Toy soldiers and chips

20200626_141652Sacnoth were the creative force responsible responsible for the fabulous survival-horror RPG Koudelka, its slightly more famous (and dare I whisper it, inferior) sequel Shadow Hearts, the Dive Alert duo on Neo Geo Pocket, and this swerve out of nowhere into tactical mech action, Faselei (I’m going to leave out that trailing “!”, it gives me a headache). They were a developer that lived, created, and died, in a shorter period of time than some modern AAA games spend in behind-the-scenes concept development but in spite of this (or perhaps, because of) they still managed to release five games across three new IPs, with every single one of them offering a significant unusual twist on an overly familiar genre.

So it may be a little surprising to see this pocket tactical game fit so comfortably into such well-worn genre lines: There’s the near future urban setting ravaged by war, the lead’s a young ace pilot under the wing of an older mentor figure, and lots of time is spent stomping around in beautifully chunky mechs (dubbed TS’s – Toy Soldiers – here) or worrying about whether it’s better to walk into battle equipped with a small number of powerful shotgun shells or armed with a pair of weaker machine guns to liberally spray the surrounding area with – so far, so normal.

What makes Faselei stand out is the way these familiar trappings are wrapped up in a very unique battle system, one where a chain of actions are programmed into your lone TS at the start of each turn and then executed in order, much like an old LOGO machine. In a usual SRPG mech battle you would pick “Move” from a command list before clicking on the target tile, followed up with “Item” or “Attack” as required – I’m sure you know the drill. Whereas in Faselei a typical command sequence could look like Forward>Right Turn>Forward>Fire Weapon 1>Fire Weapon 1 or Back>Use Item>Left Turn>Reload>Fire Weapon 2.

The exact actions available to you are dictated by “chips” available for purchase in the between-mission shop, unlocking commands such as guarding, dashing, and using additional weapon slots. The quantity of these chips you can take into a mission is determined by your TS’s equipped computer (the better the computer, the more chips you can carry), and the number of chip commands you can execute per turn is down to the TS itself. As a result of these limitations you’re often forced to really consider how you hope to approach the next fight before you’ve gone anywhere near the map itself: Will you forgo potentially devastating yet situational abilities like Snipe or Heat for the sake of better defence or access to a wider range of missiles? Will you take “Right Slip”, allowing you to smoothly sidestep one tile to the right using just one slot in the command bar (using basic commands to achieve the same motion would require “Turn Right>Forward>Turn Left” – three slots), or would you rather leave that behind and bring along the Avoid command or allow access to another weapon slot instead? There’s no single right answer, making it one of those rare games where the choices really are your own – if it works for you, then it works for you.

Enemies always execute their commands at the same time you do, making it entirely possible for you both to move menacingly towards, and then harmlessly straight past, each other – but while this means you won’t destroy your intended target this turn nothing’s been wasted other than time: “Invalid” actions, such as shooting at nothing, are always ignored, saving you from throwing already scarce ammo away at empty space because an enemy wasn’t in range. The reverse of this problem is also covered by the game’s rules: It’s perfectly valid to program your TS to fire at what is currently empty space, and if an enemy wanders into range when a weapon chip’s active then they will be fired on. To make all of this simultaneous repositioning and order execution feel less like blind guesswork you will always see where each turn and every step will take you, as well as the exact range of every selected weapon shot in each spot, before you give the final OK to your commands.

Faselei will make sure these simple and unforeseeable issues don’t cause you any trouble but it won’t lift a finger to protect you from your own shoddy miscalculations: If you have enough ammo remaining to fire two shots from your second weapon, but during your turn setup you choose to use that weapon three times without a Reload> command between then that third shot will fail, leaving your TS standing there doing nothing. Tripping you up like this is…. absolutely fine, actually. The amount of ammo remaining in each weapon is shown on the right hand side of the screen at all times, and you can’t equip a weapon without seeing how many shots it fires per command and (roughly) how much damage it’ll do first – it’s annoying when (I, uh, I mean if) it happens, but there’s no question of who’s responsible for throwing action slots down the drain.

