For the uninitiated, Girls und Panzer is the sole manga/anime series brave enough to tackle an issue we've all been searching for an answer for but until now were too afraid to ask: What would happen if girls practised tank-based martial arts as a school sport? Dear readers, wonder no more.
Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match DX is an updated version of last year's PlayStation 4 title Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match, and comes with all of the original's DLC additions and improvements bolted on to the base game as standard, making this Switch release the perfect one-stop-shop for all of your "tankery" needs.
The setting for this arena-based action is a modern Japan school system furnished with World War II-era tanks in the name of sport, with the schools all themed to the point of parody around various countries – Italy, Russia, the USA, and so on. Naturally, the English school is of course full of girls with tea-themed names who daintily sip the beverage out of fine china cups (yes, even when in a tank) and dream of winning – brace yourselves – a tea plantation. Character depth (if you are feeling generous) involves conversations about baking scones, quoting classic literature (which is always followed up by another character pointing out the source of the reference, for fear you may not grasp how well-read these girls are), or the importance of tradition.
In the interests of fairness it's worth mentioning that every one of these foreign-but-actually-still-Japanese schools are given similar stereotypical treatment; a pretty standard set-up for any "pick your favourite type of girl" media, but if you weren't on board the tank-train already it might take a while to warm up to the game's summer sports day atmosphere, and all of the nice girls being so tirelessly nice to each other before going out and enthusiastically blowing each other up in the name of their school.
Before you're allowed access to most options on the main menu there's a mandatory set of short tutorials to go through, covering the most basic aspects of moving and shooting. It's not much, but it's enough to give you some confidence and a little practise with the essentials before heading off into the game proper.
Maneuvering your tank is superficially as straightforward as controls come; the left stick handles your movement and the right one your cannon (and therefore your field of view, unless you decide to stick your commander's head out of the top of the tank for a quick look-see with the shoulder buttons), but as the two components are used completely independently of each other it's very easy to get caught in a tight spot, camera backed up to the wall, and not know how to get yourself out of it.
This is because the tank's idea of "forward" is tied to the front of the tank rather than the direction of the camera – which is no problem at all if you're sitting in the driver's seat of a real tank – but in a game that gives you full 360-degree camera movement it often causes problems as you struggle to see which identical end of your tank is the "official" front and you rev up your engines and push forward... only to shoot off in what appears to be the opposite direction at high speed.
"High speed" in a lumbering tank is something of a contradiction – these enormous iron panzers take a fair bit of time to do anything, including aiming at other tanks. Swinging your cannon around to line up a shot and then dealing out a good chunk of damage is a satisfying experience if you can manage to pull it off – although it's almost impossible to do reliably while moving. Or while the enemy's moving. Or if you're being fired at.
Luckily there's a lock-on feature that will do its best to automatically keep you lined up with your target at the expense of the specialist manual targeting that comes with aiming for yourself – and you will want to do the aiming yourself as the game dishes out varying amounts of damage depending on which part of the tank's body you hit. A glancing blow will barely scratch the customisable paintwork, whereas a full hit to the front (or, even better, a weak spot) will cause a lot of damage, and if you can zoom in and get a few clean shots at their treads you can even keep them from moving while they're forced to carry out repairs (just make sure they don't do the same to you too).
Hit or miss, when you do fire a shot it takes a long amount of time to ready another shell until you get the hang of the game's Gears of War-like 'active reload' system. Just as in the adventures of the tomato-loving Marcus Fenix and his broad-shouldered pals, hitting the reload button at the right moment will instantly finish the rest of the animation while mistiming will cause the reload attempt to fail, making the whole thing take even longer than just waiting for it to pass by normally. Luckily it's easy to see when you need to hit the button as there's a clear visual marker on-screen whenever you're reloading, but the timing is quite strict so it does take some dedication to get right.
For a game that's built from the ground up around battling in tanks, it stings to see all the little ways the game lets itself down on what should have been core parts of the experience – for a game that goes to great lengths to talk up the importance of data and specific tank types, and even taking into account the almost infinite number of tank/commander/crew/skill/support card permutations you can create in your garage (once you've unlocked them, of course), there's just not an awful lot of difference between them in practice.
A light tank may not take as much effort to get going as a heavy tank, and a tank with two side turrets rather than a single forward cannon certainly looks like it belongs more in Raiders of the Lost Ark than a high school sports event, but in reality these differences fail to open up any meaningful new tactics or even simply brute-force you into changing how you play. Teamwork is also conspicuous by its absence – remember that this is not just a single game but an entire franchise based around continually pitting small groups of schoolgirls against each other in adorable tank squads – there's just no synergy to your team selection or any need for cooperative play. No matter how badly you may wish to specialise in a particular role or engage in tactical play, matches always end up unfolding in a similar "Pile on the opposing side and hope you do more damage than they do" kind of way, with the enemy AI doing very little to discourage this behaviour.
Because of this, most of Girls und Panzer's match types end up blurring into each other, with the annihilation (destroy all or a set number of opposing forces), flag battles (destroy a specific enemy tank), and survival modes (outlast the time limit) coming across as nothing more than minor variations on an already thin theme. The (solo) race against the clock games do inject some genuine variety into proceedings but they're not enough to lift up the rest of the package; it's a real shame to see the main attraction not quite hitting the spot.
There are at least plenty of single player modes to keep you occupied if you do find yourself enough in love with the cast for the blandness of the combat to not deter you. Story mode's the main event, recounting select scenes from the 2015 Girls und Panzer movie – and as this is where the bulk of the game's dialogue lies. It's also the place where you're most likely to notice the distinctly stilted text found in the English-language version of the game. "It can't be helped!" as average translations (yes, this one too) frequently say, but the game really needed to pull off something special here to try and claw back some of the goodwill lost due to the issues found elsewhere.
Domination mode has you pick a school team and play through five battles with a generic little whiff of plot running through it. "Panzerfahren Festival" is an elaborate way of saying "Tournament mode" – you and one starter (CPU) ally of your choice battle your way through a typical tournament structure, the twist here is after each victory you get to add one of the defeated team to add to your own side, teams increasing in size all the way up to that final 5v5 match.
Extra Match is the most substantial mode of the lot, presenting you with a long list of pre-made challenges across every game type and three selectable difficulty levels to tackle too. It's all recycled assets and game types from the rest of the game, but clearing off a screen's worth of tasks does feel like an accomplishment.
Free Match is as you'd expect – a vanilla custom match creator that does what it says on the tin – while the last mode of all is online play, bafflingly labelled "Local Communication" mode on the main menu of the English translation. Once online you'll find several match types covering all of the usual basics (casual play, special events, friends) with the map used based on a Splatoon-like rotation system. In our playtests matchmaking and online play all worked well with no noteworthy lag or communication issues, but it doesn't make the underlying gameplay any more compelling, either.
If you bought this hoping to see girls and panzers then the game does at least deliver on its titular promise, the polished presentation and copious amounts of chirpy schoolgirl banter trying their hardest to mask the game's numerous weaknesses. Unfortunately, Girls und Panzer's gameplay never makes you believe it's doing more than inoffensively coasting along on the back of the license's appeal; gaming's long history may be littered with half-hearted tie-ins, but there was no need to add another to the pile.
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