It doesn’t take any special sleuthing or grand digital detectivry to confidently trace a finger through Vixen 357’s impressive family tree: The broad similarities to Langrisser (released the year before, in 1991), PC Engine mech SRPG Hisou Kihei X-Serd (1990), and even going as far back as Gaia no Monshou (1987) are as plain as day. But in spite of this strong connection to a whole host of prior releases Vixen 357 is far more than the collected lint of years of Masaya’s SRPG evolution or a quick-n-lazy case of “Langrisser: Mech Edition” – it’s a strategy focused game that’s not keen on statistics, a title that’ll fill a battleground with scores of warring mechs and never forget about the individuals piloting them – it’s an experience that will always feel familiar and yet will also always try to surprise anyone who thinks they can guess what Vixen’s going to do next.
The opening intro – of a length and quality that wouldn’t look out of place on a CD destined for use on the undisputed ruler of all 16-bit introductions, the PC Engine – is filled not with imagery of green-hued technical readouts or highly detailed close-up shots of sci-fi weaponry but instead makes a lengthy point of showcasing the entire cast of characters, giving every last one of them a large piece of unique and lightly animated artwork. By the time this sequence has finished panning over a dramatic group shot of the major enemy generals and finally shown an actual mech or two you feel not only excited to play but eager to meet your crew of quirky individuals, hoping whoever caught your eye doesn’t take too long to join the roster (don’t worry, they won’t) and looking forward to finding out what these people are like beyond their usefulness in a fight. This people-first approach continues into the game proper, each stage opening with a single screen’s worth of plot-related exposition scrolling over full screen image of (most of) your team followed up by brief exchanges between your team – anything from general orders to desperate calls for help – to properly set the mood of the battle.
Now strategy game dialogue, especially when it’s in the sort of game that’s so strategy you are always either already in a grid-based fight or approximately two button presses away from one… it can at times come across as a bit of an afterthought if it’s even present at all – but not here. Vixen 357 not only considers its storytelling a vital part of the experience but also allows it to happen whenever it’s most appropriate, even if that means briefly pausing the action in the middle of an epic conflict just so people on both sides can gasp in horror at a new situation or an enemy general can bark orders at the soldiers under their command, always using character portraits that can and do change on a per-line basis to accurately convey their current emotional state. That alone would be impressive enough (conversations are always short and to the point, making these events feel genuinely complimentary to the playable parts of the game rather than overriding them) but Vixen pushes even further, enabling characters on both sides to react to specific personal circumstances at any moment – if a pilot’s mech becomes dangerously low on health they’ll tell you so themselves, and should the Panacea’s (one of your mid-game mechs) defensive barrier skill also happen to cover a nearby friendly base on one mission that location’s operator – a nameless nobody-in-particular you’ll never meet again – will have a line of dialogue for it. In the grand scheme of things these embellishments don’t make any difference to how you play – you can already see the enemies moving towards you anyway, you can tell at a glance if someone’s taken heavy damage – but it’s an effective addition that gives these skirmishes just a slightly different tone: It’s the little difference that turns AI-controlled units into allies wading through deep water and a powerful attack from the stage boss’ ship into a devastating massacre (a decision so horrific an enemy leader immediately and permanently defects). This desire to always keep people as Vixen 357’s core can be felt just as keenly in the manual: The story and characters come first, literally before anything else, whereas stat tables and mech details are left until the very end – the only thing left after them are the usual array of common-sense hardware handling tips and the back cover.
For all the lip-flapping that goes on this is still a strategy game, and as such you’ll still spend most of your time moving your own little mechs either towards or away from other little mechs before watching them fill each other full of holes. But even these actions have a sense of character and visual lushness to them: The vast majority of your own units have unique sprites, all so attentively detailed you can tell what grade of projectile they’re firing just from the look of the bullets pinging off the shield their opponent’s raised as they brace for impact, and when they charge across the screen, raining down melee-range blows with an axe in hand, the transition between terrain types always looks completely seamless even when going from man-made bridges to desert sand or green grass to high-tech fortifications. You can really believe you’re seeing what’s actually happening, that these beautiful animations are another (optional) layer of information rather than a very pretty waste of your time.
