Damascus Gear: Operation Tokyo is good solid fun, it’s not especially mind-blowing or complex and it comes with its fair share of warts, but it’s enjoyable and compact in a way that serves it quite well. Being developed by the folks over at Arc System Works, I have admit I was somewhat leery going into it, as the last VITA exclusive non-fighting game they made had left a bad taste in my mouth, but it’s clear that they have a better handle on the Mecha genre than they do Fantasy RPGs. While it definitely suffers at times from a thin and poorly written story, as well as an overall lack of depth in the combat, it still manages to hit many of the notes that I feel a Mech game should. Taking into account it’s relatively cheap $15 price tag and the lack of Mech games out there right now (especially for the VITA) those faults become easier to forgive. Besides, sometimes you don’t want complex and complicated, sometimes you just want to skate around on robot feet swinging a laser sword, which Damascus Gear dutifully provides, if not in a rather unremarkable fashion.
Just to get it out of the way, we might as well talk about the story first; sadly it’s the weakest part of this game but thankfully it’s so light that it never really interferes with the gameplay. The premise here is that human society has been driven underground by its own hubris, and more specifically by the giant battle mechs we built to fight our wars for us, which have somehow gained sentience and are now referred to as the RAGE. However not all of the mechs went and turned traitor, some are still simple machines allowing for human pilots, and those are referred to as GEARs. You, as a new member of the private fighting force FREYA, must take on missions to defeat the RAGE and climb the company ranks, building up your GEAR, commiserating with your comrades, and trying to reclaim the city of Tokyo for mankind. It’s a decent enough plot but there are perhaps a few too many influences at play within it, and as the story goes on and they start bringing up corporations and the resistance government, it starts to feel like they’re just throwing every cyber-apocalypse trope they can find at the wall to see what sticks. That said you won’t have to spend too much time actually engaging with any of it as the story is purely relegated to small expositional onslaughts that are delivered at the start and end of each mission through a bunch of poorly formatted dialogue exchanges featuring an awkwardly squished together font that is troublesome to read; the characters involved basically just reiterate the mission briefing quickly before letting you get back to the mass murder of machinery. That said it is a bummer how one note all of the characters in this game are, each embodying a singular character trait and never growing beyond it any significant way. Your supposed rival, Licht, is an especially egregious example of this type of lazy writing as his ill-founded hatred for you seems to be quite literally the only thing giving his life meaning; I have to imagine that after each mission he goes home and furiously stares at a massive framed picture of you while sobbing deeply, it’s quite sad really.
But rather than further elaborate upon the creepy Damascus Gear fan-fiction I seem to be unintentionally creating, let’s instead move onto the gameplay. Things are surprisingly simple considering the genre, with the controls being more analogous to something like Dynasty Warriors than Steel Battalion; Square attacks with your right arm, Triangle with your left, Circle fires off your equipped super weapon, and Cross will do a little boost dodge that can be sustained as a dash by holding R. Thankfully that simplicity allows things to move quite smoothly and dashing around, chopping up dozens of RAGE, and gracefully dodging out of the way of attacks feels pretty good as a result. Adding to the enjoyment is the plethora of loot the RAGE will drop, which offers up an impressively large degree of variability. There’s a good number of different weapon types which all play in meaningfully different ways and the various parts you’ll be switching out on your GEAR allow you to balance and specialize in some interesting directions, focusing on speed or armor or creating a mix of the two. It definitely scratches that customization itch that I turn to mech games to satisfy, but I feel like more hardcore devotees of the genre might find it a little lacking. While there is tons of equipment to play around with and lots of inherent combinations to be had, there isn’t really much tuning to be done and the simplicity of the combat reduces the need to experiment and dig into the mechanics. Not helping matters is the dull missions that rarely ask you to do anything more than kill X amount of RAGE, and the brain-dead AI of enemies and allies alike which just kind of stands around ineffectually. Thankfully though the game is quite easy, and the actual act of combat and playing around with all the different weapons types is enjoyable enough to keep things tolerable, it just ends up feeling kind of mindless.
Lastly we come to presentation, which goes all out when it comes to the mechs, but doesn’t really pay too much attention to anything else. The visual philosophy going on here in terms of mech design sits somewhere between Gundam, Robotech, and Zone of the Enders; all of the mechs are pretty chunky, but they have these wide hips and shoulders that the limbs bolt onto. Whether they look boxy or more streamlined depends on what parts you’re equipping and somewhat surprisingly they’ve actually gone to the trouble of making sure that every part, even ones that are upgraded versions of prior parts, look markedly different from one another. I come to games like this wearily expecting palette swaps, so that extra attention to detail really makes a huge difference in my mind. Sadly not as much work has gone into the levels, which are not only very limited, but consist purely of dull gray corridors of ruined buildings and non-specific future tech. Before the game is over you’ll have slashed your way through the ruined streets of Akihabra so many times that you could probably call yourself a local, and the colour gray will be so burned into your retinas that’ll you’ll see naught but smoldering masonry every time you close your eyes. As for the music, it’s generic video game techno for the most part, not unpleasant but not particularly memorable either. The rest of the sound design is also about what you would expect, featuring no voice acting and serviceable laser and explosion sound effects a plenty.
I wouldn’t say Damascus Gear is a necessarily an outstanding game, but as a realistically proportioned offering for a niche audience, it has some appeal. The customizing of mechs is a lot of fun and they’ve put some real work into the sorts of little details that the intended audience will genuinely appreciate. That said, the lack luster story, boring level and mission design, and simplistic combat definitely hamper the experience and prevent the game from ever taking off in a truly enjoyable fashion. As such I’m giving Damascus Gear: Operation Tokyo a 3 out of 5 stars, it’s a fun distraction for mech fans but not much more.