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Ring of Red (PlayStation 2) artwork

Ring of Red (PlayStation 2) review

"Watching a video of Ring of Red might convince you that it is almost exactly like Front Mission. But just a few minutes into playing the game you'll discover that its battle system is radically different than most turn-based games. As far as I know, there isn't really anything even remotely like it."

Ring of Red is a turn-based tactical strategy game. At first glance, it very closely resembles games like Front Mission and Disgaea. Watching a video of it might convince you that it is almost exactly like Front Mission. But just a few minutes into playing the game you'll discover that its battle system is radically different than most turn-based games. As far as I know, there isn't really anything even remotely like it.

Ring of Red takes place shortly after World War II. It's an alternate history setting where mechs called AFW's have been developed and are now the main form of armored combat on the battlefield. These machines lumbering diesel or gasoline powered walking tanks and artillery pieces, not slick high-tech shiny mechs. Think steam punk but set in the 1940's. Japan has split into two separate countries, the North and the South, and the two are in a situation not unlike modern day Korea. You play as a South Japanese special operations squad tasked with pursuing a recently stolen prototype mecha into to North Japan. You are to rendezvous with a rebel group there and use them as an ally and as cover for the mission, which is to destroy or capture the stolen mecha.

When you embark on a mission, you find your group of up to eight mecha on a tactical battlefield map. Your troops are blue and the enemies are orange or other colors, kind of like a board game. This might sound weird as most other games in the genre feature full-color representations of their units on the tactical map. But the two-color system actually works really well as it lets you see what you're up against at a glance and the units are fully animated when they walk around and look just like the mecha they represent. Your troops and enemy troops all take turns based on initiative stats. You can see a list of the turn order in the start menu, and you'll end up looking at it constantly once you really understand how to play the game as turn order is extremely important. When it is one of your unit's turns, you first move it, then can choose to standby, repair, or attack.

When you choose to attack or if you get attacked by an enemy unit, you'll be taken to a screen where you assign the positioning of the infantry assigned to that mecha. Each mech in the game, both enemy and ally, has three units of foot soldiers assigned to it. One squad rides on the mech itself on little platforms. This squad's stats affect how long it takes to load each shot. They also provide special ammunition to the mech and are immune from damage. The other two squads are on the ground. Based on squad types and myriad different abilities, these squads attack enemy infantry and enemy mecha and perform various skills.

Each battle is a timed semi-real time encounter where you directly control the mecha and issue orders to the ground troops in the squad. Anytime you issues an order or pull up the menu to choose attacks, the action freezes. You can move the mecha either toward or away from the enemy or have it hold still. A gauge on the side of the screen indicates the status of your weapon being loaded. Once it is loaded, you can choose to fire on either the enemy infantry of the enemy mech. When you choose to fire, a reticule pops up onscreen as you aim at the enemy. A hit percentage indicator shows your likelihood of hitting the enemy. This goes up the longer you aim. When you get to a percentage you are satisfied with, you press X to fire and see if your shot hit. After firing, your loading gauge starts over and you can fire again when it fills up. When the battle timer runs out, the battle is over and the two enemy forces disengage.

You can also order your infantry soldiers to move to the front of the battle to begin attacking the enemy and using their skills or to retreat to the back where they can use passive skills and recharge their attack skills. Some infantry units have aggressive skills such as direct powerful rocket or grenade attacks. Others can fire trip wires that tie up the enemy mech's legs so it can't walk or flares that blind the enemy or smoke that lowers their accuracy. Some infantry are better left in the rear where they will automatically repair certain types of damage you might take, remove tripwires from your legs, or remove landmines from the battlefield. Still other infantry squads carry powerful ammunition and are best when they ride directly on the mech. The best infantry squads might have really great attack and passive skills and good ammunition, making them very valuable. It's really sad when those squads die as unlike the mechs they are gone forever if they get killed. You get new soldiers at the end of every level, and you can also recruit soldiers during battles by ending your turn in towns and villages. Equipping your mechs with soldiers is the only way you can customize them, but it is an involved and interesting process to make sure you keep recruiting new blood and making sure every unit gets the skill sets it needs and its share of the powerful ammo.

Because each battle is timed, efficiency is your friend, and ordering your squads to do what you want them to do at just the right time is essential. You really want your squads to change position while your mech is stationary and about to fire as you can't move the mech while the soldiers are moving around. You also want your offensive squads to retreat to the rear to reload their big attacks as often as possible, and trying to sync up your mechs shots and movements with your infantry attacks and movements is always and interesting challenge. You also need to keep a watchful eye on your enemy's load gauge and infantry positions, which you can observe for yourself and monitor on your HUD. There is always some gauge or chart to keep an eye on, whether it's watching the timer to make sure you get your last shot in, watching the enemy's load gauge to fire at them and disrupt their shot, or watching infantry positions on the HUD to make sure you counteract enemy skills or put your wounded into a defensive position.

