Platform: PlayStation Portable/PlayStation Vita
# of Players: 1 – 2
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Not for those with short attention spans, casual gamers, or anyone looking for a quick weekend fix, Carnage Heart EXA is one of those games that will find its audience among the select few gamers that crave something with depth and a level of challenge that’s going to be daunting to the more action-crazy crowd. The game isn’t “easy” at all, but rewards patience and persistence as it teaches you how to program a growing army of mechs and let them loose against the crafty AI the story mode throws at you. Outside of the 3D battles, the game is also a visual novel that tells a fairly straightforward tale that has drama, humor and even a bit of love story going on, all rendered in some very pretty still images. The mix will seem odd to those new to this style of game, but this blend of simulation and story has been a common thing in Japan for quite some time.
Veteran developer Artdink has whipped up one of those games that might hook you in out of curiosity, but you’d better be prepared to learn and use what you’ve learned, as once the battles start, you get no chance to fudge your way through or hope the AI makes some big mistakes. Fortunately, the first few hours you’ll spend here will be in a long but involving series of tutorials that explain everything before letting you have at it as needed. In fact, replaying these lessons in a necessary thing, as unless you’re blessed with a photographic memory, your head will be spinning from all the talk about chips, grids and assorted movement and action schemes. Once you get a handle on the language and start unlocking more grids and chips, it’s not hard to program your OKEs (Over Kill Engines) at all for the coming battles. It just takes a great deal of thought and planning.
The “programming” you do here is only useful in this game, so don’t expect to finish this and be able to make your own games using what you’ve learned about OKEs. On the other hand, playing CHEXA will make you realize that there’s a great deal of work that goes into any game, commercial or otherwise. You’ll definitely want to thank Artdink and Natsume for having the courage to get a game like this out there for the PSP, which isn’t “dead” at all, by the way. Enforced evolution is what kills any console or handheld system, I say. So kudos to all involved for keeping the flame burning for longer than some skeptics and analysts thought possible. Er, soapbox time over – back to the review!
Manual control is also part of the game, but this doesn’t mean you’ll be playing a lighting paced Armored Core or a Mechwarrior-style action-heavy experience. You still need to program in all your moves before heading into battle, which is even more daunting, but again, helps you learn how to get the most of the game’s amazing depth. Combat in the game is methodical but thrilling when you start seeing winning results against some of the more challenging enemies (and the game has a lot of them). As the story forges onward, there’s a nice shift in tone that sort of goes with the increasing complexity of the battles, but I’d bet by then the more dedicated players will be a lot more focused on proper planning and execution than having their heartstrings pulled.
Visually, the game gets the job done quite well. Artdink isn’t really known for graphically intense games at all, but the matter of fact PSP visuals work perfectly (and look nice on the Vita with or without the smoothing turned on). The OKEs are all great-looking and very customizable, battle maps are varied (and can also be tweaked a bit when you’re training) and as mentioned, the story sections are lovely to look at (which is why there’s a button to remove all the dialog boxes so you can check out the artwork). The music is also good, sound effects are fine and for some reason, the original Japanese voices are in the game, but by default they’re turned down all the way. Just dip into the options and turn the voice volume UP to make those cut scenes a lot more interesting to go through.
Another cool thing about the game is the replay function that allows you to record and save game movies to your Memory Stick or Vita memory. It’s a bit daunting to use at first, but it’s like a video editor where you can choose camera angles and tinker around until you’ve got a battle clip that’s almost like a mini movie. There are even HD save options (that eat up a chunk of memory, mind you) for those of you who want to show off your victories (or defeats) to other players.
CHEXA also features a local multiplayer Battle Mode as well as the awesome ability to upload your own game data (replay data, match data and your best OKE teams) to the Satloke server where you can also upload user data and play against it on your PSP or Vita. Here’s where you’ll really see the dedication some players have put into the game, as there are some pretty amazing OKEs to see in action. You can learn a lot by downloading and watching replays, but it can get addictive (I have a file on my PC with a few dozen I’ve downloaded already), so be warned.
Niche game that it is, Carnage Heart EXA is actually one of those sleepers that grows on you as you learn the ropes. That $29.99 price tag may seem steep compared to other games, but once you get that you’re getting the potential of hundreds of hours of play and endless replay value thanks to the Battle Mode, that price point becomes less of an issue. Put the hours in, learn the ropes and you get a new appreciation of something most will dismiss because they’re not ready for what it’s packing. Absolutely give this a BUY if you’re a mech fan looking for a heavy amount of challenge. If you’re on the fence, just ask yourself if you’re up to learning something new and using what you’ve learned to beat a compellingly challenging game experience that demands your utmost attention.