With the indie gaming boom and so many big publishers trying their hands at projects that are somewhat different from the norm, it can be surprisingly refreshing to play something as single-minded as Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn. There are no immediate details to ponder – you just climb into a mobile suit, take to the battlefield, and blast your way through thousands of opponents for around 40 hours. There's very little gameplay variation despite a huge amount of content, and because of this, it's a hack and slash title that just about defines parent property Dynasty Warriors' repetitive nature.
That said, it also feels like a highly focused and almost therapeutic experience due to its obsession with nothing but the act of hacking humanoid weapons of war into pieces over and over again. Gundam fans will likely stick around long enough to unlock and play through most of what's on offer, but everyone else will probably find it a bit of a slog. Thankfully, the actual art of hitting enemies until they explode is as satisfying as Koei's long running franchise gets. Smacking 50 feudal Chinese soldiers around the head with a single swipe is pleasing enough, but pulling off a perfectly timed beam rifle shot that cuts through 200 opposing suits and results in a sea of detonations is simply sublime.
Indeed, much like its predecessor Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3, exploding enemies is a crucial element of the gameplay's feel. Deal enough damage to a foe before its health bar reaches zero, and it'll detonate, hurting any of its allies that are caught in the blast. As you can imagine, blowing tens of enemy suits up at once results in bigger explosions that chain together, potentially wiping out whole fields of opposition in just a few well executed moves. Every attack, whether it's ranged or not, connects with satisfying sound effects and produces noticeable DualShock 3 rumbling, and in turn, a surprisingly visceral Warriors experience is born.
Where the core Dynasty Warriors series has slowly moved away from setting you loose in maps that are populated by bases ripe for capturing, Gundam Reborn embraces more structured environments much like its predecessor, although the cramped battlefields that were linked by dozens of narrow corridors have been axed here, no doubt to the relief of many fans. Instead, more open maps that are divided into different enemy and allied fields make an appearance, an approach that lends itself better to large scale battles between two or sometimes three warring forces. Conquering important fields is at the heart of the gameplay, especially since some areas provide beneficial special effects, such as spawning offensive troops that try to capture other fields, or slowly healing your health if you're near.
Gaining your desired field is as easy as slaughtering a large number of machines that appear inside of it, but as previously mentioned, doing so is entertaining thanks to the bombastic combat. Anyone who's dabbled in a Warriors game will quickly adapt to the relatively simplistic mechanics, but the Gundam spin-off series makes use of a boost system that augments proceedings with a much faster pace. Hitting or holding X allows you to zip across the environment or slam into foes by weaving the manoeuvre into your combos, but you'll need to keep an eye on your boost gauge to make sure that your machine doesn't overheat and you're left unable to dodge or cancel out of attacks.
Speaking of combat, there are essentially two types of frantic clashes that you'll encounter. When you're not destroying thousands of mass produced suits, you'll be brawling with enemy aces – named pilots that force you to think a little more tactically. Bigger amounts of hit points means that keeping them in the air with well timed combos is the best way to whittle them down without having to defend against their sometimes deadly onslaughts. Find yourself up against two or more aces, however, and you'll need to mix things up considerably before you're caught between them in a never ending torrent of attacks. This is usually where powerful special moves and the newly implemented burst mode come into play.
The aforementioned buffed-up state can be activated with a tap of R2, and you'll become a wrecking ball of destruction for a short amount of time. You'll hit harder, boost faster, and benefit from your suit-specific burst skill, which may add extra clout to your blows, or even reflect all incoming beam attacks automatically. What's more, unleashing a special move while you're enjoying the warm glow of burst mode tags your chosen partner into the fight as they wreak havoc with their own super technique, although some allies are undoubtedly more effective than others. Also added to the mix are destructive charge shots that prove to be a great way to finish off combos and detonate weakened units, as well as the return of beam clashes that occur when you find yourself launching a melee attack at the same time as an enemy ace. These intense moments lead to a small quick-time event where you'll need to hit a face button within a set time. They're not revolutionary, but they do inject a good sense of desperation to duels.
Together, the mechanics that we've described fuse to create the most chaotic and heaving battlefields that the series has seen. While the lock-on system can be a little finicky in the heat of battle, and fighting against stationary warships seems a bit anticlimactic, Reborn feels like the most well realised instalment of the four Dynasty Warriors: Gundam titles when it comes to general gameplay.
This is also the case for the game's official mode, which was left out of the prior release. The story based mode makes a solid comeback here, and spans over six narratives. Not one to move away from tried and tested formulas, the title's take on the animated show follows a predictable path where missions are separated by cutscenes. Some are CG movies that are quite entertaining, while others use stills taken from the animations themselves to good effect. All of the dialogue between character portraits is voiced only in Japanese, but all in all, the mode represents the fantastic source material quite well. As you'd expect, it can't quite cover every detail, but it does a decent enough job of relaying the main plot points so that even newcomers should be able to grasp the basics of what's going on. And, if you're already a fan, you'll likely appreciate how often the script sticks to the source material, and how well pivotal fights are portrayed in the missions themselves.
