“Unlike other mecha series, this one focuses on the characters.” Say something like that about any given mecha story, and you’re bound to annoy fans of the genre. After all, every good one, from Aquarion to Zegapain, is centered on its cast. Claiming mecha stories are “all about the robots” is a great way to show you haven’t seen many. And yet, this came to mind as I played Relayer, a new mecha strategy RPG from Kadokawa Games and the God Wars team, I realized I couldn’t even remember which mecha the characters actually piloted without looking them up in the in-game codex.
Despite being involved at the core of Relayer‘s dense plot and setting, the mecha feel oddly inessential to the narrative. Sure, one Stellar Gear mecha called the Original One basically drives much of the early-game plot, but I was hard-pressed to remember what it even looked like. To borrow a cinematic term, Relayer‘s mecha don’t get enough “screen time.” They don’t end up feeling like the extensions of the characters within them the way they do in iconic series like Gundam. Instead, I found myself much more interested in the people inside the robotic suits. Chief among them were Relayer‘s core cast of Starchildren. These are empowered individuals carrying “The Will of the Stars” and conveniently named after various celestial bodies.
One such Starchild is Terra, inheritor of the will of Earth. Years ago, she lost her sister Luna in catastrophic “gravity loss” incident. The trauma robbed her of her memories. Since then, she’s drifted, piloting her Stellar Gear Astoria around the world on an aimless journey alongside her robotic buddy Yodaka. The meandering comes to an end when another gravity loss devastates her current residence at the Lunar colony. She sees none other than her long-lost sister working alongside the titular Relayers, a group of aliens bent on destroying all life. Terra is quickly recruited by Himiko, another Starchild. She’s brought onboard the Asterism, an experimental ship designed to foil the Relayer threat. Working as a Stellar Gear pilot alongside Himiko and other Starchildren like Sun, Uranus, and Mercury, Terra sets off to defend Earth and bring her wayward sibling back home.
Relayer plays out like a classic, sci-fi, space opera anime. Its plot unfolds along several acts. Though it’s centered on Terra and the Asterism crew, the game regularly shifts focus to different groups of characters. Players will even take control of the Relayers themselves a few times over the course of the game.
It takes its time to get going, though. Almost ten hours passed before I really felt like Relayer began moving pieces across its board. The writing is dense, detailed, and quite interested in getting acquainted with every wrinkle of its futuristic setting. Not all of that time feels entirely well-spent, especially if you’re the not the type of person who likes to dig into “lore” for its own sake. But bear with it and the character relationships established form a solid emotional foundation. It’s one that pays off in the latter half of the story. Without trying to spoil anything, the later chapters ramp up considerably in terms of intensity. The game isn’t afraid to take the story to some dark places. I only wish it had more bespoke “cutscene” event art to drive home some of the more dramatic moments. Instead, we must make do with our imaginations, character cutouts, and a lot of voice dialog.
And I do mean a lot. Kadokawa Games included a full English dub for Relayer in addition to the original Japanese voice track. The sheer amount of dialog in the game is impressive. Not every scene is voiced. Some optional character interactions aren’t. But virtually every key story development is. That being said, the English dub is inconsistent and rather stiff. The quality ranges widely, with some pro-grade performances and others that feel recorded off a Zoom call. The Japanese dub is much more consistent and involves some names that should be familiar to anime fans.
Any good opera (space or otherwise) has a few battle scenes, and Relayer delivers in spades. Expect to spend a lot of time moving units around, taking turns on dozens of grid-based tactical maps. Each character gets their own bespoke mecha and a semi-unique path of progression patterned after the class dynamics of the MMORPG “Holy Trinity.”
Relayer has a rather unique battle system based around a “hate” mechanic. Every action a unit can take raises its aggression rating, opening it up to being targeted by enemies. That’s a bad sign for vulnerable sniper and support units, but careful positioning and skill use can redirect enemy enmity towards more durable tank and assault units. Even on the normal difficulty it can be surprisingly easy to lose a unit in battle. Virtually every fight puts your team at a disadvantage. Thus, each battle begins to resemble a dance of sorts. You move each unit in and out of an enemy’s range, taking advantage of the differences in each class’ danger zone to inflict damage while minimizing risk. Battles also charge up powerful Big Bang special attacks. These can wipe an entire area clean of enemies’ influence. This is all made more visually appealing by the elaborate attack animations available. Each class and unit carries out its attacks in a mini-cutscene, lovingly animated to show off every mecha at its best. These do get a bit old after a while though. Players can speed them up or turn them off to save time.
Between battles and story scenes, players can also spend time onboard the Asterism. Visiting different areas of the ship can yield special cutscenes featuring character interactions. (Think of the “skits” from Tales and Super Robot Wars titles.) A handy in-game codex keeps both plot points and in-universe terms updated for reference.
Players can also upgrade their pilots and mecha with new skills and equipment. Using points accumulated in battle, each character gets new stat bonuses and abilities unlocked on a sphere grid-like constellation. Fully unlocking one constellation allows a character to progress to an upgraded, specialized version of their base class. For example, Terra’s Assault class can be upgraded into a Vanguard that specializes in direct combat on the front line or a different specialization that focuses on maximizing flanking and backstab damage. All four core classes can branch out. Though a branch can’t be undone, there are enough characters in the game to explore each and every option available. Similarly, there’s plenty of gear available to outfit the mecha. However, more often than not it’s just a question of buying whichever set of stats seems higher.
Narratively and mechanically, Kadokawa laid a strong and unique foundation for Relayer. Unfortunately, polishing issues hold it back from true greatness. The localization is passable, but comes across as somewhat stiff and in need of a few more passes in editing. The characters’ personalities don’t quite shine through in the text alone, which retains some of the typos and awkward phrasing from the demo. The script cleans up further into the game, but far too many errors and issues with formatting made it through. The game could also use quite a bit more variety in its missions. Nearly every stage boils down to killing off all the enemies. If it weren’t for the mid-mission dialog, it’d feel like I was going down a list of training exercises.
Parts of the progression also don’t feel quite fully cooked. For example, unlocking a new class or constellation often feels like a downgrade at first, since players need to re-unlock many of the abilities they unlocked in the previous constellation. Further, there’s little sense of choice or trade-off when it comes to upgrading gear. A strange random chance system occasionally causes gear to become dark side, a form of equipment with high stats that causes damage to the character equipping it. Because dark side upgrades happen at random, a player that doesn’t want to risk using a dark side item ends up having a chance to effectively lose a piece of gear purely due to chance.
I’d be remiss not to mention the odd circumstances surrounding Relayer‘s post-game content. Upon finishing the main campaign, a special “Asterism Voyage” campaign opens up. It promises more adventure. Except it’s not so much a continuation of the game, but more of a “what if?” scenario that appears crafted solely for the reason that Kadokawa Games didn’t quite want to let go of some of these characters just yet. It feels more like this mode was intended to be a post-release update or sequel of sorts, but was instead added to the immediate post-game as a sort of value-add. I’m not necessarily complaining about receiving more content, but it still feels a bit awkward.
Despite quibbles, though, Relayer is a solid entry into the canon of mecha-based strategy titles. Kadokawa Games developed an original, endearing sci-fi RPG with a strong character focus. It may be held back by its rougher edges, but anyone with a love of sci-fi anime should give it a look.
Relayer is available on PS4 and PS5.