I’ve always been a big fan of grid-based tactics games. Advanced Wars, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Super Robot Wars – you name it, I’ve wasted a silly amount of time on it. So when I saw that Mercenaries Saga 2 was getting released on the 3DS eshop, I was pretty pumped. And, fortunately, Mercenaries Saga 2 lived up to my expectations and then some.
The game begins with you taking on the role of three knights, tasked with protecting the prince of the kingdom. While on a hunting expedition the prince is struck by a poisoned blade, and your party of knights subsequently go on a quest to find an antidote for the poison. As you journey through the world more characters appear to join your ranks, including a silent bandit, a dedicated archer woman, and a seductive young witch. The story seems basic enough at first glance – playing as a set of noble knights in a fantasy setting is nobody’s idea of original. But if you suck up the seemingly clichéd story and lack of challenge in the first few missions you are amply rewarded for your efforts, and will become absorbed in both story and gameplay.
The gameplay isn’t particularly innovative: you engage in a series of turn-based battles, trying to meet the victory conditions (e.g. killing enemies) while avoiding the defeat conditions (e.g. getting killed yourself). Battles take place on an isometric grid, which you move your characters around. The layout of the battlefield has additional effects; attacking an enemy from behind or from higher ground will do greater damage. Your characters each have a set of stats, which increase when you level up. There are also many upgrades to be carries out, with much organisation of items and many skill points to assign each time a character levels of up, adding a deeper level of strategy and customisation to the game. In terms of these stats and upgrades, Mercenaries Saga 2 isn’t afraid of getting complicated – unlike games like Fairune, it doesn’t try to simplify a classic formula, but instead embraces it. Whether this is a good thing or not will largely depend on how much of a nerd you are. I love it.
Characters have their own special moves and equipment, such as thieves who can steal from enemies and disarm treasure chests, and characters with larger swords which allow them to attack enemies two spaces away. Working out the best ways to utilise these abilities is quite a fun thing to experiment with. The characters also, while fairly archetypal, do have some funny dialogue exchanges, which keeps things interesting on the story side.
Disappointingly, it being a port of a Japanese mobile game, Mercenaries Saga 2 doesn’t have any 3D capability and it leaves the touch screen largely unused. However, the graphics look really good. The character sprites and isometric backgrounds are all well-polished, and really do recall those of the Final Fantasy Tactics games. One minor niggle is that one can occasionally lose track of which character is selected when your characters are all bunched together and surrounded by a load of identical enemy sprites. The anime-style character art, while nothing particularly special, does enough to distinguish and give personality to each of the characters. The music in the game is typical fantasy RPG fare. Not to labour the comparison, but it feels like it could have come straight out of one of the older Final Fantasy games, and this is definitely a good thing
When starting the game you’re given a choice between easy and normal difficulty levels. While normal eases you in gently at first, with tutorials and weak enemies, the difficulty quickly ramps up. This is where the free battle mode comes in handy – it allows you to replay completed levels but with alternative enemies, and gain some much needed gold and experience for your characters.
Despite the thoughtful design of the game, there are some aspects which reveal its heritage as a budget mobile game. The aforementioned lack of 3D capability or integrated touch screen controls are part of this, but there is another victim: no attack animations. Anyone who’s played Fire Emblem or SRW will, when first setting their character to attack an enemy sprite, expect to see some sort of nice animation of the character carrying out an attack. Sadly Mercenaries Saga 2 doesn’t have this feature, neither for normal nor special attacks, so temper your expectations in advance.
In terms of controls, I found the circle pad to be a bit too sensitive for this type of game, and often found the cursor going further or in a different direction than what I intended. Therefore it’s advisable to stick with d-pad.
While not the most original game, Mercenaries Saga 2 is a lot of fun. Its story, while not incredible, is engaging enough, but the challenging battles and detailed skill and item upgrades are where the game really shines, and the decent amount of play time provides good bang for your buck. If you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to pick up Mercenaries Saga 2 as soon as your next payment of gold comes in.
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