It's been a rough couple of years for Mega Man X
fans, as the last three installments of the series have been somewhat disappointing when compared to previous installments from the SNES and the early PlayStation One days. Yet amazingly, while less "mature" iterations like Mega Man Anniversary Collection
and the GBA EXE
titles prove that the Blue Bomber still has some staying power left in him, the grittier version of Mega Man
continues his downward spiral at a Volvo's pace -- with what seems to be fewer and fewer interested parties coming along for the ride. And though Capcom has yet another action/platformer in the X
series headed for the PS2 later this year (Mega Man X8
, which will officially catch it up to the regular Mega Man
franchise in terms of sequential numbering), it's hoping that its latest interpretation of the universe's most prolific Maverick Hunter can turn a bad luck streak in the opposite direction.
Developed by the same team responsible for 2003's excellent Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Mega Man X: Command Mission is a true first for the Mega Man series. Because instead of relying on the old-school 'shoot and jump' mechanics that have powered the franchise along for nearly two decades, Command Mission changes the status quo by moving into the realm of RPGs. And while most industry insiders were skeptical of this transition when the game was first announced at last year's Tokyo Game Show (ourselves included), we've come away true believers. Mega Man X: Command Mission is no fly by night gimmick; it's the real thing.
But to expect Command Mission to be as epic or sweeping as something like Xenosaga or Final Fantasy X, however, would be a sizeable mistake; as the storyline is really more along the lines of the side-scrolling action titles from whence it came. For the most part in fact, the plotline rarely gets any grander than one main objective: use X to save Giga City from the insidious Rebellion force and uncover the parties responsible for helping it rise to power. To its credit, though, the production team has done a commendable job towards encouraging players to care about such a minor task, and have somehow taken what would be a brief sidequest in other RPGs and transformed it into an interesting and involving narrative backdrop.
Along the way, players will meet and interact with several familiar faces from most of the previous two titles in the series: including Mega Man X7 and X8 cohorts Zero and Axl. Several other supporting characters and enemies make theirs appearances as well, and offer up designs and personalities that are as diverse as they are colorful. As one might expect, the background and depth behind these characters isn't as strong as your typical role-playing experience, but there are a fair number of conversations that you can get into between each of the game's ten main chapters. Though fans of the more open-ended free-roaming style of RPGs may find Command Mission's strictly linear pacing and straightforward party recruitment a little disappointing, it's still rather and fun and helps keep the action moving briskly.
The most surprising aspect of Mega Man X, however, is the fact that it isn't an action/RPG at all. As instead of going the real-time combat route that most franchise veterans would expect it to (ala Kingdom Hearts, or even something like .hack), Command Mission borrows its battle system from Namco's heavy hitter Xenosaga. Known as the "X Order System", the combat engine uses an initiative tree just as Shion's adventure did with a graph that represents each character in the melee. Depending on whether or not the party earns the element of surprise, is in possession of higher speed attributes than their enemies, or has some kind of item that increases their placement in the rotation, their position on the grid is prioritized. One turn at a time, the grid cycles through the combatants (both enemies and allies alike), and provides a visual cue as to when a character's turn is and how much health they have left. It's a great planning tool, and adds a nice touch of strategy to the combat despite the fact that we've seen this kind of approach before.
Luckily there's more to the combat than just its similarities to Xenosaga, as the game also uses what's called the 'Party Hookup' mechanic. Enabling players to perform multiple attacks per turn, the party hookup feature uses equippable sub-weapons (missiles, lasers, and the like) so that gamers can hit their opponents with an extra bit of guff before nailing them with their primary attack. Each character is given two different sub-weapons too; but rather than use an exhaustible ammo supply or unlimited firing option, the ability to use the sub-weapon is dictated by the percentage of weapon energy (WE) that's available for that turn. Each character's WE is then replenished every successive turn in fractional increments depending on the actions made in the previous round -- so figuring out how and when to use your WE-enabled powers is yet another dose of tactical decision making that the developers have put in players hands. You're not just limited to weapons either; you can also use supportive abilities in those slots as well -- including damage modifiers, damage absorbers, and the ability to steal items from opponents.
