Game Review

by David Cabrera,

The 3rd Super Robot Wars Z: Hell Chapter

Playstation 3

The 3rd Super Robot Wars Z: Hell Chapter
The penultimate chapter of the Z series, in which hundreds of the super robots of anime past and present gather from across the dimensions to clobber space monsters, robot mafia, and other fools on a heretofore unprecedented scale in a massive strategy RPG.

Super Robot Wars-- best to assume you don't know-- is a gigantic strategy RPG that teams up heroes from 20-30 different robot anime series, ranging from mainstays like Gundam, Macross and Go Nagai's creations to recent hits like Code Geass and Gurren Lagann to cult titles like The Big O and total obscurities like Trider G7 and Dai-Guard. Despite the spotty reputation of anime-licensed games like these-- especially the crossover kind-- Super Robot Wars delivers reliably. It is a legitimately major game franchise that's been going since 1991 and hasn't taken a break since.

Like super robot anime itself, SRW is known for its passionate commitment to excess. To give an idea of the scale of this thing-- and keep up with me, here-- this is specifically the first part of the third and final chapter of the Z series. Z1 was a late PS2 game, Z2 was also a game released in two episodes, and Z3 will conclude later with Heaven Chapter, another stand-alone PS3/Vita game. Lest you think this is some kind of otaku-squeezing money grab, keep in mind that Hell Chapter is up there with the longest entries in this series. With 60 stages, it will take 70+ hours to finish as a low estimate.

A lot of this time is spent in a story that takes on the herculean task of retelling every anime series involved while tying their stories together into the game's own jam-packed multiverse. This amounts to SRW being the largest officially sanctioned fanfiction one could imagine. Of course, putting all these characters in the same place leads to a constant barrage of otaku jokes: scenes like Kouji Kabuto and Boss going to see the infamous “Celestial Being: The Movie” and kind of enjoying it, or Heero Yuy getting in the Bonta-kun suit from Full Metal Panic are worth it all by themselves. Due to its sheer size and breadth, this story is told largely through text in long talking-head (easily skippable) intermission scenes.

I must note: the text in this game is the size of several epic fantasy novels, entirely in Japanese, and my Japanese is baby-level at best. It would be both unfair and foolish to offer any kind of critical evaluation of the game story aside from the many gag and in-jokey scenes. Translations, but not translation patches, will eventually begin to appear; as the SRW fan community is a hard-working bunch.

I will, however, note that the original (as in not from any anime series) protagonist embodies-- surprisingly for this series-- all the worst excesses of the dreaded fanfic “Mary Sue” character. Stop me if you've heard this before: Hibiki Kamishiro is an aloof teen boy with a mysterious past and super glowing powers. He's constantly throwing himself into other people's big scenes, he knows everything (including jeet kune do), and he's definitely dating his homeroom teacher. My Japanese may not be good, but my God, did Iread enough about this brat. I think the jeet kune do part was the final straw.

This story, of course, exists to set up the reason so many non-Japanese speakers buy SRW games and play through them without understanding the language at all: the turn-based SRPG itself. There are new wrinkles in the formula every game, but the underlying ideas of SRW combat haven't changed. Just like in anime, you'll tear through a wave or two of enemy grunts before getting your heroes pumped up enough (morale is a stat, and in true robot anime style heroes can't use their strongest attacks unless their hearts are truly blazing for justice) for a boss battle. You'll get ambushed, new heroes will appear as the cavalry, unorthodox team-ups will be formed. Even the smallest level in this game could accurately be called massive, with the bigger levels scaling up towards the legitimately epic. This is a game where you get to play the final episode of Gurren-Lagann.

Anime robots are cast in character as RPG archetypes: the “Super Robot” ala Mazinger is a knight-like unit who has great power and HP, but is slow and has a hard time hitting smaller, faster targets without help. The “Real Robot” ala Gundam is like the thief class: fast, lightly armored but hard to hit, and a little weaker offensively than the “knight”. Different series present different in-character variations on the basic premise: the Evangelion units are offensive berserkers whose only defense is the AT Field, and Macross 7's Basara, true to the series, fights with the power of rock'n'roll. Healers and supports exist-- largely drawn from the characters who were small fries in their respective series-- but the game's focus, as expected, is on attacking.

