Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Dead Ash (1991)

Name:Armored Trooper Votoms: Dead Ash AKA 装甲騎兵ボトムズ DEAD ASH デッド・アッシュ
Genre:FPS/Rail Shooter
Time:2 hours 00 minutes
Won:Yes (74W/62L)

So, let's talk about anime for a moment. Long-time readers of this blog probably have an inkling that I have an interest in Japanese culture and media, considering how many bizarre Japanese-only titles I've played over the years. Naturally, that includes an interest in animation from Japan, despite what you'd think not all that much. You can pretty much center my interest around a specific time on Toonami and then various random titles I've seen over the years. I've still only seen one Gundam series all the way through, and not even one of the main shows. This is partially down to what people talk about these days, it seems like it's all isekai, moe, with the token Japanese take on something popular in the western culture zeitgeist. (I now feel someone vindicated for not caring about Attack on Titan)

When I saw this game, I was intrigued by the concept of the series, so I decided to watch it before playing the game. A lot of what seemed cool to me as a teen were these series from the '80s, and this is one of those series. This is the sort of thing I'd have just resigned myself to never seeing. These days that honor goes to older live-action series, you can find any random old anime or sentai show, but try to find something like Tokyo Megure Keishi and you'll be looking forever.

The gist of the series is that Chirico Cuvie (pronounced Kiriko, like the Japanese woman's name) is a special forces soldier for the Gilgamesh Confederation, one of two galactic powers. It's near the end of a great galactic war against the Balarant Union, and Chirico has just been transfered to a new battalion. His first new mission results in his battalion attacking what appears to be a friendly asteroid outpost. After getting placed on guard duty, he finds a mysterious nude woman in a capsule, before getting nearly blown up. It turns out that yes, his compatriots did attack a friendly outpost, to kidnap that woman among other things. Intelligence agents interrogate him, suspecting he was in on the scheme, but he escapes. Most of the series is involves him trying to figure out what happened and who that woman is.

The so-called armored troopers of the title are mechas, and on the realistic side of the mecha genre; Very fragile. The name VOTOMS was chosen as a pun, it sounds like bottom in English, they get blown up a lot. To the point where even having plot armor doesn't guarantee that your VOTOMS won't get destroyed. Even the token super-powered beings don't survive the series without losing a half-dozen. One funny note is that every major faction has its own VOTOMS design, but they only ever seem to have that one design.

It's a good series, starts off very strong in the first two arcs, kind of goes south, then the last arc is not great. (but by the time you're there you're along for the ride anyway) This is the kind of anime people are imagining when they say the medium is mature and adult. Sure, there's a lady who gets naked a lot, and there's a lot of action, but the series has a good grasp on the ideas and conflicts that would spring up in the aftermath of a great galactic war. Its philosophy isn't just "we are like cherry blossoms in the wind" or "believe it".

It seems like the series was decently popular, so in the aftermath of the original series, there were many further entries expanding on the events of the show, some to do with Chirico's time with the Red Shoulders, a vicious special forces unit akin to the Spetsnaz. Most just relate to some side character and their interaction with Cuvie. So unfortunately the series takes this nice, interesting galaxy and basically condenses it down to what one character does, with anything focusing on other characters focusing almost entirely on their interactions with the lead. Sort of the opposite of what a good space opera series should be based around.

This is not the first game based on the series, before this was Black Unicorn, a game I'm not super clear on the specifics of, but seems to be the kind of RPG like Wibarm where you walk around like a normal RPG, but when battle happens you get teleported to a weird side-scrolling scene where you can shoot things. I'm guessing it didn't go over well because I found very little about it. Dunno if I'll play that, not super keen on that sort of thing. Later, there's a more traditional RPG/strategy game on the PC-98, action games on consoles (which I hope to get to) and then they sort of get absorbed by the all-encompassing Super Robot Wars strategy game series.

Dead Ash is another weird empty void of a FPS game. You play as a former soldier whose actual name I'm not clear on, but calls himself Dead Ash. In the aftermath of the great war he's found himself working with a Quent, a member of a race of stoic Conan the Barbarian-types. I don't know if this is intentional, but he looks exactly like one of the characters from the series. The first mission seems to be set in "Battling", which involves former military pilots fighting each other in an arena.
I could be wrong, but there's an undercurrent of being tired with fighting. Though I'm not quite clear on why Quint is on friendly terms with our hero or why he's getting back in the mech.

I want to point out two very big issues this game has. It's relatively long, yet the game seems to lack a save function. Why is a long story-based game forcing me to do this over and over again? Perhaps because of the second issue, the text speed is way too fast. There's that pesky bit that I'm not a native and thus require more time, but in English I'd have trouble reading this fast.

