Storytelling, strafing, and sci-fi

You may know Genki’s 1996 PlayStation game Beltlogger 9 by its lengthier US title BRAHMA Force: The Assault on Beltlogger 9 or its subtitle-free European moniker, BRAHMA Force. A quick glance gives the impression we’re about to inflict yet another slightly clunky Nineties first-person sci-fi shooter with all the usual trappings – weird controls, overly cube-like environments, and a plot that thinks a little too much of itself – upon ourselves; something to be either safely ignored or bought cheap, played briefly, and then swiftly forgotten. Push past those iffy “Maybe I’ll buy it next time” assumptions and you soon realise the game’s “Free-Roaming Adventure Shooting” descriptor is for once more than simple marketing hyperbole: You will still spend a lot of time shooting at aggressive mechanical minions in very square corridors, but all of that action is clearly intended to compliment, rather than dominate, the adventure side of Beltlogger 9. This is a game with objectives, sub objectives, FMV cutscenes, secondary characters, deceased loves, old audio logs left behind in abandoned rooms, and taunting radio calls from mysterious people – a game where you can (at least in theory) run out of bullets and recovery items. A real effort’s been made to present the Beltlogger 9 station itself as somewhere empty – as a place people once were, even if they’re all dead (or will soon be dead) by the time you respond to their distress call, rather than a simple set of squarish stages created just for you to jump and shoot through.

Even so, a game that wants you to stomp around a desolate story-heavy setting in bipedal mech armed to the teeth with all sorts of exciting weaponry sounds a lot like two good ideas constantly pulling in thematically opposite directions, but what you actually end up with is the sort of game where sessions begin with you saying “I’ll just have a quick go” and somehow reluctantly end a dozen levels later.

Not all of that swift progress can be attributed to finding yourself utterly absorbed in the game’s tantalising plot threads and intriguing atmosphere either: Levels are short self contained experiences by their very nature, save terminals included along the way more for player convenience than anything else – there’s no reason why you wouldn’t clear most stages in single-digit minutes even on your first try even if it is a relief to know you don’t have to. To further help speed things along each level begins with an accurate overview of the entire map showing all key points of interest (for example: if the power’s off then you’ll not only know before you even set foot in the stage but you’ll also know exactly where the switch to turn it back on again is too) as well as exactly where the exit is. Unwelcome overeager assistance? No. These are your mission objectives, a strategic glimpse into the problems that lie ahead. You may know what to do as well as where the exit is, but there are more than enough snags and sudden changes big and small along the way to keep things interesting. This annotated map can be called up from your submenu any time you like, helping you stay focused and orientated in arenas that often have unders and overs and insides to contend with.

Even if you’d rather work it all out for yourself you’ll soon find yourself grateful for the help as each stage must be completed within a strict twenty-five minute time limit – and when that expires the entire area immediately explodes with you in it. The good news is you get plenty of warning: The first call’s heard at the ten minute mark, and once you reach the final five a countdown timer appears on screen with further audio announcements coming through as those final few minutes, and eventually seconds, run down. As stressful as that sounds this feature most closely resembles the ten minute timer used in classic Sonic games: it’s definitely there and will definitely kill you dead if you come across it, but if you’re chances of doing so without deliberately seeking it out are slim to none. It’s a gentle push to keep you moving, not a stick to beat imperfect players with.

To help you make it through these dangerous zones in the time given your mech comes decked out with an arsenal of five very different weapon types as standard, from quickfire lasers to arc-shot bombs so powerful you have to be extremely careful you don’t end up fatally caught in the resulting blast yourself. Multiple equippable alternatives for each type – not only more powerful but also possessing their own firing/tracking properties too – can sometimes be found if you dare to spend a little time exploring any conspicuously “unimportant” buildings or dead-ends found on the map as you play. To offset the worry of being left with an unimpressive starting weapon all game (as there’s no guarantee you’ll find any, let alone all, of the hidden weapons available) and to encourage a little customisation many optional areas or out of the way spaces contain permanent and stackable power upgrades you can freely apply to any weapon you currently have, items to increase your total energy reserves and armour plating (used to power your shields/lasers and your health bar stand-in, respectively), and on rare occasions further extras that can improve your mech’s core functionality in new and interesting ways; increasing your turning speed or showing up otherwise invisible tripwire lasers – things like that.

You can also – and at times have to – engage in some light platforming, leaping around while taking care your boosters don’t temporarily overheat. This is normally the part where early 3D games like this fall to pieces, your field of view and the control scheme of whatever you’re piloting simply not up to performing the precise jumps the game demands. Beltlogger 9 is the happy exception to this sad rule, the “weight” of your mech and the feel of your jumps never anything less than perfectly understandable even without the automatic downward gaze of Geograph Seal. Even when jumping from moving platform to moving platform around and up a narrow tower or leaping onto tiny scraps of land while under enemy fire you’ll never miss a single one unless you were personally at fault.

You wouldn’t think a game this impressive, imaginative, and entertaining would get so routinely “whatever“-ed by the hobby at large, and yet here we are. The balance of the game is perhaps best described as “You decide how much trouble you want to get yourself in to”, allowing anyone who wants to scrape by using whatever they happen to find between them and the most direct route to the exit gate (via the exit gate’s key) to do so, and those who wish to take the time to explore can do so knowing their extra work will be rewarded with bonus items and additional lore. The action side of things has an enjoyable tactical edge to it, your potentially limited resources making you ask yourself if saving a more powerful weapon for an imagined later foe is worth the potential damage to your health you might incur now, and your energy-draining shield gives you a practical defensive option beyond circle-strafing everything to death or finding yourself forced to eat damage in tight strafe-free corridors.

The first edition of the game (shown in the screenshot at the top of this article) comes with an additional outer cardboard case housing both the game (otherwise indistinguishable from the standard release) and a large full colour art book filled with high resolution renders of select images from the slick FMV opening, hand-drawn concept art, and various interviews and other behind the scenes information. It also completely fails to take the page gutter into account (the “lost” bit of space where the page curves down and into the binding) which rather spoils a few double page spreads, but on the whole if you enjoyed the game – and I think most people reading this would if they gave it a go – then it’s an interesting extra jam-packed with genuinely exclusive content and worth a look if the opportunity to buy a copy arises.

Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately I’ve got to finish this article with a warning: From what I can gather, the US release (and possibly the European one as well) of Beltlogger 9 (or BRAHMA Force, as you’d need to search for it) was redesigned to be far more difficult than the experience I’ve talked so positively about above (and the experience Genki intended Beltlogger 9 to be), because gaming was going through that “cute” phase where we all thought a lengthy tear-inducing slog was better value for money than a single weekend’s entertaining adventure, so please, please, keep that in mind if you decide to give it a go yourself.

[This post wouldn’t be here if Ko-fi supporters hadn’t helped me out – and they got to read this a week early too! Thank you!]

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