Z.O.E 2173 Testament: Fighting is a real pain in the IAS

First impressions of Z.O.E. 2173: Testament, also known as Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, aren’t what I’d call great. Could anything be further away from the series’ roots than a strategy game for the GBA? Where’s the high speed action and dramatically pointy Shinkawa-designed mechs? Where’s the lore-stuffed story about a man and his accidental mec-ah. There we go. Although it may not look or play like the other games in the series, there’s still this shining kernel of something that’s unmistakably Z.O.E. in here, and it’s so strong it imbues the rest of the game with the authenticity this spinoff would have otherwise lacked. Testament’s Orbital Frame AI Pharsti may never meet Jehuty’s A.D.A., but you can easily believe they both belong in this world.

That world will not feel like an especially inventive one for returning fans of the series as once again a boy, this time Cage Midwell, unwittingly ends up registered as the pilot of a (secretly) all-powerful OF before swiftly getting caught up in a power struggle between numerous established forces against his will. Your first and most basic assumptions about everyone will more than likely be correct, and anyone with just even the slightest hint of side-switching depth to them will regularly use a highly a suspect portrait that screams “This is the one they’ll use later when they finally turn against us” whenever they think something suspicious to themselves, and it’ll probably be accompanied by an almost laughably blunt line of dialogue (ex: “Hehehe…”) just for good measure.

But in all fairness, Z.O.E. leans into these clichés with good-natured aplomb, the simplicity of the cast acting as an easily understood focal point a multilayered setting bursting with bespoke acronyms, invented technologies, and disinformation-spouting companies. The various factions are sketched out well enough to provide the game with some juicy corporate-level intrigue, and the lives of the Martians themselves are given just enough detail to help you feel some real empathy for these mostly unseen people, their lives weighed down by the poor conditions and violence inflicted upon them by Earth-aligned groups who view them as lesser people at best and mere animals at worst.

The extended periods of time the game spends sharing its story with you—you can expect to sit down for a long read before the chapter’s title card, immediately after the title’s chapter card, during the mission, and after the mission too—breathes some much-needed life into the little colour-coordinated units sitting in their 15×15 pixel boxes. That’s not NPC A waiting at the top of the map, but an innocent civilian hoping you’ll rescue them. That’s not Unit B, that’s Warren, and he’s arrived just in time. That’s not Generic Enemy Leader #3, that’s the manipulative sod who enjoys inflicting misery on those around them.

This keen focus on the narrative side of strategy gaming helps to inject some welcome variety into the missions themselves too. Because the game takes the time to explain where you’re going and why, and whose lives are at stake if you mess up while you’re out there, for once sneaking around a mysterious facility one square at a time is a tense experience, oblivious enemies to be pounced upon with force once you’ve carefully tip-toed your group into range. You know the names of the frightened kids trapped inside an automated mech set to explode the instant you make one false move.

The general flow of battle follows most of the typical rules of a turn system on a grid-covered map, the game going through all of your troops, then every enemy, and then finally whatever NPCs may be active in the area.

All sides can activate their units in any order they like, and that makes it easy to approach every encounter in a way that suits you best. Maybe you’ll save a powerful character’s go for last, allowing less damaging mechs to pick off weaker enemy craft. Or perhaps you’d rather pile on a dangerous foe but still keep a support vehicle on standby until you know for sure who’d benefit most from a pre- or post-fight resupply. Maybe you’ll decide whether to keep your long range specialist in their current battle-ready position or move them deeper into enemy territory after you’ve seen how well the rest of the team does against the more immediate targets. This flexibility gives you the opportunity to tackle every move from all sorts of inventive angles, fine-tuning your tactics to better suit your current situation.

A very helpful (and cancellable, if you don’t like what you see) stat screen pops up just before you commit to battle, the numerical values shown actually matching the exact amount of damage the attack you’ve settled on is going to do (assuming you don’t land a critical hit). What this means is if your attack is going to do 500 points worth of damage, and the enemy currently has 800HP, then it’s obvious this move isn’t going to finish them off. By the same token a 1200 point assault on the same enemy is definitely going to wipe them out, so long as it hits.

So you confirm the attack and then…

And then Z.O.E. sort of falls apart.

In what I assume is a nod to the game’s action roots, Z.O.E then switches by default to something it calls “IAS”—Interactive Action System—where you manually aim a targeting reticle at the enemy within a short time limit if you’re attacking, or move a reticle around the screen in an attempt to dodge the enemy’s if you’re defending. That’s honestly it. There is absolutely no difference to either the background seen in these sequences (as initially impressive as the scrolling effect is) or the way any of these IAS segments play out, regardless of the unit/enemy/attack used. They could have had you dodging thin neon traces across the screen, representing a constant stream of laser fire, or had you darting away from broader but less frequent shotgun-like blasts. They could’ve made nimble Orbital Frames far more responsive than their land-based allies. They could’ve done something.

But no, it’s just circle vs. circle for hours on end.

And the worst part is there’s no actual skill involved: point your cursor at the only sprite on the screen (and they’re always a fixed size, and that size is always “large”), press the button, done (you only need to have the reticle hovering over even a single pixel of the target when you fire, even if common sense would dictate such a shot would miss).

Remember to rotate the reticle around the edges of the screen without stopping and you’ll dodge everything. Everything. I’ve very easily landed hits even when I’ve had 4% chance to hit—the sort of attack you’d reasonably expect to miss in any other strategy game—and successfully avoided multiple attacks with a literal 100% accuracy rating too.

The simplest solution to this difficulty-decimating issue is to not use this entirely optional and easily togglable system at all seeing as it upsets the balance of the game this much but… it’s right there, and it’s on by default. It’s mentioned twice, in two separate blurbs, on the back of the Japanese box. It’s a key feature, something the game wants you to use. Why would you risk missing a map-winning shot? Who wouldn’t choose to completely avoid an attack that would otherwise definitely demolish a unit’s health bar, especially when it’s so easy to do?

To add insult to injury the (again, optional) animated battle sequences that follow all suffer from that recurring GBA problem of choosing to use some washed-out and under-detailed CG rather than the beautiful pixel art the system was more than capable of producing. They’re not bad, but they could have been good.

In spite of this really quite stunning stumble, Z.O.E is just about strong enough everywhere else for this issue to be a baffling disappointment, rather than a reason for everyone to steer well clear. In fact I’d still say this is my favourite game in the entire Zone of the Enders series, and I really do like the other two quite a bit. The streamlined nature of its approach to pre-battle unit customisation and the story’s eagerness to show you something new makes it easy to promise yourself one more go, just like you did an hour ago, and the hour before that.

However, the game’s not short of competition, not even if you restrict yourself to strategy games released in English on the same handheld: Fire EmblemTactics OgreShining ForceAdvance WarsYggdra UnionSuper Robot Wars, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance are all excellent examples of the same or similar concepts, and if I was being brutally honest Z.O.E doesn’t definitively outdo any of them. It does manage to put up a good fight though, and should be applauded for having an honest go at creating something all of its own and being all the more memorable for it, even if it didn’t all work out quite as smoothly as it could have in practice.

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One thought on “Z.O.E 2173 Testament: Fighting is a real pain in the IAS

  1. Fist of Mars was my first ZOE and it was absolutely made for the likes of me. That being someone who is interested in SRPGs in theory, but doesn’t really bring the patience for them to the table. Easily digestable story, not a lot of unit customisation, simple battles. I even liked the dodging parts, as they meant I would barely ever get hit xD


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