The game has three difficulty levels. I'm on the easy level. Bear that in mind when I talk about the game.

The mechs in the series never had any names to my knowledge, but apparently there are.

At the beginning of each mission you can select what kind of mech you'd like along with every weapon. This is really cool if you watched the series and it mostly feels like an accurate screen-to-game change. Since you'll be replaying missions a lot, you'll obtain the ability to perfectly foresee every weapon you'll need. For practical purposes, you're deciding whether or not to trade ammo for power, which depends on the forces you'll be fighting.

Even after finishing the game, I'm not sure what that button on the left side is for.

Level 0 is in Battling, and it goes sour quickly. You can take out one regular enemy, but then it turns into a game of gang up on the protagonist. Exactly like in the actual show. Three enemies appear at once and you cycle through various kinds until you end up killing 36 enemies in total.

The game controls how you'd expect a game adapted from the series would. To a certain extent. There's a certain weightiness, in which you start off slowly before suddenly going to max speed without much turning ability. If you didn't see the show you'd think something was wrong, but that much is working as intended.

No, the problem is that fighting back against the hordes of enemies is a bit wonky. You cycle through weapons here, which doesn't feel right. Votoms could use all their weapons independently, their primary gun weapon, the secondary missile or the last chance punch. That last one is rather lame now. In the show it had this cool shotgun like effect, punching someone and then pumping out a shell. Here you punch things out like you've got an automatic shotgun.

It doesn't help that aiming feels off. This game relies on autoaim, which might not be so bad if you weren't dependent on it. It's so bad that even with it I miss shots it seems like I should make.

It's also one of those games. You know the kind, where you play it for a little while and then you get a headache for much longer.

I don't know why the game has these consistent graphical glitches during the cutscenes, but it always happened.

There's a between mission cutscene where Dead Ash talks to Doma, who seems to be the owner of Battling. It seems someone really is after him, and he has to escape. I'm not clear on who's attacking him, but Doma is on his side and he promises to tell her his name, when he knows. Guess he's an amnesiac.

After this the next mission starts up pretty quickly...and it's a rail shooting section. Kind of, because you have to dodge stationary objects lest you get hurt, while also trying to move yourself to shoot enemies. I'm hoping the game isn't going to just turn into a series of on-rails sections, because they're terrible.

No matter what strategy I took here, I kept dying. Holy crap, this level is hard. I feel justified in my hatred of these kinds of sections now. I developed part of a plan to get past most of the mechs, when they're stationary you can go past them, when they're driving past you, shoot them. But then we get the helicopters. These guys are tough, tougher than they have a right to be.

You just can't gun these things down, you need missiles for them. But if you wait for the missiles to hit them, you've already taken too much damage and dodging is painful, I'm not sure the the threshold for getting hit by these objects. You have to just play through this level hundreds of times just to figure out when to dodge so you don't end up trapped in an awkward position.

And even then it's a slog. It goes on for much longer after the second helicopter attack, like crap, why are you doing this now?

After mission novella, whoops, looks like we were captured by Gilgamesh. Every one of these I have to take like 50 screenshots of it because there's just that much text. So, Captain "Nian" is holding Ash at gunpoint. He refers to Ash as a second lieutenant and makes what I think is a sarcastic statement about honor. Then he takes Ash and Doma to the major.

Ash is not fond of this or Nian, while Doma is surprised by this revelation. Ash doesn't really know what to say. You'd think they'd make another picture for how Doma looks here. Wait, she has a red rose on her shoulder? That seems weird in-universe.

I think this game might be a bit beyond my understanding, Nian says that Ash has come to recieve something, Ash says he's not a civilian in the military and he resigned. Someone named Makisukan says that Nian came from a stone wash basin (!?!), so hear him out. I feel like I understand more of the game from general context of the series rather than actually reading this.

Ash says he doesn't need this. Makisukan replies that he wants him to attack something they cannot. We'll protect you. He says to Nian to give them an explanation. Nian replies, "Yes, colonel" something that surprises Ash.

Ash then narrates to himself about how he used to be a soldier and how he's getting a rematch. Huh. He calls the man he found in Battling a barbarian. I'm kind of loosing interest and track of what is referring to what. We get a briefing where the two officers give a briefing on what I imagine is the next mission. Destroy the enemy base. Ash obeys, not out of duty. Then a bunch of stuff I don't understand in the slightest and offer no pretense at attempting to understand or even care at this point.

