Playing with DoLLS

Power DoLLS FX, released in 1996 for NEC’s poorly received PC Engine follow-up, the PC-FX, is one of several remakes of the original PC-98 game Power DoLLS, a Kogado Studio “Scenario Simulation Game” featuring an all-woman cast stomping around in giant mechs on the distant planet Omni in the far future.

The grid-like nature of the battlefields, marketable cast, and the high quality anime intro may give the impression this is another sci-fi styled SRPG, but Power DoLLS FX is a strategy game through and through: There are no item shops to browse, no towns to visit, no characters to cheer on as they make a brave last stand during an elaborate cutscene or give a rousing speech before a climactic battle – you’re here to engage in tactical combat, not save the world with a loyal group of unlikely friends by your side. In keeping with the notion that this is not about kindly heroes setting out to right various wrongs there’s very little pre or post mission party banter, the game preferring to get straight down to business and not waste anyone’s time with all that other fluff and… actually, it turns out even po-faced strategy games need a bit of fluff. Not having the desire to tell a real story is absolutely fine and in some cases can even be beneficial, but as characters barely speak to each other at all (even just text box “speak”) – not even when an ally’s Power Loader’s ruined by a hail of enemy bullets – it really does make it difficult to invest yourself in the cast even just to the point of remembering their names, never mind actually caring about any of them or having a favourite unit. The final fifteen pages of the manual try to combat this by dishing out nothing but supplementary info and images on the cast and various other world-building bits and bobs, but it’s a poor substitute for actual personalities. Maybe they made up for it in all of the manga, OVAs, and drama CDs released around or after Power DoLLS FX, but even if they did this game still feels uncomfortably cold.

At least the campaign is more in-depth than the cast, your mission objectives going to great lengths to avoid the typical “Kill everything” or “Kill the leader” requests found in similar games. The opening stage tasks you with setting up bombs on a dam and things only get more interesting from there; later on you’re rescuing hostages after being catapulted out of the water by sneaky submarines. One particularly nice touch are the strategic plans you decide on before heading out: There are up to four to choose from, and they decide where your team will start on the map. It’s not a huge change by any means, but it gives you a little extra input and determines whether you begin the map carefully picking off the evil United Nations forces from the cover of a nearby forest or are thrown straight into the thick of things, your Power Loaders beginning within melee range of enemy tanks. Before heading out it’s a good idea to check and tweak the equipment of every Power Loader, tailoring their loadouts to suit the current mission. Some types of Power Loader can call in air support, every single weapon has their own ammo counts and effective ranges, and the heavier armaments can only be mounted in free shoulder slots – there’s a lot to consider here. With these choices being as important as they are it’s nice to see the time spent here reflected in the beautiful battle animations: if you equip a grenade launcher in one Power Loader’s left hand then that’s where it’ll be seen and that’s the arm that’ll recoil when it’s used.

No matter how carefully you plan or how well you play you’ll more than likely find Power DoLLS FX an incredibly difficult experience – the good news is the game knows this, and comes with a little leeway built in. You can fail early missions and still continue on as if nothing happened, but if you reach the fifth and have lost more stages than you’ve won then losing there will result in a true “game over”, forcing you to restart from an earlier save. The manual makes all of this very clear beforehand, taking a little pressure off any one particular mission in the process while still making sure you know that there will eventually be consequences if you don’t make a concerted effort to play in the spirit of the game. On a similarly helpful note anyone who “dies” in battle automatically returns ready to fight in the next mission without penalty, saving you from winning a sortie by the skin of your teeth and finding yourself senselessly tasked with taking on an army with just two surviving units on the next map.

If you get tired of the main campaign there’s a scenario mode waiting for you on the main menu alongside a single practise stage, although admittedly both of these alternative ways to play are pretty disappointing: Scenario mode is little more than Campaign Mode: Stage Select Edition and the practise stage just a plain battlefield – a bit of vegetation, a few enemies – to directionlessly muck around on. You’ll occasionally receive a radio message offering general advice, but it’s too hands-off to be useful and the level is too blandly designed to engineer situations where a new player would have to choose between a low accuracy multi-hit attack that could damage two or three foes or another that would definitely wipe out a single vehicle, or realise how dangerous tight spaces and bridges are seeing as allies can’t move past each other if there are no empty spaces to the side. The issue’s not that there’s anything so complicated about these scenarios that a sensible player couldn’t pick up while they were working their way through the main campaign, more that Kogado could’ve created the perfect environment to learn the ropes and completely missed the mark.

Power DoLLS FX does have a lot to offer anyone looking for some truly tactical gaming: Having an abundance of long range weaponry as standard gives battles a very different flavour to other grid-based skirmishes, allowing you to decimate tanks on a distant riverbank or set a unit up so they can take enemy troops out as they come to you rather than chasing everything across the map. Tight ammo restrictions force you to consider using less than ideal options more often than you’d like, including a universal back-up punch attack that’s beautifully balanced to be useful enough to be worth doing but never quite so useful you don’t regret casually blasting away an easier target with your most powerful rockets three turns ago.

While it’s not complex in the way some of the best/worst (delete according to your current patience levels) examples of the genre can be and feels a little feature-light even when compared to its own direct sequel the ferocity of the vast forces your small team frequently goes up against as well as the way all these systems play off each other makes for a genuinely challenging game that’s well worth a sincere go. It may only be nine stages long but the sheer length of time it takes to play even a single mission through (even to the point of failure) mean if the game was any longer it’d feel more exhausting than welcome – it’s not double-digits, but it’s definitely enough. Ultimately Power DoLLS FX is not the “killer app” the PC-FX craves but it is a good game – a real game-y game, not another cutscene-laden adventure or those Anime Freak FX discs designed to fill up release schedule space and little more – on a console that sorely needs some good games, although it sadly comes across more as a sigh of relief than something to boast about due to its nature as a remake of a port of a port. Still, it’s certainly a lot better than another mechtacular PC-FX effort…

[Ko-fi supporters read this last week! Why not join them – and help me out at the same time!]

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