Vasteel 2: Move Crushers and Voice Knuckles

Developed by Human and released exclusively for the PC Engine in 1994, this largely disconnected and untranslated sequel to the original Vasteel is another sci-fi strategy title starring hot-headed resistance heroes all too eager to yell PG-rated insults at well-dressed militaristic people as both sides stomp around in giant mech-type weaponry known in this particular miniseries as Move Crushers (often abbreviated in-game as MC).

As expected from the format and the era numerous key events are conveyed via fully voiced cutscenes, although Vasteel 2‘s manage to stand out even amongst the PC Engine’s impressive crowd thanks to an incredible about of animation – characters will nod in agreement to a spoken line, turn their whole body to talk to another person, or move around the scene purely because that’s how people behave – and this is without the expensive Arcade Card expansion the game’s optionally compatible with sitting in a PC Engine’s HuCard slot. A further unexpected “enhancement” comes in the form of Gungage-calibre character names that defy any sense or reason: Key characters include Voice Knuckle, Diggy Norton, and Mouse Fang. I won’t say they’re so silly they actively hurt the dialogue, but they do make it difficult to take anything being said in a game about interplanetary war and attempted extermination by violent outside forces seriously.

Up to sixteen friendly MC’s can participate in battle, ordered around either with the standard controller or the PC Engine’s mouse. The mouse support is so intuitive you would be forgiven for assuming the game was made with computers in mind, mapping the usual I (confirm) and II (cancel) buttons to the left and right mouse buttons respectively (start and select buttons are conveniently located on the thumb-resting side of the mouse), and if you need to scan the map all you have to do is move the cursor to edge of screen and click, more or less the same as you would in any PC strategy game.  The skirmishes themselves are pretty lively, enemies and allies often filling dialogue boxes with enlarged text as they shout at each other or some fashionably evil soul desperately calling forth more units as you continue to make a dent in their numbers. There are even times where enemy troops will radio in requesting to switch sides or you might not start as your usual team of resistance fighters because they’re fighting elsewhere – there are a lot of unpredictable scenarios and mini events in here, and you’ll never be sure what’s going to happen until you’re already in the thick of it.

These conflicts take place on hex covered battlefields, although as only a vague effort has been made to match up the artwork to the actual terrain shown on the minimap a lot of the time your view looks more like a digital painting with a honeycomb grid drawn on top than anything else. On the one hand this results in beautifully detailed scenery freed from artificial visual constraints, covering anything from incredible spaceships in orbit to lush forests decorated with sparkling rivers, but on the other you never really believe either of these places or any other play the way they look, or that what you’re seeing has any real relevance to your current situation.

Gone are the original Vasteel’s active battle segments in favour of more standard passive animations of your tactical orders being played out. As with the cutscenes the attention to detail here is well worth praising, every kind of Move Crusher – and there’s a lot of them – using specific animations that accurately reflect the sort of attack they’re unleashing on their opponent whether that’s close range claws or long distance laser beams. There’s still nothing to for you to do while these play out, but it does at least make these optional scenes feel representative of the commands you’ve given even if they are ultimately superfluous.

As a largely gun and missile based combat system you have access to a mix of close, long, and longer, range weaponry right from the start (all pre-equipped to specific MCs), and the range on even standard weapons capable of covering almost the entire screen very early on. It’s even possible to attack with more than one weapon per turn; however this must be done at the same time, and against the same enemy – and doing so will make you more susceptible to taking damage in the enemy’s phase. In theory you have to decide if the potential injuries (assuming the shots hit) are worth the risk but in practise it almost always is, because there’s a non-zero chance every enemy within range will either pile on that unit or any other during their turn and utterly destroy them anyway (perma-death is thankfully not a thing in Vasteel 2) or at least damage their weapons beyond repair, temporarily leaving you stuck with an MC that can do nothing other than helplessly waddle around. A Zone of Control-ish system encourages you to consider where you stand, as if you get within melee distances the game auto-switches to the Move Crusher’s close-range weapons (even if they have no close-range weapons), preventing you from rushing in close and then ignoring the enemy standing inches away in favour of a target at the other end of the map.

And then when you’re finished the opposing side get to take their turn, although in these gaping chasms of lost time your biggest worry isn’t damage received, it’s staving off boredom. Even if you turn the battle animations off these phases take an eternity to get through as they’re – and I say this with absolutely sincerity – “I hope you brought book” long, your AI adversary tediously going through everything you have to do, including visibly moving the cursor between units and manually selecting individual weapons to use before “pressing” the Fire button. It’s especially aggravating as there’s absolutely nothing to do on enemy turns other than click through any dialogue boxes that may pop up: you can’t counter or defend or dodge, you just have to sit and watch the whole routine play out, over and over again.

This lengthy downtime unfortunately gives you plenty of time to think about exactly what you’re doing here, and it’s during these fun-absorbing black holes you realise that for all its supposed tactical focus Vasteel 2’s really quite a simple game, one where even big multi-stage assaults preceded by their own fully voiced plan-explaining cutscenes are just two consecutive stages with you killing everything in sight (again) before they do the same to you (again). Beyond the support truck healing any adjacent friendly units at the end of the turn you never really feel the difference between units – just about everything has a close-range attack and at least one alternative that’s either long or longer. You can’t really point to any particular unit and say “That’s my tough damage-absorber”, ” That’s my multi-hit speedster”, “That’s my awkward technical unit that can devastate enemies under the right conditions”. The same lack of definition applies to the game’s revolving door of cackling enemy generals too, many of which seem to be stuck in the same wearily repeating cycle of defeat and hollow “I’ll get you for sure this time!” reappearances which only serve to make meaningful progress feel like something that happens in other games.

Vasteel 2 does improve as it goes on and you find yourself in command of a larger team of more powerful units that don’t have to rely so much on sticking close to support trucks/ally bases just to survive. But that improvement never goes so far as to make you believe you’re an active participant in tactical decisions, that there’s some brilliantly clever plan you can pull off that’ll ensure a decisive victory. There is no higher ground to attack from or cover to hide in or behind. You can’t choose to defend yourself or brace for an incoming attack. There’s no real point in advancing carefully or trying to pick off a small group when almost every enemy has at least one powerful weapon capable of targeting anyone approaching from any angle from a great distance, and so all conflict inevitably descends into shooting things and hoping enough shots hit or land as critical hits to take them down before they (very slowly) do the same thing to you.

When compared against any number of similar titles of the era – Power DoLLS, Quo Vadis 2, Nintendo’s “Wars” series – Vasteel 2 comes up short. If it wasn’t going to be a strategic wonder – and it didn’t have to be, because some of my favourites in the genre really aren’t – then it needed to make up for it with a compelling story, the palpable satisfaction of ordering a band of powerful MCs to crush all who dared to face them, or at least so much excitement and energy you never felt compelled to dig any deeper into the game’s mechanics. What’s here is instead a highly polished but very plain title that sadly fails to get the one part of the game it really needed to succeed at right.

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