Perhaps the most expensive game to track down on the original Playstation, beating out even the mighty ‘Suikoden II’ in rarity and price, is Elemental Gearbolt. A rare mash-up of on-rails shooter and Role Playing Game.
Aside from Sega’s glorious ‘Panzer Dragoon’ Saga on the Saturn, we’re hard pressed to think of another example of this curious sub-genre of the RPG, and this fact actually works in the favour of both titles because there’s very little to do wrong and a great deal of original ground to cover. Elemental Gearbolt is perhaps most notably sought after for its original soundtrack and high quota of animated cutscenes (directed by the famous anime director, Rintaro), though its central character does make a cameo appearance in fellow Alfa System RPG ‘Mobile Light Force 2’ which has added to the attraction of the game.
Graphically, Elemental Gearbolt is split between wholly animated cutscenes that have a romanticized anime aesthetic and 3D playable sections that drive the game forward. Whilst the animated sequences were quite ground-breaking for their time they have dated significantly in a manner similar to early animated projects and their English dub isn’t of a massively high standard. The game itself renders well in full 3D and unlike many games of the time manages to hold up extremely well to this day, with textures mapped to interesting shapes and fluid animation speeds. 2D elements also litter the screen, specifically the user interface, which whilst pixelated is incredibly easy to read at a glance when in the thick of the action.
Musically this title is excellent, possessing 19 original tracks composed and arranged by Kei Wakakusa that hold up to an incredibly high standard and have been made available on CD performed by a full orchestra (and includes a 25 minute audio drama). Sound effects are distinctive and loud, letting the player feel a part of the action and everything has an excess of over-the-top drama that heightens events. Sounds may not be strictly realistic and have aged a little poorly, but never overwhelm the soundtrack entirely. The game features options to balance the sound or music to your tastes, allowing the score to shine.
Whilst many on-rails shooters have very little narrative or exceedingly poor stories that serve to set up the next section of the action alone, Elemental Gearbolt has quite a deep and complex plot. Told almost entirely through animated cutscenes with dialogue, the game narratively framed around the character of Tagami, who travels the world seeking answers to why it was once tragically destroyed. His belief is that the ‘Elemental Gearbolt Incident’ was the cause. You play as either Nell or Seana, both of whom are half-breed daughters of a resistance leader who are killed but revived by a neural networked computer (comprised of actual human brains) and have powerful weapons grafted to their bodies. This turns them into ‘Elementals’ who seek to destroy the empire that murdered them and ultimately even challenge the AI that made them. It’s a very dense and heavily emotional (read ‘melodramatic’) story that takes place over multiple acts and develops as the game pushes forward rather than presenting a task and an overall goal then letting the player run riot.
Gameplay requires a light gun that is compatible with the PlayStation and the player’s speed of shot and aim are a key component to completing this title, which may put many people used to turn based systems off immediately. Levels see the camera rocket forward on invisible rails, panning through environments and engaging in a variety of firefights with inventive monster designs. Unlike most games of this kind the player has no ammunition to collect or need to physically reload, instead being presented with a wheel of three different elemental shot types that all act very differently and represent spells cast by the character whose eyes you’re seeing through. Fire is a high powered shot that has a slow rate of fire, Thunder is a weaker attack with a wide spread and Water emulates a machine gun of weaker spells that accumulate. All of these have their own firing rates to make up for the loss of a reload mechanic, meaning that accuracy is incredibly important. Most players will find that they choose one of these that best suits their play style and switch between them only when certain enemy types and boss encounters require it. At the end of each stage the player trades a percentage of their high score for experience points, growing more powerful and being able to take more damage on an extending life bar. Score, whilst seemingly pointless, determines player rank at the games conclusion and was at one time used to participate in contests sponsored by Working Designs. Collecting fairy-like creatures on each level adds a massive multiplier to both score and therefore experience, these can be hard to spot or pass by in a quick period of motion, making them a key reason to replay levels and grind. The game does support two player co-operative play, which can quickly turn the screen into a hail of different coloured bullets.
At last glance this title was selling for over £700 on Ebay. Honestly I would never recommend that anyone pay this much for a video game, even one that holds such legendary status for collectors. Whilst this review was written after playing through a real version of the game under the supervision of its owner, there are other (emulated) ways to play and enjoy the title while we wait for an eventual re-release or remake. It is a surprise that a sequel never emerged, however on-rails shooters haven’t had the home-console traction they enjoyed in the arcades and RPG epics aren’t a particularly welcome prospect on a pay to play basis. If you see a copy at a reasonable price, by all means buy it, just don’t expect the game to change your world when it is in fact a somewhat average RPG with an excellent shooter bolted on to it.