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There go the ships - Hyakumanton no Bara Bara impressions

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Released about a week ago in Japan, Hyakumanton no Bara Bara has finally arrived to my mailbox to much delight. With only a few minutes into it I’ve decided to leave the console in stand-by and share some of my impressions while introducing the game and its peculiar mechanics. This is not only one of Acquire’s greatest releases this year (together with the new Yuusha no Kuse Ni Namaikida also for the PSP ), this game is also an important new chapter in the career of the PlayStation C.A.M.P.! studio. According to Shuhei Yoshida (who also seems to have been quite taken with this game), several designers in this group had previous experience building props for the Tokyo Disneyland, a fact which explains so much of the magic that lies underneath this apparently small and idiosyncratic handheld pastime. And what an exceptional accomplishment this game is: in fact, all it took was those few minutes for me to understand this was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a portable console game. Ever. Now come find out why.

In the world of Hyakumanton, small villages and its inhabitants are facing an imminent threat: massive metal fortresses are cruising the air filled with weapons willing to wipe out these small locations and their homely houses. Determined to defend their homes and families, a group of people has joined forces to bring these menacing formations down using more or less rudimentary tools and technology. In order to prevent these ships from bombarding all that’s near and dear to them, a group of heroes approaches the gigantic steel cruisers and use a handsaw to cut through them like thin but heavy sheets of paper. As you can see from the pictures, the game boasts an incredibly unconventional visual design, from the characters and their clothes to the intricate airship patchwork. It is the perfect marriage between old-style arcade videogame and the sort of bold aesthetics that current videogame systems allow designers to employ. As I mentioned before, the soundtrack was composed by Hideki Sakamoto whose name has become synonymous with top quality compositions for some of the most exceptional videogames coming from Japan these last years.

As usual, the following is a picture by picture introduction to the game with a few comments that might help to understand how the game works and what are the available options for all those who ventured into importing the game in the original Japanese release. In order to tidy up the page and reduce it, I’ve compiled all the FMV stills in slideshows.

The introduction video details the main actions of the game: characters grab onto the flying vessels and use a handsaw to cut through the metal. This small sequence leads to the title screen displaying the bizarre scrapyard logo and the Start Game / Continue Game options. The menu display was designed to match the sort of rudimentary technology from the game universe employing simple engines, cogs, chains and wheels.

In the main menu it is possible to select between different modes. As usual, the Story Mode is the main game feature where new levels can be unlocked so they can be played in the second option, the Challenge Mode. There is also a Tutorial Mode where the different rules of the game are explained in training levels designed solely for the purpose of learning. Additionally the player can check his own achievements in the Records selection or customize the game using the Options Menu.

Before the beginning of each level, the characters exchange some words inside the funky helicopter. Inside it are Titori (the hero protagonist who is a young member of the militia protecting the towns) and the ill-disposed Captain Totoneru.

The first level. The first objective is to save a captured villager.

These appear inside metal cages with a padlock - all the player needs to do is to walk over these and they’ll be immediately freed.

The main objective of the game is to keep pressing the O button on the pad and move in a direction. This will make Titori saw the metal. Whenever a full piece of metal is cut out from the main ship it falls down to the ground. The objective is to try and get the bigger pieces possible within the time restraints. The golden rule here is: the heavier piece of metal is always the one that remains airborne.

Apart from time restraints, there is also the issue of missile cannons protecting the structure from outside. The group can either dodge these missiles or use an alternative method explained below.

If a missile or enemy on deck happens to touch any of the characters a message showing his photo, name and age will appear as he falls from the ship. While the game, itself, is an ode to cheerfulness and humor, this part is always very dramatic as I can’t bear to lose any of my militia comrades. Poor fellows! I’m not supposed to tell this (though not entirely a spoiler) but it’s possible to visit dead friends at the graveyard later in the game.

Sometimes these strange structures can be easily disassembled. All the player needs to find is its weak spots, the small junctions that are nice and easy to cut.

And they often produce these spectacular results. Each piece the player cuts will also show its weight in tons. Anything above 1000 tons will make it into a quick cut-scene where the camera automatically zooms out.

Whenever the player reaches a minimum area of metal still left intact, the level will finish with a very spectaclar and colossal sequence where the remaining scraps explode and fall to the ground leaving a big cloud of smoke behind.

Results are presented after each level through a projection lamp on a canvas. Here is a list of rescued prisoners.

With the completion of level one, the game shows its credits sequence and the alignment of such great studios. This is the town where Titori and his friends live - its full of life, color and… black and white cats - a reference to Japan’s love for Maneki Nekos or the dualism of the Black Cat White Cat, as an actual symbol of the inspiration that Sakamoto drew from the music of Goran Bregovic while composing the soundtrack?

The day light will soon be at an end so there’s little time to take care of this next ship where several new parts of the game system are introduced. For instance, this picture shows a green square icon with a potion that will be of great help later on.

Pressing the L button will zoom the camera out so that the player has a better view of the entire ship at all times.

Also, notice the texture where the characters are holding on to: these metal bits can’t be cut no matter how long one keeps trying to. The key is to try and cut around them.

A few more items here: the boot icon will enable the team to move much faster for a brief period, which is ideal to dodge that spider and set a trap.

Here, I lured the spider to a small portion of the ship, quickly exited and cut it. At this point, this is the single best way to deal with adversaries.

This item helps the player freeze the time while still being capable of moving. Not only it is a great help in dealing with those spiders, it also opens the way for some record breaking: whenever time stops, even the portions of the battleship that are completely cut off will remain stable. So if the player cuts different parts during time freeze, they will all add up into one big chunk once time is back to normal.

As I mentioned earlier, the team has an alternative to dodging enemies and missiles. Pressing the R button will make the team hid underneath a metal shield with a nice small opening in the middle. This shield, it seems, cannot be destroyed although it makes the team become invariably stationary. If used with the proper timing, enemies and projectiles chasing the party might become stunned or disabled after hitting the shield, unexpectedly. Using this shield is essential in later levels.

And there’s the triangle button. Once the meter on the right is replenished the player can launch a beserk mode where characters become invincible, faster and are able to cut through literally anything…

… even that impenetrable metal alloy.

Alternatively, if the mission goal isn’t completed within the specified time and the fortress retains its structural integrity after that period, a very dramatic cut-scene appears with bombs being dropped all over some neighbor village. We can’t let that happen!

And, finally, there’s the time bomb. The time bomb can be planted using the square button. It basically destroys everything around it (even our party members if they’re too close to it!) leaving a round hole.

Another level completed!

On the third level the game introduces another new breed of robots. These are working robots that attack our possey just like the spider ones, only they have an interesting new feature to them.

Whenever the player rips a hole into the metal, these robots will go and mend it - in fact that’s their priority. In a few moments, they will repair a large crack as indicated by the bandages.

Still, it’s time to say goodbye to them as another level is cleared!

One of the first story cut-scenes show the villagers docking at some sky palace where people wear middle-eastern type clothes and turbans over their heads. Here, a girl named Asli (who claims to be a princess from a far away realm) is rescued from the hands of these gutless bunch. She thanks Titori for the help and jumps on the helicopter while Titori is left alone.

In this level, Titori alone will have to go solo against 4762 tons of metal: no easy task considering that the slightest mistake will bring about the game over screen.

And there he goes, a fearless little metal termite. Glad to be aboard!

If this small exposition still isn’t convincing enough, I invite you to have a look at the game’s official presentation trailer.