As mentioned above, you often have access to limited amounts of special ammunition. These shots are very powerful and also automatically hit without you needing to waste time aiming. Each pilot also has access to a limited amount of special skills called Max Attacks, which let them do things like instantly load their weapon, damage the enemy's main weapon or legs, dodge attacks, damage multiple infantry squads, charge into close quarters, and perform extremely powerful close combat strikes. Both special ammunition and Max Attacks are extremely powerful. In fact, almost any mech on your team can easily kill even an elite enemy unit in just one engagement without too much problem if they spam these abilities. The catch is that you are always extremely outnumbered and often face surprise reinforcements. Using your abilities sparingly and always holding back enough of them to have some left over to fight reinforcements that show up or just to slog through a whole map filled with enemies is a tense balance to maintain. It's an amazing feeling to save your special attacks up until the end of mission, then get ambushed by some enemies and just barely escape death by unleashing a huge amount of special ammunition and max attacks to dodge enemy fire or fire off multiple shots in a row. Biding your skills is especially important because the enemy AI is really good at ganging up on one unit and trying to kill it. They especially like to do this to your leader unit, and if he or she gets killed you loose the mission. The balance to this system of using and saving up special attacks is fine tuned and is a tense and interesting tightrope walk throughout the whole game. Ring of Red's levels are long and intense. They sometimes push 4 hours, but it's a wild feeling to manage your resources just right and come out on the other side.

There are four types of mecha, and they each excel at different things. Some are long range artillery that want to engage the enemy from far away. Others like medium distance but are able to engage in close combat in a pinch. Then there is the fast, light type that doesn't pack much of a punch but can travel far across the map and dodge enemy attacks, and the close-combat specialist type that wants to close in and punch the enemy. It's important for each of your unit types to engage the enemy at a distance on the tactical map that will give them the advantage. For example, it's great if you attack an enemy close combat mech from a long distance with your artillery mech so that you can shell it as it either tries to close the distance or fires shots that have a high chance of missing you due to the long range. It's great if you can attack enemies that don't have short range attacks with you melee units so that they can pound on them without fear of recourse. And then you have some units that are balanced enough that they can do pretty well at any distance provide you maneuver them to medium range as quickly as possible when the battle starts. Constantly trying to out-position the enemy and catch them at a bad distance is at the crux of each battle, as is making sure you don't block off your own units from the positions they need to be in. This is especially important as any unit can use the repair action to recover a large amount of hit points, and the enemy AI knows just when to do this. So you need to watch the turn order and make sure you have your units in position for a lethal multi-point strike before the enemy can retreat and repair. You also want to be in good formation so that the enemy can't engage you at an off distance, because if they do you'll often have to slowly walk your mech into it's ideal firing position while they fire away at you.

The game's graphics are really good and hold up extremely well, which I wasn't expecting for a PS2 game of this age. The mech's especially are crystal clear and have great animation and detail. The mechanical design is incredible; I'd kill for a model kit of some of the units. They have great firing animations, such as dropping weights into the dirt for stability or taking a wide stance for balance, and even great context sensitive animations like staying down on one knee to fire if getting knocked down during a firing sequence or losing big chunks of armor to the impact of a powerful shot. The camera angles are also superb, offering a big variety of cinematic views of the action, such as watching the ride-along infantry jostle around on the back of the mech and bang on the cockpit to indicate when a shell is loaded or placing the camera so that giant shell casings suddenly fly right past it when a weapon is fired. Great stuff on the visual and design side.

The game's big flaw is its story. It's a pretty good set up, but the dialogue and characters are pretty terrible. I think both the writing and the translation are really bad, which made my feelings on the story range from “this is stupid,” to “I have no idea why that character is so mad and crazy,” to “I can not interpret any meaning from this engrish during a critical plot point.” This bothered me for a bit, but after awhile I got so into the gameplay that I no longer cared that the story was bad. The fact that the overall concept of the story is cool is enough since the gameplay is good. Also, the music is not that great.

Ring of Red is a unique strategy game. There are a million games that look like it, but none that play like it. And the fact that it is almost perfectly balanced, engaging and challenging, and that it has great mechanical design and graphics blow away any problems I had with the terrible story. This review seems kind of long to me, but there is actually a lot of subtlety and depth to the gameplay that I left out for brevity, and it is almost universally great stuff. Ring of Red scores a 9 out of 10.


Robotic_Attack's avatar
Community review by Robotic_Attack (March 09, 2015)

Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.

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