By Anthony L. Cuaycong
THERE’S NO QUESTION that the Gundam franchise has become huge to the point of ubiquity. These days, offshoots of animation studio Sunrise’s intellectual property can be found practically anywhere, way beyond the small and big screens and into toy establishments, hobby shops, book and video game stores, and collectors’ corners. It has become so ingrained in popular culture that a 65-foot-tall Unicorn mecha in Odaiba stands as one of Japan’s biggest — literally and figuratively — tourist attractions.
Considering how the franchise has turned into a veritable money-making machine, it’s hard to imagine that it once came close to being relegated to the dustbins of history. Mobile Suit Gundam, the television series that introduced it to the public in 1979, lasted just three months short of a year due to low ratings. Still, Bandai must have seen something in the 43 episodes that aired since it produced themed merchandise shortly thereafter. The decision spawned a juggernaut that now generates close to ¥100 billion in revenues yearly.
Needless to say, a chunk of the Gundam-related income Bandai Namco pulls in comes from its video game business. In terms of quality of the titles, the franchise has had mixed results. Still, there can be no doubting its intent to vary the ways in which it dips from the well, if for no other reason than to entice loyal fans to maintain their support with each new release. In this regard, the Gundam Breaker line has seen worthy improvements, with Gundam Breaker 3 representing an apex in the way it incorporates real-life Gunpla (the construction and beautification of mecha model kits) in the gameplay.
Parenthetically, gamers who appreciated the hack-and-slash action in Gundam Breaker 3 couldn’t wait for its successor to hit the shelves. And if New Gundam Breaker gained significant attention heading into its release, it was precisely because of the heightened anticipation of something better having been created in the two and half years that passed.
Given the extremely high expectations, New Gundam Breaker may well have been doomed to mediocrity even if it managed to retain much of what made Gundam Breaker 3 tick. As its very name indicates, however, it presents quirks to the previously established series structure where players engage in Gunpla and then subject their creations to battle after battle. Even as it still involves a lot of building and customization, it has, in cases, modified mission parameters as to require the completion of objectives other than combat, and under trying circumstances to boot.
The premise of New Gundam Breaker is, to be sure, no more or less weighty and sound than those of its predecessors. Offered in visual-novel format, the Story Mode is set in a Japanese high school where academics steeped in Gunpla are terrorized by a Student Council bent on making the strong, well, stronger at the expense of the weak. With this as backdrop, players control the main character, an outstanding builder and fighter with designs of becoming a professional, and get him to form and lead a rebel group in an effort to uphold the institution’s egalitarian purpose.
If nothing else, the narrative fits with New Gundam Breaker’s objective of engaging players in Gunpla creativity and excellence as validated by victories in combat. Perhaps it goes too far with its relationship-fostering aims; in order to flesh out interaction between characters, the dialogue can be tedious and repetitive. With an art style and thematic design that hews to the younger set, the presentation initially catches the eye, but could well prove diversionary and immaterial to those bent on action.
In this light, New Gundam Breaker’s battle mechanics are where estimation of its value will ultimately be based. Were its combat parameters the same as those of its older siblings, it would be forgiven its character-development missteps. Unfortunately, it boasts of changes that make progress and progression difficult. The degree of customization allowed and required remain all but boundless, a decided plus. However, the acquisition and collation of necessary components entail considerable in-game currency that grinding is inevitable, and to the point of excess. And even as these parts can be scavenged and salvaged during skirmishes, the odds of the right ones being made available through this route range from slim to zero.
Certainly, it doesn’t help that New Gundam Breaker’s cooperative modes have a task-completion bent that serves to muddle the path to success. Three-on-three scenarios don’t always lead to direct confrontations. Instead, the opposing teams aim for victory by way of points garnered when specific goals are attained. And when battles do break out, mechas take such damage that appendages can be lost as quickly as they are found. Meanwhile, noticeable lags and uneven frame rates make online options risky at best.
To its credit, Bandai Namco has taken the backlash against New Gundam Breaker in the two months since its release seriously, and has, in turn, resolved to make the gameplay better over time through continuous patching, not to mention implemented deep discounts to its sticker price. For longtime fans of the series, the hope is that the changes make the latest release more like previous ones. Until then, though, it serves as a stark reminder of what the road to heck is paved with. If there’s any consolation, it’s that the franchise will keep thriving, and that, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, a newer, better Gundam Breaker will be in the offing.