The TS’s you operate and the weapons you can put on them are divided into tiers, with more powerful grades of machinery becoming available as the game progresses. There are positives and negatives to this system: On the one hand everything within one level, no matter how different they seem to be from each other, is designed to be a side-grade to the rest: so you’ll find a TS with higher base HP that can take fewer commands per turn and a weaker unit that can carry more weapons and defensive items within the same pool of choices, powerful weapons with a very narrow firing line and weaker ones that offer a broader targeting range, and so on. It’s yet another avenue of customisation in a game that’s already keen on letting players find their own groove. The downside to this system is that when a new tier becomes available everything in that new level is superior to its direct equivalent in the lower one – a tier two shotgun is always better than a tier one shotgun, a tier three TS is better than any tier two TS, and so on – forcing players to go on a shopping spree.

The pleasant surprise comes when you realise nothing’s overly expensive, although there is an expectation that you’ll have bought a full fresh set of the best equipment on offer before wading into the next battle (these store updates are infrequent but the increase in power and defence is significant enough to make an enormous difference to your likelihood of winning the following missions). Luckily for us the quantity of cash needed can be easily acquired in the short and infinitely repeatable side missions available whenever we’re not in the middle of rebellious country-liberating tasks. These clashes are story-free and completely inconsequential – they’re just arenas for you to earn some money and random item drops on – and their existence can only be considered a good thing, because this way it’s impossible to make a bad or unsuitable purchase you have no way of recovering from. However they exist so clearly for the sole purpose of generating the cash you need to spend in the shop that it becomes very easy to resent having your time so obviously wasted on the RPG hamster wheel in this manner, and even more so when this occurs in a game built exclusively for a format designed to be played on the go.

Sadly once you’ve got used to handling Faselei’s quirks – which doesn’t take long as it’s a pleasantly short game – and start to interrogate what’s left there’s an uncomfortable realisation that many perfectly worthwhile and very basic genre staples are conspicuous by their absence: Missions are always very straightforward “Kill everything you can see” affairs, and doing so requires little forward planning as there are no terrain effects to avoid or height differences to take advantage of. Every last building and flimsy barrier is an equally indestructible block of nothing. There are no strengths or weaknesses to take into account before making a shot, no armour-piercing rounds to stop more defensive units in their tracks, no difficulty in taking out a small nimble craft from afar with slow-moving TS using a long-range weapon. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity – I’ve been an unwavering fan of the Shining Force series since I was a young girl – but this isn’t just simple, it’s outright missing many of the enjoyable wrinkles that make tactical games fun.

And what little it does have often unravels into something frustrating. Ammunition is limited to whatever you take into battle – a combination of your fully-loaded weapons, whatever spare magazines you put in your backpack, plus and extra three radioed-in refills (only if you choose to purchase and then equip the radio call chip – and even then the mission might not allow the radio to be used). This is fine. What’s not fine is how easy it is to run out of ammo – especially at the beginning, when the game should be at its most forgiving – and when (it will be when, not if) you run out of everything and your TS isn’t the sort that’s strong enough to damage remaining enemies by running into them (the only way to harm anything without consuming ammo – and this’ll be while under heavy fire, remember) then there’s absolutely nothing you can do other than reload the whole game (you can suspend mid-mission should time or batteries run short, but not save) and try again.