What's more is that Capcom has also included a series of other combat sub-schemes from within the X Order System. The Action Trigger, for example, allows players to tap into their WE potential once again with a series of real time mini-games that can deal extra powerful damage (think Final Fantasy VI's Blitz and Sword Techniques, and you'll get the right idea). It's a nice element of interactivity too, and some of the attacks use basic button tapping commands while others require you to use rhythmic key pushes. Others involve familiar Street Fighter-like fireball combos while some are simple games of chance. And naturally, the bigger weapon energy reserve that players have, the longer they'll have to perform their special move and the more damage it will deal when it hits.
Our favorite combat options, though, are probably 'Hyper Mode' and 'Final Strike'. The first, a sort of transformation power-up not unlike Full Throttle or Machina Maw in Final Fantasy X-2, gives users the ability to become more powerful versions of themselves with added weapons and abilities. Of course, they're only limited to a certain amount of turns in this form once altered, but gamers will be able to deal some serious damage in the meantime -- with some truly cool-looking alter egos right out of Voltron (Massimo's Glint Armor in particular springs to mind). Similarly, Final Strike can also unload a huge amount of damage (more so than any other attack in the game) by allowing all three onscreen characters to team up and perform a devastating combo within a limited time period. And like Action Trigger sequences mentioned earlier, hitting the right sequence of buttons performs the combo successfully.
All combined, these various aspects of combat make for one hell of a nice battle system; and despite be as influenced by other RPGs as it may be, the final product works together rather effectively. Of course, stat hounds will also be pleased to know that several other role-playing staples, like armor upgrades, weapon improvements, and item collection, is just as important here as its always been; while the need to build up your experience levels and hit points doesn't seem as necessary.
As strong as the combat system is, however, there are still a few nagging problems that keep Mega Man X: Command Mission from hitting the same powerful notes that monsters like Final Fantasy and Star Ocean can -- and it's not just because of the storyline's limited scope either. For starters, the length of the experience is a bit on the short side: at around 20 to 30 hours with all the sidequests and secrets accounted for. And truthfully, even that may be a little on the embellished side. Additionally, the menu system and navigation menus are pretty sloppy; with poorly controlled sort options and a series of stats that could have used a much cleaner presentation.
But it's the difficulty of Command Mission that could be its biggest enemy. Weighed too far on the easy side of the things, the game's toughest bosses are pushovers once you've mastered the strategies available to your characters. And as we mentioned earlier, the need to level up so that you can combat these bigger and tougher foes isn't really encouraged (with a few exceptions). It's a shame that the AI tactics that are used by your opponents have been so downplayed too, as the combat system is so deep and interesting that it actually deserved better. Normally, role-playing games with weak challenges can be more thoroughly balanced by a strong storyline and interesting plot twists too. But because of the few surprises and extremely linear nature of the plot in Command Mission it doesn't get that kind of background support.
Interestingly enough, the PlayStation 2 version of the game is obviously weaker in this department than the GameCube version - which is slightly more difficult. Unfortunately, the reason for this increase of challenge isn't because of enhanced AI or anything of that nature, but because of the frequency of random battles in the Cube disc that has been increased to what seems like twice that of the PS2. Additionally, players receive experience penalties much quicker in the GameCube version if they take too many turns to defeat an enemy compared to the PlayStation 2; and there's even an extra item retrieval mode that utilizes the GBA as a special feature. Could this turn of events be payback for the superior version of Mega Man Anniversary Collection going to the PlayStation 2 instead of the GameCube? Probably not, but hey -- whatever makes the conspiracy theorists happy, right?
As for the remaining differences between the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions, there are still a few more noticeable tidbits. The framerate, for instance, is much faster and smoother on Nintendo's console than on Sony's. The load times are faster in the Cube installment too, with crisper colors, sharper textures, and less aliasing problems than its PlayStation counterpart. But don't misunderstand, both versions of the game are overly colorful; with some sharp-looking character designs, strong environments, and plenty of classic Mega Man X flare. Audibly, the games are near identical -- with dubbed American voices playing the usual Capcom game of hit and miss of believability and sound effects and music that rank right up there on the solid charts. And hey, you gotta love Dolby Pro Logic II.
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