Save for maybe ninjas, there are few themes in the world of anime as persistent as giant robots. Sunrise's Gundam franchise has long stood as one of the tent poles in the world of giant robots, where it's served as a pretty obvious source of inspiration for games like Zone of the Enders and Virtua On. Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of games based on the Gundam license, though most of the recent Gundam games have focused largely on the early events in the Gundam timeline, where the robots are largely earthbound. Bandai's new Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space takes the action to the stars--and strips down the combat in favor of a faster pace in the process.
Rather than tell a single continuous story, the single-player game in Encounters in Space is broken up into a few short vignettes that take place over the course of four years. These vignettes are accounts of several significant battles during the One Year War between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. Though the White Base and Thoroughbred stories (two of the most significant portions of the game) both have you playing as Earth Federation Gundam pilots, the ace pilots mode gives you the option to play as several different pilots from either side. In addition to taking on the roles of existing characters in the Gundam universe, the game includes a mission mode where you can create a custom pilot. You can then build up his or her stats by playing through a series of missions. And, if you so desire, you and a friend can take your custom pilots and face off against each other in the game's two-player mode.
The Gundam universe is a pretty staggering thing, which spans several decades and features dozens of different main characters. Though Encounters in Space takes place fairly early on in the Gundam timeline, there is already a significant amount of backstory. Unfortunately, the game does a pretty halfhearted job of getting you up to speed. If you're already a Gundam fan, it's no big deal, but for newcomers, it makes the story nearly incomprehensible. Moreover, it makes the connections between the different story segments hazy. A more coherent narrative might have made for a more compelling experience, especially when you consider the massive amount of footage from the Mobile Suit Gundam cartoon that the game wedges in to the White Base and Thoroughbred modes.
Though there are a few simple defense and pursuit-based missions in Encounters in Space, you'll spend most of the time in deep space simply blowing up spaceships and other robots before they can do the same to you. You'll pilot a variety of different craft, including an assortment of humanoid mechs and jets, but the controls, much like the objectives, remain largely universal. You can move forward, backward, and side to side using the left analog stick, and you can move up and down using the R1 and R2 buttons. You can quickly lock on to and scroll through any enemies within range using the L1 button, and once they're locked on, you can attack your opponent by using a ranged weapon that's activated with the square button. However, if your craft is equipped for it, you can use a melee weapon by pressing the triangle button. You can also change the nature of these attacks by holding in the buttons. This allows you to lock on to multiple targets when using the ranged attack, or it allows you to dash straight toward your intended target when using the melee attack. The circle button activates a secondary ranged weapon, though the secondary weapons on most of the crafts you'll pilot are usually too weak to be of much use. Certain crafts are also equipped with a special attack, which can be activated once your special meter has been filled--by pressing the square button while at the same time holding in the R1 and R2 buttons. Finally, the X button can be used to give you extra thrust. However, if you double-tap it while holding a direction on the left analog stick, you'll perform a quick evasive dash, which is an indispensable maneuver in the game's more hectic later levels.
The action is pretty manageable at first, and most players will probably find the missions in the White Base mode to be a breeze. The difficulty definitely ratchets up when you get to the Thoroughbred mode, where the pacing speeds up to the point where the camera will sometimes have trouble keeping up with you. But even at its most frenzied, Encounters in Space remains pretty manageable, thanks in no small part to the largely automated combat system. It's not the most challenging giant robot game out there, but the gameplay's quick pace helps keep things entertaining.
Though Encounters in Space seems to very much want to be like Zone of the Enders, it lacks the level of visual polish found in Konami's giant robot series. The Gundams and other pieces of futuristic military hardware are all serviceable 3D representations of their 2D counterparts, though the textures tend to look a little washed-out. The game suffers from some pretty consistent aliasing, and though a lot of the particle effects used for cannon fire and explosions tend to be a bit underwhelming, the game's frame rate will noticeably chug if there's too much action onscreen. The game's lighting system can be a little quirky sometimes, and ships will occasionally get no light cast on them at all. You may actually find yourself fighting a giant battle cruiser that--if it weren't for the lock-on system--you wouldn't even know was there.
The sound design in Encounters in Space is, for better or for worse, pure anime. The music alternates between determined, horn-heavy instrumentals and melancholic vocal J-pop ballads--the latter of which makes for rather strange background music during giant robot battles in deep space. The game is absolutely packed with voice acting, some of which was lifted directly from the anime, some of which is new material recorded by the voice actors from the anime, and some of which is new material that just sounds like it could've been from the anime. Regardless of the source, though, the voice acting fits the melodramatic tone of the animated sequences and serves as good in-game combat chatter. The in-game effects also sound like they came right out of the cartoon, and there are plenty of sharp, stinging sounds to accompany the combat.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space is a game best suited for established Gundam fans, but the action is straightforward enough and the appeal of fighting giant robots is broad enough that just about anyone can pick it up and have some fun with it, assuming they can get past the game's anime-inspired pretense. There's not a lot of depth to it, and there are certainly better ways to get a fix for your giant robot jones, but Encounters in Space still stands as one of the more accessible Gundam games to be released.