Even so there’s no real reason why this harsh punishment couldn’t have been an interesting idea, turning every skirmish into a puzzle-like battle of resources. Except there’s no way to gauge if you’re halfway through a protracted fight or mopping up a few remaining stragglers – there are no “This is the last of ’em, Sho!” radio calls, no “Intelligence suggests five TS’ patrol the area” pre-mission chatter to give you some idea of what to look out for – and battles often have multiple waves of enemies that spawn instantly and without warning, meaning what appeared to be a sensible tactical decision just two turns ago – unleashing a load of rockets on the only on-screen tank to protect your fading health bar – becomes a huge waste of what is now a precious resource as two more tanks, a helicopter, and an enemy TS appear completely out of the blue. The solution to this problem isn’t even to horde everything either, as you are always outnumbered even on the smallest battlefield (you have one AI partner at a time, you can’t give orders to them, and I have seen them stand facing away from the last enemy on the map, an enemy two tiles away from them, and do nothing) and sometimes battles will move from one location to another without a break or a refill –  and in this new area your call-for-replen radio doesn’t work, because Sacnoth said so. You can’t plan for this. You can’t strategise for enemies you didn’t know existed on maps you didn’t know you were going to fight on. And ammo/health is always so tight there’s little you can do to adapt to what in a more generous game would play out as an exciting twist for you to fumble your way through. Here? Faselei feels far too often like you’re fighting with the game design than failing because you’ve been outwitted, or even plain outgunned, by your opponents – a short game artificially lengthened by snags the player has no answer for outside of repeatedly losing to otherwise unseen and unknowable forces until they’ve finally exhausted all of the enemy’s backups of backups and can restart from the beginning prepared for what’s really going to happen.

Not knowing how much of anything to bring along, or how to best ration it out, could have been far less of a problem if in-battle item drops were handled differently. In Faselei enemies often drop money or items after death that must be collected before they disappear (the stage-ending enemy’s item is automatically collected, rather than lost – that’s a nice touch). So what could have happened is yes, ammo’s in short supply, but if you think carefully about who to prioritise picking off based of the amount of ammo used to kill them vs the ammo/repair kits/fresh weapons they drop you could work your way around it. What actually happens is everything’s immediately sent back to base; which means there will be times when you’re low on health, out of options, collect a repair kit or new gun that could’ve saved the entire mission… and you can’t use them.

Faselei does become easier as it goes on: You’ll build up a permanent stock of weaponry and program chips as well as gain the ability to carry a greater quantity of spare rockets, bullets, armour, and more effective repair kits in your more capable TS… which only reinforces the awful feeling that early missions weren’t difficult due to a lack of understanding, they were difficult because Faselei was withholding the tools needed to help players help themselves.

For all my griping there’s a generally decent game on this little cart, but it’s a generally decent game that doesn’t quite work, its qualities artificially magnified by its position as an extremely valuable English-language RPG available exclusively on a collector’s format with little competition. Faselei deserves real praise for approaching something wheeled out as often as tactical mech strategy from a new angle and I would like to see it get a digital airing as part of the Switch’s upcoming Neo Geo Pocket Collection line, but there’s no escaping the fact that if this had been a SNES or Playstation game (with the appropriate graphical upgrades) and left to survive in a more “ordinary” library with a standard selection of alternative strategy games it would be fondly remembered by a narrow band of niche-hunters and SRPG enthusiasts as a quirky novelty and little more.

10 thoughts on “Toy soldiers and chips

  1. nice work on this one- it’s clear you wanted to enjoy this but some of those design choices (especially stuff you pick up mid-mission being unusable until you get back to base, argh!) sound a little rough. those mecha graphics look pretty great if nothing else! :V

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  2. The game seems neat in a lot of ways (I love those cute little mech sprites!) but those shortcomings sound sooo frustrating. A tiny Front Mission clone on handheld, that’s all we ask for, really~

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  3. I’ll pretend I didn’t read that first paragraph ;P

    That game sounds really strange, with how overly complex the whole chip systems seems to be for yet fairly barebones maps. As someone for who the long prep times before fights is usually the turn off on a lot of SRPGs, I guess Faselei is not for me.

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    1. Heehee~ You know it’s true! :P

      Yes it’s got some good ideas but it never quite manages to come together – and you do need to keep up with your prep, because the game won’t stop you from going into battle with no extra ammo either D:

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  4. What’s with Japanese games and their weird titles? It really seems like they just opened up a dictionary and pointed at some random word and said “this is it!”, no matter the meaning. lol
    Anyway, moving at the same time as your enemy sounds like a bit of a mess, not sure I’d like that. But when I see these kinds of games, I usually just remember I should finally (properly) play an Advance Wars game! Faselei doesn’t sound like it’d be for me (of course, if they re-released it as part of their NGPC series, I might still give it a try…).

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