Wolfstride reminds me, in a powerful but rather hard to pin down way, of Invitation to Love, the make-believe soap opera that everyone's watching in the first season of Twin Peaks. I've heard the game described as an anime like Cowboy Bebop, or even an actual soap opera, and that's true. But there's a freedom here, a willingness to contain chaos and clashing elements, that outstrips even the wilder animes or least rigorous soap. It feels like the anime that someone watches inside an anime. Each time you catch a glimpse it's a bit zanier, a bit more willing to go there. It has the wonderful power of the raised eyebrow. Everything is serious, but nothing is too serious.
You may have caught a glimpse of Wolfstride and thought: cool! A game about turn-based mech battles. Half right. Wolfstride is half that game. The other half of the time it's a game about what it's like to be in the business of turn-based mech battles. You patch up your crappy mech as best you can. You earn money for bigger repairs. You train your pilot to learn new skills. You choose a load out to take into battle after learning as much as you can about your opponent. And you also bomb around a town, a greyscale pixel burg built of a few locations - a bar, of course, a scrapyard, of course. A hospital, a convenience store. You know the deal.
This half of the game is actually wonderful. The writing is brisk and flippant, chucking out jokes and not caring so much about the hit rate. Pretty soon you have a bunch of oddballs and con-artist characters to talk to all day, and you play the biggest oddball and con-artist of them all, an angular grifter who is all points, all elbows and knees, racing around between appointments, trying to keep the money flowing, the lie going. Trying to outrun the past and make good on the mech lark. You have long conversations and do fetch quests, but it's pretty painless. You try to follow the various threads of the plot. Mainly you get to enjoy being someone who's kind of a jerk, but kind of brilliant with it. Even the money-earning mini-games are alright.
Then there's the other half of the game. And this is often brilliant. Mech combat, one on one, each fight an event not least because you have to chug through plot to get there. The mechs are screen-fillingly big, and yet the basics are simple. Protect your own core, and try to take out your enemy's core. Use positioning, your skills, and manage things like action points and movement points. That's the basics, though it scales from there in complexity.
This works as well as it does, I am convinced, because of the mechs themselves. The designs are nice, but the way they animate is sublime. Each part of the mech is a different 2D object, as far as I can tell, and so you get this Noggin the Nog play of 2D elements moving independently of one another. Turns out that an animation style so old it was originally done with magnets is perfect for capturing the personality of giant robots of the future - the mixture of the rigid and the fixed, the sense of separate parts coming together to breathe and flex. There is a very human sense of power to these things.
After a while I remembered exactly what it reminded me of. Teleroboxer, another robot battling odyssey, this one for the good old Virtual Boy. Squint and I can almost see Wolfstride at home on that platform. A world within a world - like Invitation to Love! Still running. Still keeping one step ahead of chaos. Still grifting.
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