like the line tool in your favourite image editing software – click>click>double click on final destination> all done! – so giving your entire squad individual multi-point routes takes seconds. It’s especially important you don’t simply barge through via the shortest, straightest, route because terrain does make a noticeable difference to not just your movement speed – walking up a steep hill or wading waist-deep in a river isn’t going to be as fast as walking along a road – but your ability to spot enemies using the game’s line-of-sight system too.
At the most basic level this means that if someone on your team can’t see the enemy, then you’ve got no idea where they are. Forests, mountains, and even just a significant height difference in the terrain can all block line of sight and can be used to the advantage of either side; one early mission makes a point of this by encouraging you to place your sniper character on a nearby mountaintop so she can pick off enemy mechs before they get anywhere near the rest of your troops. To stop it feeling unfair when you receive damage from unseen enemies the game always lets you see the shots fired even if you can’t see who’s firing them, making it easier to guess at the very least where they just were so you can move in/run away as you feel is appropriate. Pilots will automatically attack any hostile they can see within range but you can order them to focus on a particular target if there’s someone tough or troublesome you want to get rid of quickly – to speed up selection the cursor will snap to the nearest baddie and you can then cycle through every other visible enemy on the map if you wish to.
Keeping track of every when they’re spread across a map is always straightforward thanks to the list that pops up whenever you press the A button allowing you to easily see everyone’s health and current status (moving, waiting for orders, retreating due to heavy damage, etc) without pausing the action or whisking you off to another screen. If you find anyone’s in unexpected trouble the shoulder buttons can be used to quickly zip to anyone in battle without having to manually find them by dragging a cursor over the map. I really can’t fault the control scheme at all – you’ve always got every piece of information you need to hand and even in a game where success hinges just as much on speed as it does tactics there’s never any feeling that a mouse or a keyboard would have been the difference between life and death.
This sense of fairness is absolutely crucial in a game that features the dread spectre of perma-death – any non-essential (to the overall plot) pilots have a chance of dying if their mech is destroyed in battle, something that… turns out isn’t as much of a problem as you’d think it would be, actually. The game always gives you enough unkillable pilots and mechs to complete every mission (there is a finite amount of replacement pilots, but you’d really have to be trying to burn through them all) and the lack of an XP system, shops, or skill trees means that while a new recruit may favour short-range melee over long-range rifles they aren’t a waste of a slot that permanently lags behind the rest of the team.
And if you’re still not sold on this permanent death thing actually being OK for once: Mission win conditions always say it’s not enough to simply reach the goal area (if there is one – there usually is), but you must have X number of units get there and you will fail and have to retry the mission if you don’t have enough mechs alive to do so. This extra detail helps prevent “dead man walking” situations where you could perhaps scrape through with just a single unit or two and technically win but would have your troops dwindle to unmanageable levels as the game goes on.
But even without that extra consideration losing wouldn’t be a real problem as Quovadis 2’s short missions (generally five minutes or so each, a “long” mission may take ten) have a fantastic built-in failsafe if you get really stuck: If you lose you can retry from the start of mission briefing (giving you the chance to go over everything, including your team and their loadouts, again) as many times as you wish, and after the fifth fail you can choose to skip the mission entirely and carry on as if you’d won without any penalty. A crutch for the incapable? Not at all. I’d like to see this happen in every game if I’m honest – everyone has a story about a dreaded boss or battle they either can’t do at all or really struggle with, and I’m very much on the side of skipping that one thing after giving it an honest go is much better for everyone than abandoning a game forever.
Time spent outside of battle is always kept to an enjoyable minimum: Even with each mech possessing three equipment slots, a wide range of weapons to choose from, and pilot specialities to consider the equipment screen’s always easy to read with every last scrap of information laid out before you in one place – nothing squirrelled away in menus behind menus or expects you to check reference materials for accuracy/range ratios or other esoteric statistics. Equipment makes enough of a difference to be important (please don’t do what I did and load up an already heavy mech with lots of even heavier beam rifles then have it crawl along at a snail’s pace behind everyone else all battle), but it never feels like they added stats for stats’ sake or that you can’t see how any of these parameters will effect a pilot’s combat performance.
It’s just a great game, executed well. Missions are genuinely varied without feeling gimmicky and the briefings are accurate enough to be worth following but balanced out by occasional well-planned mid-mission snags to keep you on your toes. Good planning can make up for poor reactions, quick wits can balance out lazy tactics, and the pass system covers every scenario where any combination of the two let you down. The only warning I would give isn’t anything to do with the game itself, but people who might wish to play it – importers who lack an ear for Japanese are going to struggle when officers are barking in your ears to retreat or enemy pilots are scrambling to engage after you wiped out their empty mechs under cover of darkness. I don’t use the term “Hidden gem” lightly, but I’ll say it applies here – Quovadis 2 is a quality import-only title that deserves to be played and enjoyed for its approachable and engaging take on a well-worn genre.