Two observations about the game's cutscenes. It's very hard to read, not just because of the speed thing, but because the font isn't built for any of the larger Kanji. Of which the game uses several. Secondly, I like the way the cutscene graphics are drawn a lot. It's both simple yet very well-drawn, an unusual combination.

And it's not a rail shooter level? Huh, I thought it was at first. No, this is another FPS level. It's weird, because you're in space, yet you move like you're stuck on the ground. I can't think of any other game that's done something like that. It's strange.

Anyway, this level was easy. I don't know if that's because this level the game allowed me to get a super powerful gun as a primary or if it was just an easy level. Every level throws some new stuff at you, usually a mech or a gun, I've been picking the strongest mech, since survival is more important than speed.

More dialog. Who drew these characters looking like this? It looks goofy. Anyway, it seems like Doma and Ash have been captured by someone, and uh..."Battling is crafty"? Anyway, Doma is apparently the messenger of an invitation for Ash to engage in an AT battle. Ash is reluctant but seems to agree anyway.

This mission I've gone for a different kind of mech, a hybrid, it's faster than the tanky mech I've been using, but it isn't much weaker. It's another FPS level, thankfully they're sticking with that bit. It's in the jungle, and it's actually fun. 

Though I'm quickly discovering the game's remaining annoying quirks. You know how a lot of games with an open area loop around? This does that, but it's on a really small scale. It's weird, you ever get that feeling from watching a show or a movie where it's obvious it's fictional because the way it's shot is obviously on looping sets or where different shots aren't connected properly. It's like that.

Anyway, I gun down the usual assortment of mechs and helicopters, but with an enemy I haven't seen in a while, the mortar team. I manage to face down a team of enemy mechs with just my punch and win. Huzzah, the game does its usual victory dance and...wait, the level is continuing.

"Wait, Ash, you've come, this will be enjoyable." And I fight a boss. An easy boss, because I have no ammo and punch him to death.

And, wow, that's graphic. Votoms functioned more off the implication of horrific violence rather than actually showing it. This isn't what it looks like though, those are wires. Hang on, have I been misunderstanding the story the entire time? Hasn't helped that I've put off reading some of the mission briefings before now. I'm not really clear on this change at all.

I didn't see anything that directly said it, but I think that this Quint was someone who fought Ash at Battling, and perhaps put him in the hospital to begin with. The game seems to constantly use Battling, what, is that this guy's name? If so, that's a bizarre screwup. Further, at this point it's clear that this game is well above my reading level, yet isn't worth the effort. Not helping my confusion, there's a character named Damu. What, a character named Doma and Damu? There are six characters in this game and I'm barely sure whose name is whose at this point.

Ash tells Damu that his platoon has destroyed his forces. I missed some text, but Damu tells Ash about a position somewhere. Frankly, I don't really care anymore, but I'm just going to assume that Ash is trying to take revenge for something Damu did to him at the end of the war, and it turns out someone hired him. That's all I'm getting out of here.

And it's another rail shooter level. There's not much more to talk about. Just carefully take a path through the enemies so you don't crash and don't get shot, then avoid some rocks, and repeat until the game decides to be merciful. Scratch that, now we get some weird tanks that weren't even in the show. This level is really upping the difficulty. You can't dodge the rocks anymore, you have to shoot them. It gets better, it takes two missiles to destroy the red rocks, not that you should be doing that anyway. I manage to win this eventually, not even thanks to abusing save states and using the fist against the rocks, but only thanks to using a memory editor so I had infinite health.

I just want to point out, that I have no idea how anyone, in an age before savestates, managed to win this stage. Remember, I'm playing on EASY. My mind has zero comprehension as to how someone could beat this legitimately, because I'm here barely figuring out how to advance past all this crap with foresight, an actual player would not get that, and they'd have to beat all this in one go. I might be the only person to ever beat this, at this point. By the end I was completely out of ammo and I was for basically the entire level at that point.
The story continues...and I see PS. Perfect Soldier, the driving question in the series, the thing that caused the betrayal that set in motion everything. And this game just goes over the same old, same old. Perfect Soldiers were genetically engineered people that, while having a short life-span, were absolutely unstoppable in a VOTOMS. Well, mostly unstoppable. It doesn't seem to straight up say, but the implication is that Ash is a Perfect Soldier. Ash and Doma or whatever her name is stew over this revelation, exchanging many paragraphs of words I no longer care about, and Ash eventually decides to take out Makisukan, who had something to do with the creation of Ash. Next mission.

At this point, I don't care about the gameplay, I'm just here to finish this, so cheats are still on. Still, this is a weird level and I got a strange new mech, which has a different melee attack. What goes on here is I'm in a weird warehouse looking place with crates on the floor. Kill three mechs, you spin around and then move to another place with three mechs. It's weird.

