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Review: Ring of Red (PS2)

Ring of Red (PS2)
Review by Robin Derwent


When it was suggested that each reviewer should pick one classic game to review to get the site up and running, I immediately thought of Ico. No, wait – that’s been done to death already. Ok, how about Ring of Red then? I bet most of you have never even heard of it. Ideal.

Ring of Red is a hardcore, Japanese, turn-based strategy game set in an alternate-history version of Japan in 1964. In fact in many ways I’m quite surprised it was released outside of Japan at all; I guess we can thank the fact that in the early days of the PS2 there weren’t that many games of any kind available and publishers needed to release something. Even in Europe. Of course in these halcyon days post Advance Wars and Disgaia, it’s much more common to see console strategy games get a decent international release, but at the dawn of the PS2 it was a remarkable thing. Not that anyone much bought it, of course.

Whether Ring of Red’s obscurity is down to the fact that strategy games just aren’t big business, or whether it was because it was, well - rather quirky to say the least is not something I intend to dwell on. What I will expand upon however, is what made it great.

First of all, Ring of Red has a cool background – it’s an alternate-history world where the US never nuked Japan and instead both they and the Russians invaded. Now the country is divided into pro-Western South Japan and communist North Japan and both sides are well equipped with Armoured Fighting Walkers (AFWs, or mechs to you and I) whose ability to easily negotiate rough terrain makes them ideal on the mountainous islands of Japan. Perhaps the best bit about this background is the neatly edited archive film used during the game’s intro, with black and white images of WWII-era soldiers accompanied by lumbering walking tanks. Well, it’s cool if you’re me, at any rate.

Anyway, the basic structure of the game is this: as central character Masami von Weizegger (he’s half-German, half-Japanese don’t you know?), you lead a small company of mech-pilots from one battle to the next – following a reasonably engaging storyline about a stolen prototype AFW. Each battle places your handful of units (you start with the campaign with just 2, though by the end you command a total of 8) onto a tactical map which features various types of terrain, bases and towns and, of course, a ton of enemy units. When one of your mechs meets one of the enemies, the game then moves to a one-on-one duel between those two units where you deploy a variety of attacks and special tactics to try and deal as much damage to your opponent as possible before the timer runs out.

Overall battle tactics are solid but simple; heavy AFWs are best at long range, anti-AFWs and light AFWs are good up close and standard AFWs are best somewhere in between. So you try to ambush the enemy’s heavies with your lights and antis, and try to keep your own heavies at range to bombard the enemy’s close-range units into dust - meanwhile standard AFWs are the jack-of-all-trades and help you fill in any gaps.

Where it starts to get complicated is in unit customisation; each of your mechs has it’s own unique stats differentiating it from others of its class, each pilot has certain special skills and gains more through XP and, most important of all, you can choose three units of infantry to accompany each mech into battle. One of these units acts as crew for the AFW - modifying its reloading speed, attack range, perhaps providing a limited amount of special ammo and even affecting how long a delay it has between turns. In duels the mech is joined on the ground by the other two infantry units – who can either move out ahead to attack the enemy, or hide in relative safety behind the AFW – giving them a chance to charge up any special attacks they may have.

The duels themselves are essentially slugging matches – you wait for your gun to reload, begin aiming and, as your accuracy slowly increases, choose when to gamble a shot. It might sound rather strange and artificial – and it is – but since a solid hit on the enemy will send him stumbling back and ruin his accuracy, this basic mechanic makes for surprisingly tense battles – rushing a shot and missing or hesitating and getting hit while you’re still aiming can turn the tide of a duel. But that’s not all – there’s a good chance that one of you is at the wrong range for your AFW – but you can’t move and aim at the same time. So do you desperately rush your light AFW into short range, hoping that you get lucky and his heavy doesn’t pound you on the way in? Or do you run the other way and try and retreat? Of course you might want to stop every now and then to take a quick pot-shot – you might not hurt him much, but knocking his aim off might make all the difference…

Then there’s the fact that infantry can launch powerful special attacks when moved in front of your mech, but this places them in serious danger – and they can only recharge those abilities when retreating behind. And you can’t change your infantry’s positions while the AFW is moving – so again you have to trade off one thing against the other. As should be obvious by now, between the choosing which infantry to send with which AFW, making the right moves on the battle map to stack duels to your advantage and the various tactical decisions to be made once actually in the duel - this is a seriously deep game.

Graphically the game is actually pretty good-looking, as turn-based strategy games go at least. Although the battle maps use little blue and orange counters to represent friendly and enemy units, the duels have respectable 3d models for both the AFWs and their accompanying infantry. Of course even the best the game has to offer looks very tired next to a modern PS2 action game – but it’s still the only turn-based strategy title I can think of that couldn’t easily have run on an original PlayStation. Overall the presentation is clear and attractive and although there’s no voice-work (cut-scenes are all text-based) the battle sounds are excellent.

There are, of course, some flaws. The biggest problem with the game is probably that its obscure and complicated mechanics will put a lot of people off before they ever get to grips with the game – second to this is the game’s difficulty, which is often uncompromising. That said, once you do get to grips with the game and learn to cope with the difficulty, it’s actually all too possible to find the game too easy – simply because for all the tactical depth provided, the enemy AI is uninspired and there a general lack of variety in mission structure. Finally the presentation of the story can be rather dry at times, and the translation and proofing of text sometimes sub-par.

So there you have it, this is not a mainstream game – hell, it’s not even a game that every fan of turn-based strategy will like – but it is a deep, original and interesting strategy game that richly rewards those who take the time to get to know it. And now that everyone has finally noticed what an overlooked gem Ico was, isn’t it time to give Ring of Red a chance in the spotlight too?

Presentation 8/10
+ Great sound effects, cool mech designs, and 3D graphics that put most console strategy games to shame.
- No voices. Graphics are still weak compared with most modern PS2 games.

Interface 7/10
+ Simple and attractive interface.
- Save mechanics can be a little unforgiving.

Immersion 6/10
+ Interesting background and an ok story. Attractive retro-military feel to both interface and units.
- Some problems with translation and proofing of text. Text-heavy storytelling sometimes drags.

Gameplay 9/10
+ Interesting mechanics, plenty of scope for customisation and solid depth of tactical play.
- Uncompromising difficulty and relatively steep learning-curve can make it intimidating to new players.

Overall [not an average] 9/10

Reviewer’s Bias: Crusader
I fucking love this game and I want to let everyone know how great it is.

Comments

I remember you playing this oh so long ago and I while it wasn't for me, I do remember that its idea and appearence were quite striking.

November 2006

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