[Preface: So this is my first contribution to the c-blogs. This isn't what I was expecting my first submission to be, but I thought it was worth sharing. In the future I may do more reviews, but it's more likely I'll be doing something more in the style of an editorial or analysis.]
I personally was unaware of this series until shortly before this HD collection was announced. I had never seen anything quite like it before, but after first seeing it my interest was piqued. When I got my hands on the games myself I was not disappointed.
These games are unlike most other mecha based games, and probably have more in common with something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. They're incredibly hectic and fast paced action games. Gameplay mostly consists of you piloting a very cool and stylised looking mech (called an "Orbital Frame"), as you fight your way through levels against other mechs. Most of them are un-piloted and relatively weak compared the player, but their numbers and speed can make for challenging fights. There are also plenty of boss fights where you go up against what are usually piloted mechs which are of much more comparable power to the player's. Your basic weapons consist of close range melee attacks with a laser sword, and long ranged laser guns. You can also charge your attacks to do special moves with these weapons, but in general they are relatively simple to use. There is also a myriad of sub-weapons which have special effects which add a decent amount of variation, some of which are required to beat certain enemies.
The challenge and fun of the gameplay comes from figuring out how to use these properly, while also paying attention to the frantic and incredibly fast paced action happening around you. Bosses also tend to require some thought in terms of strategy. They can sometimes seem impossible until you work out exactly what the method is. While it lacks a focus on complicated combos like DMC of Ninja Gaiden, there is more of an emphasis on keeping mobile and being aware of movement and position. But the pace of combat and the satisfaction it brings is similar. Skilfully and stylishly despatching your enemies is incredibly exciting and rewarding.
There are a few points though that take the focus of the gameplay away from the combat towards other things that seem rather baffling. It left me confused as to how the designers decided that these sections were even fun, let alone good enough to be put in the game. There is also a very limited local multiplayer mode. It basically just puts two players up against each other in various mechs featured throughout the games, and that's pretty much it.
Graphically, these games look brilliant considering they were built for the PS2. It can sometimes be easy to forget that it's an HD port. The graphical style is very clean and futuristic, with a lot of shiny metal and glowing neon lights, and with fantastic aesthetic design. The second game in particular looks very nice. It has a pseudo-cel shaded look to it, fit to compliment the anime style cutscenes, which also look brilliant. There are some flaws though. Levels are generally pretty small in size, and in the first game low draw distance can be an issue. In the second game there is a mission where you are put in the midst of a battle, with a ridiculous number of enemies and allies on the screen at one time. The frame rate does noticeably drop, but not to a level at which it becomes unplayable. It's still one of the most exciting missions in the game. But in general the brilliant aesthetic and the top-notch animation elevate it above the flaws.
The music of the games is also very good. It mostly consists of futuristic sounding techno, with lots of synthesizers and a thumping beat. It fits the mood of the game very nicely, and keeps the blood pumping. There are also a few tracks which feature Japanese vocals with instrumental aspects to them as well. They are very different from the rest of the music, but they somehow fit. They retain a kind of futuristic and alien feel to them.
The stories however, are pretty poor. These games are set in a future where human kind has spread out across the Solar System, and the extra terrestrial colonies are rebelling against oppressive Earth rule. Although through both games you find yourself fighting against one of these rebel groups that come from Mars, you are not necessarily aligned with Earth either. The reason for this is because the group you are fighting has some kind of evil plot which involves the use of a powerful energy source, called Metatron, which is being mined from the moons of Jupiter. Metatron is also key to the power of the mechs that feature throughout the series, and has some apparently magical properties, which are very poorly defined. Despite the badly explained exposition and obvious plot device of Metatron, I found the setting to be kind of interesting. There's a lot of potential for depth and commentary in there, it's just mostly squandered.
Although the setting for the series is pretty confusing, the narratives of the actual games are comparatively simple. They basically boil down to "defeat the bad guys because they're bad". In the first game you are defending a space colony from the aforementioned rebel group, for no other reason than they are attacking civilian areas. There is an attempt at some kind of pseudo-pacifist message about the morality of violence, and questioning whether ends can justify means, but it's delivered by a protagonist who is insufferably petulant and annoying.
The second game doesn't seem to try to have a message behind it, and focuses more on character development and fleshing out their backstories. Although it's less irritating, and more competent at what it tries than the first game because of its narrower focus, it's still far from good. You get a better idea of who characters are and what their relationships are, but that's about it. Attempts at developing characters fall flat on their face, and hearing about the past of characters does next to nothing to help this.
It's not helped by the fact in both games the voice acting is pretty terrible. If the tone isn't completely flat, it's completely wrong, and translation is awful in places. Although, in some cases that can lead to a chuckle, but that's probably not a good thing. At least the cutscenes that deliver the story in the second game look great. They're done in a very clean and nicely animated anime style, although most of the in-game video calls have little more animation than a mouth opening and closing. It's still far better than the first game though. There are no video calls at all, just audio, and the cutscenes are done using really badly dated CG.
Both games are also pretty short, lasting between 6 and 8 hours. But for the excitement they offer they don't feel like they are too short, or don't deliver on their promise. The second game is also built around replayability, with a new game plus mode which allows you to keep all your weapons, and adds secret bonus boss fights through the story, which unlock extra characters for multiplayer.
For the asking price these games are pretty great. In the current state of the industry, they're incredibly refreshing and bring back memories of a time when games were designed differently. In a lot of cases that's for the better. They're very focused around creating an exciting and unique experience, and nothing else. Sometimes that can be for the worse. Stories are ham-fisted and presentation is lacking in some places. But in the places that matter, these games do a lot right.