For my birthday this year I did a review of the Lyrical Nanoha tie-in game Battle of Aces, which was by all accounts an interesting fighting game, though not entirely worth seeking out unless you are a fan of the series. Its sequel, Gears of Destiny, I’ve had for quite some time now and never got around to finishing. Figuring I should do so now to complete the series for Legacy of Games, I figured the last day of 2017 should be a nice enough occasion.
It doesn’t get any easier to follow from here
Battle of Aces served as a sequel to Lyrical Nanoha season 2, featuring an alternate storyline in which the Book of Darkness wasn’t destroyed. In a bid to regain its power the book unleashed clones of people it had recorded, which takes a more dramatic turn here in Gears of Destiny when two sisters, Amitie and Kyrie, travel to this point in the timeline via time travel in an attempt to capture a powerful creature known as Unbreakable Darkness, or System U-D, which the remaining clones are attempting to revive.
I should add here that much of what I am saying here is based on best guesses and what few translations I could find. Gears of Destiny is still entirely in Japanese and the Nanoha movies that adapt this game haven’t come overseas yet. Suffice it to say, the plot gets kind of hard to follow between the amount of dialogue I can’t decipher, having clones of every character run amok, and now time travel being added into the mix as well. What I will say is that individual bits of story are really interesting, like an emotional reunion between Fate and Rynith is way too interesting material for such an easily-missed tie-in product. Similarly, I enjoyed sequences where characters from later in the timeline have to fight against young versions of their parents and tutors, without betraying who they are and where they came from.
The story is all-around a lot bigger in scope than that of Battle of Aces, but being unable to understand much of the spoken dialogue, that isn’t much of an advantage. Unless you speak Japanese you may find yourself skipping through most of the cutscenes, as conversations can drag on a fair bit.
A benefit this time around is the story mode, which is no longer just a series of small battles for each character. The story is now cut in 11 sequences (chapters) with cutscenes and detailed storytelling. Each sequence has a number of pre-set battles that either assign you a character to play as or allow you to pick between a number of different options, like either doing a battle as E.S. versus Nanoha or one where you play as Vivio versus Yuuno. These options come with different dialogue and may alter later scenes within the sequence. It’s all-around a much better way to tell the story.
Story score: 7.5/10
Pounded into the dirt
Stepping into Gears of Destiny so soon after Battle of Aces was like jumping to Cruel Melee in Super Smash after clearing the story mode on Easy once. A lot has been changed around and improved, most prominently the enemy AI. Computer-controlled opponents are really nice to fight against because they put up a serious challenge. CC characters will ruthlessly chase you down in an attempt to lock you into a melee fight while ranged characters will create a distance and pummel you with magic, the AI always seems able to play to each character’s most prominent strengths. In one particular battle against Nanoha I got barely two hits in before the AI absolutely wrecked me.
The basic principles remain the same, with the fights dynamically switching between play-style depending on how far opponents are separated from each other. When at range, all your moves are various spells whose strength and casting time varies on whether you tap or hold the respective button. Character move-sets have been made even more diverse, with many like Yagami and E.S. having wholly unique play-styles. When opponents close in, the fight turns from a 3D magic duel into a 2.5D melee fight akin to Virtua Fighter. Here improvements have been made to the combos, allowing you to chain together moves more effectively. The close combat was Battle of Aces’ greatest weakness and while Gears of Destiny could probably have done a bit more, I now found myself enjoying this part of the matches much more.
A change that takes particular getting used to is how the MP meter now works. Before it slowly regenerated over time, but now the only way to fill it back up is use an overcharge (of which you have only one or two), drain it completely to get a refill seconds laters, or inflict damage in close combat. This forces battles to be even more tense, as you either need to really time when you launch your last spell, or get in close with your caster characters in the hopes of dealing some damage. Making this change even more devious: dashing now also drains MP, whereas before it had separate charges. No longer can you just dash around while the MP bar refills; when it’s empty you are a sitting duck.