However, most of your time with the game won't be spent blitzing through all of the stories on offer. Once each one is completed, you can return to any stage that you wish and try your hand at a harder difficulty, but it's ultimate mode that provides the real meat of this mech-'em-up. Since the second instalment, the franchise has featured a robust 'what if' mode that tends to throw all of the characters from Gundam's many universes into one world that seems to be in constant need of war. What we're given this time around is much of the same, but it's divided into a hefty amount of unique storylines. One might focus on a specific group of pilots and their quest to fix their mother ship, while another may see you fighting off numerous baddies who have banded together.
Unlike official mode, you can play as any pilot that you've unlocked during ultimate mode, barring some personalities that are important to the plot, which is a bit of a shame due to how long it can take to level up a character and their mobile suit. Nevertheless, with so many scenarios to choose from, you'll be surprised by how many of them actually boast enjoyable narratives. None of them are very deep or particularly enthralling, but Gundam fans should pick up on numerous little comments and nods towards certain pilots or plot points from the original shows. It also helps that most storylines feature branching paths, where you can decide whether to tackle an easier or harder objective. Like official mode, you can go back once you're done and test out the missions that you didn't take on, but the choices do add a little personality into the otherwise standard design.
Ultimate mode boasts enough content to sink White Base, but it's the promise of power that'll keep you playing well beyond the title's initial runtime. After every stage, you'll obtain a number of plans based on which unit you played as and which suits you shot down. Finding and equipping new plans works like a loot system where you'll get better rewards from attempting tougher missions, but you can also combine your blueprints to eventually give your machine's statistics a huge boost. Building up your ultimate mobile suit is a very addictive time sink, but it is a bit of a grind – especially since you can only unlock the very best base plans by wrenching up the difficulty to frankly insane levels. Unfortunately, this will no doubt lead to frustration, as most players will only be able to overcome the dreaded eight star hard difficulty by employing cheap, long distance tactics that sap every single drop of fun from kinetic combat. It's not a major problem as you'll still be able to manufacture potent plans with enough slogging, but the road to greatness will require a massive amount of time and patience.
Thankfully, levelling up your preferred pilots isn't as unnecessarily complex. Instead of sharing a pool of skills like in previous titles, characters now unlock their own set of equipable abilities as they gain experience. Buying them with team points which are acquired after a battle, the skills allow you to customise your favourite pilots according to your preferred play style. You could make use of several defence based abilities so that your guard becomes unbreakable from any angle, or you could invest in skills that amplify the power of explosions or give you an advantage against gigantic mobile armour opponents. With the series' biggest pilot and suit rosters to date, there are countless combinations to experiment with, which only adds to the release's already hefty amount of content.
That said, some fans won't be too pleased with the game's new faces. The divisive Gundam SEED and Gundam SEED Destiny have been put in the spotlight for this latest instalment, while shows like Gundam Wing and G Gundam are still very much cast aside when it comes to additional playable characters. It's perhaps also a shame that the currently ongoing Gundam Unicorn has snagged its own official mode storyline, despite the fact that it's forced to end rather abruptly due to the source material not being finished yet.
Picky, smaller issues aside, there's no question that one of Reborn's biggest drawbacks comes courtesy of its poor visuals. For a PlayStation 3 Warriors game, it probably takes the crown for how much carnage it can fit on screen and how many models it can render at once, but it comes at a cost. Menus and pilot portraits are especially well made and look stylish, but when you're hacking and slashing, textures are muddy, environmental objects are muddier still, and if you stare at static gameplay for too long, it can start to look like a PS2 release. Fortunately, when you're busy bathing thousands in galactic fire, you don't tend to notice the title's graphical flaws. Still, it's a little baffling when you realise that the franchise's previous instalment's cel-shaded approach was dropped entirely, even though it looked infinitely better than what's on display here.
Despite the fact that the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam series and the One Piece: Pirate Warriors series don't have the lineage of Koei's main franchise, there's no doubt that the popular anime and manga casing helps to focus the titles' ambitions. It's also worth mentioning that like the brilliantly balanced One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2, Gundam Reborn incorporates online co-op that sadly uses the exact same invite system. Inviting friends who, like you, have completed much of the game works well enough, but why the release decides to disconnect you after every finished mission instead of keeping you both in a game room is still beyond our understanding.
Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn lacks a bit of the polish that we've come to expect from recent Warriors titles, but it makes up for it with the most well realised combat and best official mode that the series has seen. You'll come for the explosions, stay for the addictive levelling mechanics despite some over complex touches, and maybe even realise your dreams as you decide to smash a weaponised asteroid into Earth. Hail Zeon and all that.