Let me start by saying I'm not a big mobile gamer. I did get a little addicted to an old card game called Ayakashi Ghost Guild a few years ago, but was saved from that costly habit by the developer going under.
However, I was asked to take a look at the Saint Seiya Awakening: Knights of the Zodiac mobile game, and being a fan of strategy RPG's and anime, I thought it made a good way to reintroduce myself to the medium and give my Samsung 10+ 5G something to do other than look up Facebook and my email.
The game is pretty large, the initial install then requiring a few gigabytes of phone space to spread out onto, so keep that in mind if you have limited real-estate on your hard drive. Once installed, you're treated to a rather lovely intro and then dropped straight into the story from the series itself - Seiya vs the Amazonian Shaina.
I was struck by how colourful and well rendered everything was - it's really quite pixel-perfect, and fans of the series should feel well-served by the respect the series has been shown here. Honestly some of the characters have never looked better than here, and while Saint Seiya can verge on gaudy in places, here the contrasting bright colours are muted just a little to make everything seem more coherent (and to me at least, more attractive). The inclusion of the original music is a Godsend and really elevates the title to feeling like a fulsome game for a mobile experience.
SSA wastes no time in teaching you the fighting mechanics - you're stationed in a base where you can approach and train with other Knights, and the game leads you by the hand into your first altercation. You can fight with other characters aiding you, and by combining attacks create combos that can cause devastating damage to your adversaries. You'll end up in 6 v 6 battles, and the idea is to make your attacks and defense strategies complimentary across your roster. As someone who hasn't seen much of the anime (or manga) this was a crash course in the characters and the larger Saint Seiya universe, but it's heartening to think you don't need encyclopedic knowledge to make progress in the game. This does, after all, follow the original tale quite closely.
There's no doubting the game's good looks or stellar presentation!
When it comes to boosting your fighting strength, so often the compelling aspect of these games, you have a few options.
Building Your Power
Firstly, you can evoke new Knights and extra characters (more on this later), which is of course random and will tempt you to spend money to increase your chances of getting the characters you want. These can be added to your roster or sacrificed for more upgrades. There's a rune system that's quite nuanced, and this managed your character stats - you'll need to pay attention here becuase managed poorly, it can make life very difficult. For those who like plentiful options for tweaking their team, this will provide hours of entertainment - for those of a more arcade-minded nature, it's going to seem like a lot of fuss.
While you can pick up and play the game easily enough, it becomes hard quickly and you really need to think through your battle strategies before going in - do you limit the enemy's ability to attack, or go in all guns blazing? Who do you need to prioritise on the opposing team and what's your weakest link? This is isn't helped by all the mechanics at play (upgrades, the rune system to modify stats etc etc) and the menus are seemingly endless at times. As I say, this is not for the casual gamer, but then it is a JRPG so that should be fairly obvious going in.
But it's not all combat either - the game features mini-games that test logical thinking, skill and general knowledge, which break things up nicely. I appreciated the occasional break from combat to excercise other areas of my brain, but it's more time consumed in a very time-consuming game.
The Gatcha Mechanic
Where the game makes it's money is in the raffle system. You can collect items in-game to earn your new Knights, or you can buy your way to victory. From 99p up to almost £100, there's no end of opportunity to increase your luck. This is important, because if you want to take on other players, you'll need to be levelled up to the nines or be destroyed. Having conducted a little research, I'm reliably informed that you need to get your roster of 6 characters to the top of their stats to stand a chance, and when the mechanic for upgrading is randomly generated, that's going to require a lot of your time. You need multiples of a character to upgrade the one in your party (very similar to Ayakashi in fact) and the drop rate for some of these is very low. That means a lot of grinding or a lot of cash.
So while you can play the game through it's core storyline in a free-to-play style, if you want to compete with other players, you're going to have to invest a lot of your free time, which for me simply isn't an option. Having played at a high level in Ayakashi, I can tell you it's very addictive once you get into the right mindset, so set a budget for the game and work out exactly what you want to get out of it - because it certainly has much to offer.
So who should play?
I've given the game quite a few hours of my time now. It's a lively, interesting game that shows a great deal of reverence to the source material. To that end, if you enjoy mobile gaming and love Saint Seiya, I imagine this will be a terrific title to while away the commute with. There's lots of events and new material which gives the game lots of energy, and the battle element is genuinely engaging thanks to the awesome spectacle and tactical nounce required to succeed. You won't be mashing your way to victory here.
For those new to Saint Seiya, you'll still find an attractive and challenging game to get your teeth into. It may even inspire you to seek out more of the manga or anime, which isn't a bad idea if it's even half as good as it's presented here.
It does require dedication though, and more casual fans will quickly fall out of step if gaps between play are too long or the mechanics not mastered in enough depth, which I can see becoming somewhat frustrating. The good news is that there's enough games in this style to know if you're a fan of such gameplay, and this is an excellent example of the genre. Fans of Saint Seiya will be thanking the Gods for this gorgeous tactical challenge.