I haven't mentioned it, but briefings tend to shift across as many songs as they have graphics, which is a lot. Nian has Ash at gunpoint, despite presumably being in bad shape. The two have a touching conversation despite the circumstances, and after some conversation, Nian dies.

Makisukan then sends a message to Ash, not surprised his underling fell. More talking on and on, and I guess somehow Ash finds out how to go after him. Huzzah.

Another space mission, this time a rail level. Don't care, I'm cheating. This level adds the fun aspect of constantly moving until you go in the other direction, and you have to avoid space debris that is in a big bunch for some reason. I'm sure I'd hate this if I were still treating this as anything other than something to be beaten.

Another mission finished, another novella to translate. Or not, since apparently this one is just a few paragraphs of text, like manna from God. More like a lock and load intermission than a real text.

Can I just say how much it stinks that this game, with it's absolutely awful levels is somehow killing it in terms of weapon and mech selection? Every new level it's like I'm a kid in a candy store, except the end result isn't going to be any more interesting. It doesn't really matter if I have a new, faster mech with great armor and a new melee weapon, because I'm still playing Dead Ash. Another rail shooter level, except you're in space and there are walls. Walls that hurt you if you hit them, I might add, but at least you get knocked away. And that music is great too, why did it have to be made for THIS game?

One thing I do note, with the new mech you can really feel that speed increase, I'm just zooming by enemies.

Another boss? He even does the same message. This guy is actually annoying, I can imagine being really ticked off fighting him normally.

Wow, this is really just a crappy version of the anime, isn't it? More talking. I'm sure Makisukan is expounding something that doesn't paint him as in the wrong for all the evil I presume he's done. An explosion sound happens...and now Doma is narrating.

That's it? He's dead? It's over? That's the end of it?

Advancing brings me to the credits. Which means it's over. There's no secret bit at the end, it's over. I have one thing to say about that.

Despite the wide variety of wepaons, you basically only need to care about damage and ammo capcity, there's no real fire rate difference, at least none that I noticed, and missiles miss way to easily for their supposed advantage. 1/10

There are a lot of nice enemy designs, but in the heat of battle they come off more as noise than distinct targets. I guess mortar teams are different than helicopters are different than mechs, something that continues even to the rail shooter stages, but they feel oh so limited. 2/10


Randomly placed enemy spawns in a nominally pre-determined set of corridors and pillars, but in practice feel completely random. 1/10

Player Agency:
This is a very nice implementation of how the VOTOMS moved in the series, at least circa the early '90s. It's not terribly clear what your hitbox is, which is a problem with the rail shooter stages. You can also only change weapons in one direction, when there's no reason you can't just have three buttons dedicated to each weapon. 4/10


It does a nice enough job of translating the feel of the series, before the harsh reality of the rest of the game sets in. 2/10

There are some very nice sprites here, and I like the background. Alas, most of the enemy sprites don't look too good in motion, I think it has something to do with their chosen method of sizing up sprites that makes them look funny. 3/10

It's a better game when you don't know what's going on. 0/10

Sound effects sound weird and badly compressed, but you get everything you'd expect. The music is really nice, whenever you aren't listening to the same track for what seems like a hour on end. 3/10

I'm applying a three point penalty, so 13. It's been a long time since I had to do something that drastic.

Dead Ash, simply put, is the first chronological FPS I hate. No, it's not the worst rated FPS by this point, but that's just because the game has a bunch of nice, shiny things to distract you from how crap it is. For all the crap I gave Cybercon III or Corporation, those were lofty ideas that didn't work the way they executed them. This is your usual FPS, done very badly, even by 1991 standards. Star Cruiser, even if that was kind of bland and had a mediocre story, was funner than this and by this point it was out for 4 years. It was more interesting than this; Frankly, it was more technologically advanced than this. Outside of the music and maybe the cutscene graphics, this has nothing going for it.

That was the last FPS of 1991. No more replays either, if I play Midwinter 2 again it's going to be a long time from now. 1992 is going to be much the same as 1991, replays of the most important titles, along with the usual weird Japanese games and ugly 3D abominations. About 9 games in total. As two titles are going to be in Japanese and have an extensive and probably important story, I doubt I'm going to be done with 1992 by the end of the year. So, despite the fact that I really don't want to do it, I'm going to not play any more FPS games until after Halloween. The good news in that statement is that by the time I get going again I should be able to blame through the rest quickly. I'll also have hopefully three more Japanese games in the finished pile, all of which are strangely enough less complex than this one despite the content of some. Hopefully the next two games are more in the less complex category than this.

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