I’m blue (and so are you)

As the name suggests Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story II: Ao wo Uketsugu Mono is the second release in this little Saturn trilogy (for the sake of clarity I think it’s worth stating that this is a completely standalone experience and doesn’t require the first Side Story’s disc for anything), released just a few months after Senritsu no Blue. As before it’s another cockpit-view “3D Shooting” game (as described on the back of the box), once again throwing you into vast arenas against a formidable quantity of opposing mobile suits as well as more traditional tanks and gun turrets. In further predictable news this also had the exact same option of a limited edition cardboard case release as the first Side Story did, and just like last time there is no benefit to picking the alternative over the standard other than because matte packaging looks really fancy.

Start the first mission and bar the addition of animated 2D character portraits that were conspicuously absent last time and the chance to use  the Saturn’s beautiful Twin Stick controller in place of the usual pad (stick movement is handled in exactly the same way as it is in Virtual On) all seems as before – we’re asked to do the same sort of mission sitting in the same Gundam we already dashed about in before, using the same weaponry in the same way.

It’s not unwelcome – the first game was a good bit of fun so more of that isn’t a bad thing – but it did feel disappointing…

And then Side Story II started for real.

Once the first mission’s out the way you’re upgraded to the all new (and very blue) Gundam RX-79BD-1 which… honestly, it has the same set of features but a very slightly different cockpit design (the missiles are functionally identical to the previous Gundam’s hand grenades, and the EXAM System timer is only used on two missions). But after that the pleasant surprises just keep on coming: Battlefields (and the missions you undertake within them) are both more interesting as well as more deadly than ever before, enemy tanks and gun turrets now something to be approached with extreme caution (or avoided if at all possible) instead of consistently ignored the way they were just one game ago. Enemy variety and AI has also been greatly improved, with more mobile suits and ground units to blow up (destructible terrain makes a welcome return too), each one featuring a less predictable attack and response pattern, helping battles feel more natural and personal in a way they didn’t before.

As far as your own offensive options go the weaponry may be the same or as near as it was in the previous entry but there have been a few thoughtful tweaks here and there to make play more involved without losing the first’s fast paced arcade-like appeal. Your beam sabre for example has been drastically weakened to the point where enemy mobile suits can visibly block it, and it turns out this new “defect” is a great idea. Before it was a little too effective and your most powerful move no matter what was going on, but now it’s been rebalanced to be the close-range tool in your repertoire and not the first and only attack you should think about using. Another apparent “flaw” has been incorporated in to the heat system: Overheating used to be pretty rare, almost something you had to do on purpose and could generally pretend wasn’t something you had to worry about, but now more actions generate greater temperatures than they used to, which in turn makes your small move list more engaging and tactical. Aerial attacks and quick sidesteps are now something to use not sparingly but with awareness of the potential consequences, as overdoing it can leave you vulnerable and unable to dash or jump for a short period of time.

It’s still one more swiftly finished five mission long chunk of (pleasantly) simplistic and highly licensed 3D action but Ao wo Uketsugu Mono has clearly been worked on above and beyond what was strictly necessary to see this second part out the door and on shop shelves in time – this isn’t just a continuation of the first game but a definite improvement of it in every way, with barely a single facet of it left untouched. It’s not so vastly superior anyone unimpressed with the opening release should dive in here mind you – as I mentioned at the top, with only a few short months between these first two appearing in the wild it’d be unreasonable to expect otherwise – but it’s still definitely a game that’s been in active development and handled by people given the time and creative space to make this the best it can be rather than a straightforward mission pack.

For all that’s changed and all that’s stayed the same this is still an exciting experience – and a challenging one too. Once again clearing a mission is not the same as earning a decent rank in it (and as before completing the game unlocks a stage select mode, enabling you to replay any mission you please), with the third and fifth missions in particular more than capable of putting up a stiff but rewarding fight even on the standard difficulty level; the former a night mission set against a time limit strict enough you have to concentrate only on the mission objectives – destroying four towers and a missile platform capable of shredding your shields – which leaves you open to attack from the enemy mobile suits and everything else firing at you from all sides, the latter a fierce one-on-one battle against the dual heat blade wielding MS-08XT Efreet.

At the end further cutscenes once again make it very clear there’s still one more game to go… and you know what? I’m really looking forward to seeing how this exciting little story ends.

[This article is only here because Ko-fi supporters helped me out! Why not join them – and read everything a week early too?]

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