Turning back time
Ring of Red is one of those games that takes a historical event and says, what would happen if things went differently? In this case, the story goes that Japan kept fighting even after the Allies dumped two atomic bombs in its back yard. The planned amphibious invasion of Japan has had to take place, and since the European fight was long-since concluded, Russia dedicated some of its mighty red army to the fight as well. When all was said and done, and Japan had surrendered under the combined weight of two invading superpowers, the country was split up as Berlin once was, with Russia controlling the communist north and a democratic state emerging in the south, backed by the United States and NATO. Both of the "allies" were developing walking mechanized robots during the conflict, and later on in the mid-60s at least one Asian conflict was fought entirely by units of these Armoured Fighting Walkers (AFWs). The occupation of Japan was enough to turn the Cold War into a decidedly hot one though, so instead of retiring the hulking metallic beasts to the coal shed, both sides have trotted them out once more to decide once and for all who controls Japan. It's the present day, and you're called upon to help fight the cause in a far off land using AFW units and foot soldiers to prevail.
Instead of dumping you in the middle of a battlefield with some weaponry and a few skeletons in the closet, as Konami's other recent mech spectacle ZOE did, Ring of Red gives you strategic control of the whole AFW army. Starting with the background outlined above, the storyline develops in a fairly unsurprising manner but remains suitably intelligent. It isn't quite as inspiring as the fastidiously detailed Front Mission 3 or Final Fantasy Tactics, but it has a certain charm. The big battles that you direct take place on a traditional grid controlled by turn-based progression. The combat system, however, is done head to head in real-time, which is one of the reasons that you feel so close to the conflict. During an attack, your view changes to a third person perspective overlooking an AFW unit (comprised of a mech, one command crew and two groups of foot soldiers), and as a result really big battles can take hours to complete, seeming quite slow and laborious at first. The mechs aren't terribly manoeuvrable, but they can plod back and forth to get their weapons into range before firing.
The game kicks off with training missions to acclimatise you to this sort of combat, but these aren't terribly useful, and actually had me frowning with boredom at the tedious task of directing a single walker. Effectively these early encounters are simply a case of waiting for your gun to load then emptying it. It's worth persevering though, because after a few missions you get a larger unit of mechs and things hot up. As I've already said, each AFW unit is one mech, one command crew and two foot units, but I didn't mention that AFW units vary in their skill and effectiveness under certain situations. This makes combat extremely exciting, because with different strengths and weaknesses in targeting certain types of enemy, you have to make a concerted effort to mix and match your units' skills to achieve success. In fact, at the start, support troops seem weak and puny, but you'll be surprised how useful their attacks can be as you work your way through. If you spend the first series of tough battle ignoring your enemies "puny" troops, you'll regret it.
Overall, my only complaints with Ring of Red are the lack of voice acting to animate the lengthy dialogue sections, the occasionally poor translation from Japanese to English, and the pedestrian soundtrack that backs up the action. To be fair, the soundtrack is catchy enough, but it isn't terribly original and I'd much rather listen to the themes from something like Red Alert. (That's an idea actually - where did I put that CD?) Sound effects are of an excellent quality throughout though, which must be deemed the important thing. The clunks and grinds are just what one would expect. Another thing that Ring of Red gets right is its graphics. This is the PlayStation 2 so we expect a certain level of imagination and finesse, but KCE Studios have taken no nonsense from their publisher, opting for gun-metal grey and a drab, military look to everything, which is a far more realistic interpretation of mech warfare than the brightly coloured hues littering ZOE. Mech games are pretty regular these days thanks to anime's newfound popularity in the West, but Ring of Red is a turn-based action strategy game about mechs, and has more in common with Front Mission 3 than the likes of ZOE and Virtua On. People who enjoy involving battle strategy romps like FM and even Final Fantasy Tactics will definitely find Ring of Red captivating. Thanks to the rather laboured pace and the somewhat boring start though, it's an overnight rental to decide for the rest of us.