The roster of characters has grown, though in ways that boggle the mind. With the introduction of time travel and even more clones being unleashed, we now get to see characters from later entries make an appearance alongside more obscure mages from the first two seasons. The Liese twins, Rynith, Pressea, and Yuuno join the cast, which rounds off the first two season nicely. Amitie and Kyrie were made specifically for this game and are neat additions to the cast, I have no objection to their presence. At the same time, the three materials from Battle of Aces have now grown into their own characters even more, with personalities completely opposite to the characters they were once clones off.
Then it gets weird… From Season 4 we have Vivio and E.S., but from season 3 we have absolutely nobody. I wasn’t exactly waiting to see every one of StrikerS‘ absurdly large cast of characters here, but the total exclusion had me confused. Zest would have been a rad character to play as, but at the same time Erio, Teana, Caro, Lutecia, and Subaru are main characters that continue to be important well into season 4, while Vivio was already in season 3. If the argument is “to avoid bloating the cast of characters” I’d point towards the inclusion of Thoma of all people, whose manga series has been on hiatus since forever and who contributes little to the overall lore of the series.
Gameplay score: 9/10
That doesn’t look survivable
Not much has changed visually in terms of character models and animation going from the first game to the second. While in combat it looks cool to fire multi-colored lasers at each other or slash away at an enemy with a flaming sword, the character models just kind of stand around in a default pose during cutscenes as voice actors recite their dialogue. To counter this, Gears of Destiny has way more images that do a much better job at detailing what the scene is supposed to look like. Many of these images even change as the dialogue proceeds, like characters changing their pose and expressions. These were a rare treat in the last game, but the story benefits tremendously from having more of these.
With new characters also comes new finishing moves, and in this regard I feel the game surpasses the original. These special moves are now trickier to execute, and also look a lot less stilted than they did before. They also perfectly match the Nanoha style, where no problem exists that can’t be solved with giant weapons and devastating magic.
Voice acting is still top notch as well, as the cast from the shows returns to read the lines for their characters in this game. A fun touch is that the actors behind Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate also do the voices of their clones, which are polar opposites. Yukari Tamura, who does Nanoha, is really skilled at roles that have duality to them, see also Rika Furude in Higurashi and Rozalin in Disgaea. Even so, it was Nana Mizuki that surprised me the most, as her voice work of Fate’s clone Levi the Slasher was almost unrecognizable, presenting a character that has an almost boyish, overconfident tone to her voice.
Presentation score: 9/10
You gotta work for your unlocks, boy
Unlocking characters in this game is no easy feat and one issue I discovered is that there were no English guides available for unlocking all the different characters. I had to look up a Japanese guide and decipher what I could after Google translate butchered the original text into Dutch for me. This revealed that unlocking characters takes a lot of work, which I find a little disheartening.
For the story mode you get to play characters as they become relevant, but in the versus mode (both against other players and AI) you are left with a handful of starting characters. For most of the remaining heroes, you’ll first have to clear the entire story mode, which is a challenge in and of itself as the final few battles are hard. By doing this you unlock the arcade mode, which is pretty much how the story mode of the first game worked: you do a series of battles leading to a finale against System U-D. This is where a lot of characters are unlocked, though you’ll need multiple playthroughs before you met all the right criteria.
The game also has a survival mode and time attack mode, the latter of which I couldn’t figure out how to unlock, and you have alternate costumes for all the characters that are fun to try out. The use of the Lyrical Points you get for winning fights escapes me though, as there seems to be no venue to use these for anything. Again, with everything being in Japanese, this is all based on my best effort to make sense of it.
Extras score: 7/10
Reviewing games that have no available translation is always tricky, but I have a lot of passion for Lyrical Nanoha and it was effort I was willing to put in. The story mode has seen a lot of improvements going from the previous game to this entry, owing to having a more developed plot and using beautiful pictures to do most of the storytelling instead of plain dialogue. The gameplay is also a lot more hectic and tactical, honestly something I’d say fighting game fans should check out just for the novelty of it.