Due to the sheer number of characters and robots-- in battle, there will often be 30 characters to move in a single turn-- there has to be some compression. Each unit on the map is a tag team of two robots (so that brings us down to 15 chess pieces to move in a turn) and a number of clever, complex systems new to this game emphasize smart team-building and planning out every attack just so in order to set up the perfect strike.

And then, of course, there's the battle animation, perhaps the crown jewel element of the SRW series. The feel of super robot anime isn't complete without the pageantry of these animations, the wonderful overkill and the pilot's face popping onscreen to scream “Rocket Puuuunch” and so on at the top of their lungs. (Yes, it's all original voice cast.) The robots, squatty and super-deformed though they may be, are frequently animated better than they are in their own source anime series. The animators even find the majesty in the shot of the humble beam rifle.

Unfortunately we can't say the same for the extremely basic map, intermission graphics, and even backgrounds during the battle animations, all of which have clearly been carried over from the previous PSP games.  These assets suggest that this game might have been (probably was!) planned for PSP and moved to PS3/Vita during development. The PS3-developed 2nd Original Generations from about a year ago looks significantly better in many places than this game does.

Again, with the sheer number of robots, much of the battle animation is carried over from the PSP Z2 games with significant cleaning up and new animation done to suit the larger display. There are some noticeable rough spots for the less-loved characters that imply a rushed development-- I winced during some of the Dancougar Nova and Dai-Guard animations-- but for the most part the upscaling and revision has gone nicely.

That being said, you're going to have to skip these animations a lot. In a single turn you're likely to attack over 20 times, and you can imagine how long it might take to watch every single scene over and over again. To their credit, the developers have realized this over the years, and even the system for skipping animations is extremely well thought-out. You can skip particular attacks, you can fast-forward, you can go directly to only the attack you want to see, and of course you can just not watch the animation altogether and have the game show you the numbers. The latter would be a terrible waste, however: in games as well as in life, you should really stop and smell the flowers. Sometimes flowers come in the form of flaming wreckage, and that's fine too.

Between the battles, this is also very much a game of micro-management. Money and pilot points and chips are all allotted to the player to spend as they choose on customizing robots and their pilots alike. Players can, of course, play favorites by putting all their resources into the robots they like best. If you're dead set on transforming a mass-produced grunt Mobile Suit, or even that ol' scrap heap Boss Borot, into a glorious, invincible god, well, that can be arranged.

As with previous games the difficulty is self-adjusting: the game starts easy, and the player can opt into Hard mode by completing various objectives (SR Points). Normal mode is a pushover, Hard mode is serious, and the brave souls who aim for all 60 SR Points are in for some truly grueling battles.

In case this somehow isn't enough raw content for you, 24 DLC maps await for 100-150y (roughly $1-1.50) apiece, one of which is given for free with early purchases of the game. Cleverly, each of these DLC missions is set at a different time during the game story, and even if you buy them, the missions only “unlock” once you've passed the relevant stage. I cannot fault the creators of a 100-hour videogame for charging for extra maps... but I can fault Japanese PSN for not taking foreigners' credit cards.

The other first-shipment bonus is a download for an HD remake of the original Gameboy Super Robot Wars game from 1991, which is also on Japanese PSN as a stand-alone release for about $12. The original SRW is a weird game bearing little resemblance to the games that would come after it and more firmly establish the series as it is today. This remake replicates its every oddity with love and zero budget.

If you can deal with a language barrier (or you can read Japanese), you're into SRPGs, and you've got a month or so free, this is a major and rewarding undertaking. If you're at all fond of the excess of robot anime-- hell, if you liked Pacific Rim-- and you haven't yet tried SRW, you should probably run out to buy this.

A review copy of this game was provided by

Overall : A
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B+

+ A dream team up with fanservice to satisfy any mecha nerd, meaty SRPG campaign with overwhelming amount of content and sheer hours of gameplay
Not in English, unlikely to ever be released in English. Some art assets poorly transferred from PSP prequels.

discuss this in the forum (15 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Game Review homepage / archives