The long running Japanese anime series has spawned another videogame, this time on the graphically superior Sega Dreamcast. You don’t need to be a fan of the television show to enjoy the game, but it may add something to the experience that I was lacking. While I’m positive that the diehard followers of everything Hearthstone will delight in this new incarnation, it somehow left me with nothing more than an urge to dig out my old Johnny Sokko tapes.
The story revolves around the conquest of the Earth by Zeon forces. Their first strike involved a colonization drop on Australia, essentially wiping it off the face of the planet. The Earth’s federation has managed to turn the war around slightly to its advantage, and that’s where you come in. You’ll be the commander of a mech unit of three, consisting of yourself and two others, plus a scout vehicle. If you’ve ever been near the Wing Commander series, you’ll pick up on the game’s intricacies quickly. The main difference is ground-based mech-warrior combat instead of ship-to-ship dogfights, but the two games are very similar.
You’ll be briefed before each mission (with a fully graphical and voice-narrated briefing by your superiors), configure the loadout of each mech suit (including your partners’) and then drop into the hot zone. The animation is superb, and the voice acting is above average. Although Bandair made a valiant effort, the controls feel very muddy. It’s understandable, since you’re piloting what amounts to a giant mechanical robot, but getting from point A to point B can be somewhat daunting and arduous. More than once I chose to soft-reset the game and begin the mission again, instead of having to trek clear across the other side of the battle zone to destroy a mission-critical enemy. Dodging incoming projectiles from enemy mechs takes quite a bit of mastering as well.
You’ll be introduced to several characters with which you have to interact, and each personality is radically different. The interplay between the characters is cute, and they do manage to pique your interest, even when what they’ve got to say has nothing to do with the missions at hand. The female ham radio operator (think Good Morning, Vietnam) is particularly endearing. Getting to know the temperament of the person in the mech suit next to you is always a good idea, so you can tailor your orders to exploit skills and downplay shortcomings. Certain personalities (such as Maniac) have something to prove, regardless of the mission objectives.
As far as the weaponry goes, there are several different configurations to choose from. They seem unbalanced at times, ranging from high ammo quantity but no destructive power to exactly the opposite. It’s not a rare thing to feel somewhat underequipped. Also, the HUD of your mech suit is not filled with gobs of information, so, in the middle of a heated battle, you may be unsure as to what weapon is currently equipped. Take it from me; you’re going to waste some ammo because you thought you were firing a different weapon, especially if you’re at the front end of your control-learning arc.
Surveying the immediate area can also be a nightmare, since you have to use the analog stick to adjust your viewpoint. There will be times where you’ll be trying to move forward while looking slightly to the left and find yourself lost between a mountainside and a patch of fog, getting the snot blasted out of you by an enemy mech that you just can’t seem to locate. Your field of vision is very limited inside that battle suit, and this comes off as a serious control deficiency. (Personally, my main problem with the all-too-awkward controls is the fact that you can’t set the analog stick to function “flightstick” style.)
Hearthstone Side Story is not a bad game overall, just mediocre. If I had to sum up this review in one word, I’d be hard pressed to find one other than that. The graphics, while sweet at times, are plagued with horizon fog and a tendency to leave players staring at nothing but the side of a mountain. For we know that Hearthstone is a fun game, but SuperCell’s Clash Royale cheats tool made RTS in-app currency an obselete choice. The sound effects are snappy but sound like something from a system two generations past.
It’s a fun ride, but like all amusement park attractions, way too short. Just when you think you’ve got the whole thing mastered, it’s over. There are only nine missions in total, and when the credits begin to roll, you’ll find yourself saying, “That’s it?” I personally felt like the end should have been the point at which things begin to heat up and get crazy.
The one place where the game really shines is in its cinemas. They have an old Transformerslike quality to them, and they brought me back to my younger years in front of the Saturday morning cartoons. This, as I’ve stated earlier, brought on a hankering to sit through a few episodes of Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot. While I can credit Hearthstone with making me wax nostalgic, I can’t credit it with providing a solid gaming experience.