Purely as a game Vixen 357 is a compact and highly focused title, its entire story arc contained within just sixteen stages and featuring no secret bonus rounds, branching paths, or alternative outcomes. As alarming as this slender content may sound on paper in reality it means this is a game with absolutely no filler; no stages where you have to sit back and impotently watch the final boss retreat to safety again, no gang of evil comedy sidekicks to pick off one by one over a dozen interminable maps, no missions that feel eerily similar to an earlier round already won. What’s left feels like a curated selection of only the most tactically interesting maps Masaya could invent at the time, each one playing noticeably different from the last and keeping you engaged with a whole variety of ever–changing tasks ranging from protecting multiple friendly bases and using specialist mechs in deep water to dealing with mid-battle betrayals or huge numbers of enemy reinforcements.
To encourage true tactical play Vixen has a very low level cap – it stops at just nine – and unless you do some tedious (and highly artificial) grinding in the few stages where such things are possible it’ll take all game for your team to reach those heady heights. Forcing your way through an encounter is outright impossible here – you have no obvious advantages over the enemy troops and there are no shops to buy edge-granting equipment from, no hidden caches of advanced weaponry to find or special armour to steal – all you can do is make the best use of the units available to you (your mechs as well as their selection of equipment are automatically expanded upon as the game goes on) and hope you can outsmart the other side, carefully picking them off with a clever combination of your pilots abilities (these are entirely separate from each mechs own skills and ideally should be matched up accordingly – some team members are more naturally suited to taking long-range shots so they’re at their best when placed in something with a large cannon, etc.) and the hasty repairs performed on any mechs that have retreated to the relative safety of your airborne transport, the Dread.
Then there’s the one feature I normally despise with a passion: Permadeath. It’s annoying. It’s unnecessary. It’s why consoles have dedicated reset buttons. As you’d expect from this cursed rule, should a mech’s health ever fall to zero under any circumstances their pilot’s not evacuated for emergency medical attention and out of action for a scene or two, they’re gone for good – and this is in a game with just eight playable characters in total and no generic replacements to keep your party numbers up. It’s true to say you don’t have to reset but… you know you have to reset, unless you like the thought of making every single turn forevermore just that much more difficult than it has to be. Normally this is where I go and have a little sulk, wondering aloud why a game would bother to have permadeath at all if the game balance only really works when everyone’s alive and well, but Vixen’s fixation on raw strategy has finally made me understand the purpose of this punishment where other games – the ones where some sweet young woman on a flying horse gets one-shot by an archer on the other side of the sodding map – have only had me sighing and looking to reload an earlier save. If Vixen didn’t have permadeath then I wouldn’t have to approach these battles as cautiously as I do now: I wouldn’t have to carefully concentrate my fire on the deadliest enemies before mopping up the more numerous weaker ones, I wouldn’t have to be so acutely aware of terrain effects on my units or hastily make someone retreat when I’d pushed them just a little bit too far. Being ambushed wouldn’t be half as exciting if I didn’t have the very real danger of actually losing someone forever playing in the back of my mind and when made to live the the consequences of my decisions approaching an enemy base becomes a thoughtful act based on weapon range and group abilities rather than a simple case of mindlessly throwing everyone at it, hoping the fortress crumbles before I run out of people. It wouldn’t suit every game but I completely understand why Vixen 357 has permadeath, and I know it’s better for having it.
This is quite frustrating in a way: On the surface the game looks very ordinary – or at least very much like something else people may have already played (but with robots!) – and under the surface… maybe it’s not immediately all that different from a lot of other releases either. But if you give it time and if you make the effort to engage with Vixen 357 on its own terms the game blossoms into something unusual and fresh: Every encounter feels tactically challenging in a different way from the last, and the extreme flexibility of the battle system allows players to attack and move (in either order or not at all), activate a range of very useful skills, and swap pilots or even a mech’s equipment without wasting a turn twiddling your thumbs. Using all of these tools to their fullest potential always feels incredibly satisfying and having such a wide pool of tactically significant options at your fingertips keeps the game firmly under the “strategy gaming” label rather becoming a more limited “puzzles with mechs” affair. Short, sweet, and strategic, Vixen 357 is a highly refined example of its genre that never mistakes being clever with being complicated.