There's a mecha pilot in all of us: a Strike Suit Zero review
It's always been a little odd to me that an idea as freaking cool as mecha has been so minimally explored in games. I guess the easy answer for that would be because making a quality mecha game is a lot harder than it sounds, which Strike Suit Zero (2013) exemplifies even as it comes arguably closer than any game before it to pulling it off. In the same breath it also attempts to revitalize space combat shooters, again succeeding to a commendable degree yet still failing to shake the genre's persistent issues that quickly present themselves. Strike Suit Zero's potential and ambition never wanes, but that doesn't stop its aspirations from coming crashing down when they collide with reality.
Strike Suit Zero excels at making you feel like just one small part of a giant battle going on around you
Strike Suit Zero, as stated before, is a merging of large-scale fighter-pilot combat and screen filling mecha insanity, by way of the titular Strike Suit which can transform between a fast, maneuverable ship and the extremely power mecha form. The dynamic of swooping around picking off stray fighters and then switching forms to annihilate larger enemies is as much a strategic tactic as it is simply super cool, making you feel like the all-powerful terror your enemies supposedly see you as while giving developer Born Ready Games an excuse to blow out the particle effects during massive space battles that, if nothing else, are always incredible to look at.
There's a weight to your ship that feels powerful, but without the limited mobility that often comes with higher firepower. This power is balanced by requiring you to charge up your ship by killing enemies before you can transformed, and this limited fuel makes combat fast and frantic, as you chain together attacks to keep your meter full while trying to stay on top of the situation. Strike Suit Zero excels at making you feel like just one small part of a giant battle going on around you, but at the same time no less capable of destroying giant cruisers and chasing down enemy fighters. You are essentially Luke Skywalker staring down the Death Star a dozen times over.
Unfortunately, Born Ready Games have flown a little too close to the sun as the scale of the game quickly seems to get away from them and the experience as a whole suffers quite a bit for it. Pacing is one of Strike Suit Zero's biggest opponents, but a concept it's fairly unconcerned with. Early missions are plodding, slow excursions witt stiff bombing ships before you're given the Strike Suit, but even after that point missions have a tendency to stretch on and on as they continue to pile on new objectives which look very much like the last ones completed. Mission variety is virtually nonexistent, with largely the exact same scenarios popping up each mission as the difficulty is ratcheted up to uncomfortable levels.
These difficulty spikes and the insufficient number of checkpoints intensifies the lack of mission variation, which may have gone unnoticed otherwise but becomes hard to ignore when you are forced to replay levels dozens of times due to so many inopportune deaths. The vagueness with which objectives are explains only makes things worse, often overwhelming the player with different tasks to where it's hard to even know where to start. Often the game would say one thing and expect me to discern the actual objective myself, usually by watching my ship explode and then reloading to (hopefully) get it the second time. Or the third. Or the forth. If I was lucky.
Much of this difficulty was likely the result of having missed upgrades the game expected me to have, as each addition to the Strike Suit is tied to a specific, optional mission objective which are typically much harder to achieve than the original scenarios. It isn't difficult to see the problem with a system like this, as it rewards skilled play but leaves everyone else in a state of snowballing inferiority. The only option is to replay old missions attempting to unlock the necessary upgrade or pray you can somehow scrape by with pure dumb luck.
If not for the constant interruption of a cutscene I'd have likely forgotten there was a narrative here at all, one note and vague on details as it is, delivered with monotone voiceovers telling of events I didn't care about with characters I couldn't remember. There's the basis of something really interesting here, but the narrative waits until its last moment to expand upon much of anything and by then it's too late to salvage a story which for all intents and purposes boils down to you blowing up countless enemies that for some reason hate your guts.
The moments when Strike Suit Zero opens up, when the pieces click into place and the game is firing on all cylinders, are in a class of their own and ultimately kept me playing despite being perpetuated with consistent frustration and monotony. Born Ready Games has expertly nailed the feel of piloting an extremely capable mech ship, it's just a shame the scenarios you are placed in can't match that level of quality and excitement.