“In 1945, World War II was abruptly ended when an alien race appeared on Earth and began to slaughter the human population. This alien force, known as the “Phantom Beasts” had effectively taken over more than half of the Earth.
The year is 1999 – 54 years later, mankind is still fighting to survive against the alien forces. Earth forces now use advanced mecha called Humanoid Walking Tanks (HWTs) to combat the invaders, but throughout the ordeal, far too many pilots have been killed in action. To ensure the future of the human race, the Japanese government enforced a student draft which recruited high school students to become HWT pilots. Gunparade March follows the lives of the 5121th Platoon, which consists mainly of drafted high school students and their struggle to defeat the Phantom Beasts and at the same time, lead a normal social life.”
Gunparade March is a Japanese Life Simulation / RPG released in 2000 for the Sony Playstation.
If that description seems vaguely familiar to you, that might be because the premise inspired Muv Luv Alternative, a popular VN that has since seen an English Steam release, but what about the original game itself?
Due to the English release of games such as Persona 3/4/5, there is now a helpful frame of reference in order to grasp the concept of how a life simulation game plays like, but the difference between the two is a matter of scope.
Gunparade March main draw is its impressive detail to simulating the world in which the game takes place in. Where Persona’s system is a rather simplified, player-centric approach (that is to say, the world mostly advances based on the player’s progress where time is simplified into a basic “1 action for Morning/Noon/Night each” approach, GPM instead simulates all 24 hours of an in-game day – where important characters play by similar rules as you do, having their own daily schedule and actively attempting to improve themselves.
Even those mechanics feel more in-depth than the average genre competitor. For example, take the relationship mechanics – while the concept of “Say things that the other character will like so that they will do things for you) is tried and true, GPM introduces a “tone” system where picking the incorrect tone for what you want to say may convey the wrong impression, or increase and decrease gains for participating in activities.
Also uncommon in the genre is that relationships are simulated on both ends and are not necessary mutual – in other words, a character may one-sidedly like another while that person absolutely hates his guts! And since other characters too are simulating their own lives, they may fall in love with each other regardless of your actions or perhaps even make their own attempts to butter you up and get on YOUR good side! It goes a long way into making them feel like living people rather than simply game pieces.
These are all mechanics the players will have to experiment in detail in order to master the game. And master the game he must if the player wishes to experience all there is to offer. Gunparade March has a stark amount of replayability! Starting out as what is essentially a grunt of no worth, there’s multiple paths a player can attempt to tackle the challenges of the game.
You can raise your leadership skills, eventually receiving promotions and command over your allies while in battle – something that is well appreciated because perma-death is in full effect in this game (and which brings about its own repercussions on character relationships if you choose to live with that decision and not reload). You can build up your engineering skills, allowing you to maintain your mecha and make sure it’s in tip top condition before every battle, even doing your own self-repairs if necessary as a busted mech means you have to sit out the battles until you fix the problem! You can use your influence to requisition much needed supplies and even advanced weaponary that they don’t hand out to any old schmuck on the streets. You can make arrangements to train with a teammate, which makes the action more effective based on who has the higher stat in a simulation of mentorship.
To do all these, you’ll need money and influence, so there’s a wide variety of jobs and skills you can build up – go work part-time in one of the many shops in the game or craft some items to sell for a profit. Heck, even training yourself in cooking/food preparation will allow you to prepare more filling food on the cheap which will allow you to fit more activities into the day before you’re all tuckered out.
If all else fails – there’s always the option of becoming really good at the combat system. And by that I mean in real life.
As the game sets up – this is a war of survival between humanity and an invading species of alien bugs, and such battles play out in a Tactical Battle format. As you can see, the display attempts to frame the combat scenario as it would appear to the characters in-universe – sonar displays and all that, and even the combat animations is done in a manner that would resemble recorded combat footage.
But what truly sets Gunparade March apart from the rest of the Tactics game genre is HOW you command your unit. There are two settings for control in the game – Auto and Manual, with Auto being the standard menu selection (Move/Attack/etc) that many Tactics gamers should be familiar with.
However, perhaps taking inspiration from racing simulator games, staying on Auto mode won’t get you very far, and players must roll up their sleeves and dive into the task of assuming direct control.
To really capture the feeling of inputting commands into a machine that you’re piloting, a manual “turn” in Gunparade March consists of 9 letters, with each possible command such as “Turn”, “Walk”, “Run”, “Shoot” and so on having its own alphabet code to input.
JF = Jump Forward
FS = Slash
SV = Sheathe Blade
The trick here is that commands that share the same letters can “flow” together in order to create combos that perform multiple actions at the cost of only the shared parts! This means that a command of
will Jump forward, Slash and then Sheath your mech’s blade while saving yourself 2 letters worth of time compared to a command of (JFFSSV) if this rule were not in place.
Given that your mecha controls like a tank (they are called Human Walking Tanks, after all) with exact facing and rotation combined with needing to fire at the effective range of your weapons while staying out of the enemy’s kill zone, experimenting to discover many of these such combinations is the key to emerging victorious in battle, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against you.
With all the talk about gameplay, it’s time to get down and finish up with a discussion on the writing. The “high school” concept in Japanese media is one tends to receive much criticism due to it being simply a perceived “Power Fantasy” pandering to its target audience…
However, Gunparade March does treat the subject with a certain amount of gravitas – the characters are in fact treated as underaged military draftees and there’s a lingering sense that this is not a situation to envy. War taxation on goods and rationing apply both in story and in mechanics as the war effort progresses, and characters discuss heavy themes such as self-sacrifice and duty to one’s country and its citizenry.
If there is any game that captures the tragic essence of the Japanese cultural military values, akin to the European ethos of Chivalry, this might very well be one of the highest candidates on the list.
But that’s an “on the surface reading” of the game – through multiple playthroughs, it’s evident that things might not be as simple as it looks. Gunparade March has been known to contain many layers that aren’t simply spoonfed to you – amongst the Japanese community, many theories have been put forward in an attempt to piece together exactly what the events of the game entail in the grand scheme of things.
Adding to the immersion, observant players may actually use gameplay elements as hints to pick up on ongoing events. Hypothetically speaking, if you open up the menu, decide to check the stats on a cat that’s hanging around the school on a whim and notice that it has better stats than most of the characters in the game… well, it’s probably not a coincidence or a bug.
Unfortunately, due to being an old, text-heavy game, Gunparade March was never made available in English, officially or otherwise. The tie-in Anime adaptation did receive an official US release, but due to the non-linear nature of the game, can never really capture the draw of the source material and falls short in many aspects.
Perhaps things may change in the future – for example, Shin Megami Tensei’s Soul Hackers received a 3DS port which eventually did receive an English release, but for the time being, it appears that Gunparade March will have to remain a Japanese-only gem.