From Software, the creator of the Armored Core, King's Field and, err, Echo Night series', has released its first Dreamcast title, Frame Gride (rhymes with "glide"). Frame Gride is a mech-combat game, similar to Armored Core, except that there are no objective-based missions. At its core (no pun intended) Frame Gride is most closely related to Sega's own mech-combat arcade game, Virtual On. Frame Gride distances itself from Sega's title by adding loads of customization options, the very same options that gave the Armored Core series its fanatical following.
From the outset, you are put through a series of questions (in Japanese, unfortunately), the answers to which will determine which giant robot you'll start out with. You are also given two "skeletons" to work with at the beginning, but you won't be able to do anything with them just yet. After getting used to the controls in the training center, you'll find that beyond their simple functions, proximity to your enemy also results in different attacks. Holding down both shoulder buttons and pressing the sword slash and gunfire buttons will offer, respectively, more powerful long-range attacks. The analog pad changes your view, much in the way that the exterior camera works in Ace Combat 3, allowing you to look left and right, which is necessary since your enemy will swarm around you. The D-pad is used for the actual mech movement, which works fine.
As you begin your campaign, you will find yourself transported to various locations on a map, where you will do battle with a different opponent each time. During actual battle, you may feel slightly overwhelmed when you discover that the enemy can unleash intelligent satellites of incredibly varying nature. These satellites range from simple crab-like droids that follow you around and shoot at you, to small orb-like pods that act like landmines, to full-sized foot soldiers that attack with as much intelligence as the host opponent itself. Fortunately, you will eventually be able to command this sort of help yourself, once you've acquired the appropriate amount of crystals. These crystals are what you are rewarded with upon destroying the enemy and his satellites. While you don't have to destroy the satellites to win the levels, you will gain more crystals by doing so and therefore obtain more accessories.
After any battle is over, you will have won a certain amount of crystals, usually at least three for beating your enemy alone, more for each satellite you kill. After each match, you can go into the crystal exchange room, where you can cash in your crystals for items and upgrades. There is a wide variety of crystals you can get, and the myriad combinations you create will result in a lot of different accessories you can buy. Once you start buying parts to upgrade your mech, you can also use these parts to outfit your skeletons - one of which is a light, speedy model, the other a more sturdily built one for hand-to-hand combat. Everything on these mechs can be customized: head shell, arms, rocket boosters, chassis, legs, sword, shield, rifle, and much, much more. As anyone familiar with Armored Core will know, a broad palette of color options is also available.Graphically speaking, Frame Gride is absolutely beautiful, boasting not only highly detailed textures and excellent light-sourcing effects, but an immaculate design sense reminiscent of the manga classic, The Five Star Stories. The incentive to play this game is high since you'll definitely want to unlock the more exotic parts hidden in the game. The backgrounds are not only nice to look at but dictate what sort of strategy you'll need as well. Some arenas are wide-open spaces, well suited for long-range attacks, others are underwater (slowing your movement somewhat), and some take place in a forest that gives you plenty of cover but also limits your attack options. Other settings include a castle courtyard, with bridges and multitiered landscaping, giving you all kinds of strategic possibilities as to how you combat your opponent. Frame Gride basically takes the Virtual On premise to its next logical evolution. Sound effects are superb and give off the clanking, metallic sounds you would expect from eight-ton robots stomping around. The soundtrack is tech-medieval and suits the game well.
A feature that will hopefully remain when the game is finally published here is the Internet play. Yes indeed, right now the kids in Japan can take it to the 'Net and duke it out with their own creations, courtesy of the Dreamcast's built-in modem. This is the sort of game that will sell the system to people interested in the modem support. Web surfing and all that is fine, but when you can take your customized mech-man online and battle your best friend across the country, who could resist? While hands-on experimentation with this option was not possible, one would imagine it could only get better with the American release, due to the faster modem packed with the US Dreamcast.
As it is, even without the benefits of Internet play, the one-player game is as rewarding as an arcade-style game could be. The game is filled with great graphics, tight gameplay, and high replay value. As an import purchase, it is surely recommended. As a domestic release, it will become a must-buy. Who would have thought that the publisher responsible for some of the slowest games on the planet would come up with a game that leaves its own classic mech series in the dust? A top-tier title for the Dreamcast, Frame Gride is topnotch stuff.