Those dirty reds!


    When Ring of Red was first announced, it was met with the sort of mild interest reserved for games that seemed destined to stay in Japan. The controversial plot, involving an alternate history where Japan kept fighting after WWII, only to be conquered and colonized by the Allies, seemed to preclude a U.S. release. Though Konami has seen fit to unleash the game on a Western audience, the condition in which it has arrived begs the question of why they bothered at all. The US version of Ring of Red features a bowdlerized story and botched translation, and the core gameplay isn't enough to make up for its glaring faults.

Ring of Red
Alternate history lesson

    Ring of Red's timeline branches off from our own in the year 1945. Though the atomic bombs still fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan refused to surrender to the Allied forces, calling for its people to fight to the bitter end. The consequential bloody invasion of Japan left the country divided between the conquering powers, similar to Germany after WWII, with the West controlling the south and Russian occupying the north.

    Though North and South Japan were set up as new independent states, they remained puppets of their controlling nations. A proxy war between the Cold War powers soon broke out and Japan suffered four more years of conflict. The civil war is used as a testing ground for new military technology - large armored mechs dubbed AFWs. The game begins ten years later during a period of fragile peace in the divided nation.

He's a Badd!
Not a Nazi. Really

    Player's take on the role of Masami von Weizegger, a half-German, half-Japanese test pilot for the South Japanese Army. Masami witnesses the theft of a new experimental AFW by North Japanese forces during a routine test run. Though inexperienced in combat, Masami is put in charge of a new covert unit charged with the retrieval or destruction of the missing Type 3 AFW.

    All this set up may not sound too "controversial" to Western ears, but the Japanese version of the game contained a few more elements which have been toned down or removed outright in the localization. Most importantly, South Japan - the player's own side - was explicitly cast as a puppet of ex-Nazi powers. Though the commander of the South Japanese Army is still a German (though no explanation for his nationality is given), all references to the Nazis, from the troop instructor's shadowy past to the stock footage of Hitler, have been removed from the game. Likewise, you'll be hard pressed to find any references to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Presumably, these still took place in the past of the US version, but they're never mentioned.

These captions just write themselves sometimes.
Who ever hear such a stupid thing?

    With the twin horrors of the atomic bomb and fascism excised, the resulting plot lurches between banality and nonsense. Despite the promising set up, Ring of Red's story becomes just another tale of an inexperienced youth learning that war is a complicated thing. The plot never progresses far beyond the simple task outlined in the first few missions and the few surprises offered are telegraphed hours in advance, as characters constantly muse about "mysteries" that were long ago apparent to the player. To make matters worse, the translation stands as one of the worst in recent memory, complete with stilted, occasionally incoherent, dialogue, frequent misspellings and factual errors. (Kaiho, in actuality, is the star pilot of the North Japanese forces.)

    All of this might have been forgivable if the gameplay were strong enough to make up for the game's flaws. While Ring of Red does add a few new ideas to the strategy genre, the result is almost as slow paced and shallow as the plot. The tactical map used in the game's missions should be immediately familiar; players move their squad of up to eight AFWs around the grid map in turn-based fashion to engage the enemy. Once battle ensues, however, things get a bit more interesting.

    Actual battle engagements play out in 90-second chunks, with the player in full control over the AFW and its accompanying soldiers. The mech can advance or retreat to improve its chances of hitting the enemy and your troops can be moved between the rear and vanguard. In front, the soldiers exchange fire with the enemy and activate their attack skills, while the rear position offers safety and the chance to employ defense and repair skills. Choosing troops with skills that compliment a particular AFW is a large part of the game's challenge. Since the AFWs themselves cannot be customized the bulk of the player's decision making will be made here.

I know the feeling.
John attempts to stay awake 'til the end of the battle

    Unfortunately, most actual engagements revolve around waiting - waiting for your guns to load, waiting for your AFW to move to the proper range, waiting to get a fix on the enemy as you slowly aim your weapon. The slow pace of combat wouldn't hamper the game if it was accompanied by some deep strategy, but the best choice for the situation is usually obvious - fire when you have a high chance to hit, put your soldiers out front when their attacks are ready, and pull them back when they're wounded. The addition of unique pilot skills and special shells provided by your crew add a hint of resource management to the engagements, but never enough to keep the player engaged for the course of a five-hour mission. The system is not without its charms - the live battles are certainly more visually interesting that the norm in the genre - but most players will know every facet of the system well before the half-way mark, leaving them wishing for something with a little more depth and a lot less padding.

    The trend towards waiting continues on the tactical map, as the game seems purposefully designed to reward players for doing nothing. Throughout Ring of Red's lengthy missions, the soundest strategy is always to hold your ground. The terrain advantage goes to the defender and, because the only way to regain a unit's HP is to skip a turn and recover, you're almost always better off waiting for the enemy to attack you first. Furthermore, there is no real way for units to cooperate - no items, no support skills, no cooperative attacks. The only way to coordinate your units is to keep them in a pack so one will be nearby to get the next attack on a weakened unit - not exactly a recipe for thrilling strategy.

Sadly, I didn't get a capture of the "Chain Mime"
Strait Stike

    The technical aspects of Ring of Red are as are as uneven as the other areas. The graphics in the battle engagements are well done, if a bit low-poly, but the more realistic mech designs and drab colors give the game little visual impact. The tactical map, a simple rolling plain with painted-on geography, looks closer to a high-res version of Super Robot Wars than something you'd expect to see on the PS2. The lackluster presentation continues outside of battle with only stock footage and a few still sketches to flesh out what should have been a rich and interesting game world. Thankfully, the excellent character designs and good use of music and sound do a little to alleviate the uninspired visuals.

    In an alternate timeline from our own, perhaps Konami managed to bring all of Ring of Red's elements together into an excellent game. The premise, gameplay, and story certainly seem compelling in concept, but each of them lacks in execution. Gamers may wonder what went wrong: was it the slipshod localization, a lack of effort on Konami's part, or perhaps the inexperience of strategy newcomers KCE Studios? Whatever the answer, the only controversy left in Ring of Red is how such a promising game fell so short.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Ring of Red
Developer KCE Studios
Publisher Konami
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD-Rom
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  09.21.00
Konami shows Red at ECTS
160 screenshots
Character designs, CG Mech designs