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Front Mission (DS) artwork

Front Mission (DS) review

" No matter which side of the war you find yourself on, you'll be playing as good people "

I've played a lot of Front Mission. Over 5 years ago I played through both campaigns. I loved it, and always wanted to play through again on hard mode, but I needed to take a break from the lengthy game. Just recently I booted it up again and began playing again on hard mode. I ended up playing through both campaigns (my original plan was to just try one and see how I liked it) in 10-40 minute chunks during lunch breaks at work over the course of 6+ months. Like many portable games that I play at work, this game became an institution after playing it so long. It took me around 40 hours to beat both campaigns this time around, and it was worth the wait. My main complaint about the game's normal mode was that I thought it was too easy. Hard mode delivers on the challenge in spades. It also helped me to appreciate a few things about normal mode... more on that later.

Front Mission is a strategy RPG from back in the good old days of the Super Famicon. I believe this portable version is the title's first appearance in America. In this version, you can pick one of two campaigns to play through, both of which are extensive, full, and long experiences. You can play either side of the war that takes place during the game. The crazy thing is, you'll quickly realize that no matter which side of the war you find yourself on, you'll be playing as good people; soldiers who are trying to do the right thing and serve their countries as they get sucked into a conflict with no clear good guys or bad guys. Making the player realize this is one of the game's biggest achievements. The idea that your average soldier on the ground might not be a terrible person, even if they are a Nazi or a Rebel, is a hard one to communicate. Many a good person has been forced into warfare they didn't want as strings are pulled by the powers that be, and taking a ride in the shoes of soldiers on the front lines of both sides is a great way to see that. And I'm not defending Nazi's or Confederates, I'm just sayin'...

Once into a campaign you'll be taking part in the Second Huffman Island conflict on a disputed territory when a tense situation finally boils over into open warfare between two world super powers, the OCU and the UCS, who both hold territory there. Warfare has changed in the medium distant future (somewhere around 2085, I think). Mecha called Wanzers are the main weapon utilized in military operations of all kinds, and you'll be commanding a squad of them along with support vehicles. The missions you are sent on are fought on a turn-based grid. First, your team gets a go. You can move each unit on the grid and then perform an action, be that an attack, using an item, reloading, or repairing other units. After you've activated all of your units, all of the enemy units move and attack or use items. Most missions require you to kill all enemies, although there are some with secondary objectives, such as rescuing a unit in peril.

Wanzer combat involves several weapon types. There are hand weapons, such as machine guns, shotguns, and rifles, which typically need to be fired at adjacent units (with some exceptions). If you played Front Mission 3 before this game (as many people probably have since it came out in America before this game), it's important to note that the differences between these weapon types are not as pronounced as in 3. It's a bit jarring at first, as the more distinct attributes of the different weapons in FM3 are a step up from this game, but you quickly get used to it. Then there are melee attacks, which can be bare-fisted punches or hits from equipped melee weapons. These also are done from squares adjacent to enemies. And finally there are missiles, which can be launched from a distance depending on the weapon's stats. Enemies may counter-attack when you attack them from adjacent squares (and vice-versa when it is the enemy's turn), but missile fire does not allow for counter-attacks.

Battles boil down to making more efficient use of the weapons and equipment you have to dish out more damage than you receive, and exploiting the advantages you have over the enemy, such as repairing and reloading. I've seen enemies occasionally repair themselves, but not nearly as much as you need to if you are going to survive. You can use repair items to repair yourself, or have support vehicles or Wanzers repair you. Interestingly, the two sides of the war repair differently. The OCU have a support truck that passively repairs anyone standing by it, and the UCS have repair equipment you can equip to Wanzers that gives them a repair action they can use to repair others. Both sides can reload while adjacent to their respective repair units. All weapons have unlimited ammo except for missiles, which need to be reloaded after a few shots.

You level up by... doing stuff. Attacking, destroying enemies, destroying enemy limbs, and dodging all earn you experience, and when you level up you get points added to your stats in the use of different types of weapons and in your dodging ability. If you get a lot of points in your skill with a certain weapon type, you can earn skills associated with those weapons. Skills are extremely, extremely powerful. They are so stinking powerful, getting just one skill on one of your pilots radically increases your combat effectiveness. The main skills you can get allow you to target specific parts of enemy Wanzers. Typically your attacks target random parts of the enemy, spreading your damage around. Once you have an aiming skill, you can do all your damage to an enemy's main body, killing them in just a few shots. Other skills are also very powerful, including a stun that can last for several turns, and a skill that gives you a random chance for firing your other weapon that can proc multiple times in a turn.

The mecha in Front Mission are fully customizable. You may have thought that Armored Core was revolutionary, but Front Mission was doing almost the exact same thing years before. You can buy and equip a staggering number of main bodies, arms, legs of many different types, and multiple weapon systems, as well as backpack accessories and CPU's. You will be spending hours in the garage over the course of a campaign upgrading your Wanzers to get the exact performance you want. Sometimes the choice is obvious to upgrade to the new strictly-better weapons that become available... but then other more exotic equipment might tempt you, such as arms with integrated weapons, weapons with less accuracy but further range, missile launchers that only fire one big missile instead of a salvo of smaller ones, or leg types that can't climb well but offer greater mobility overall. Specing out each of the many Wanzers you will recruit is a blast, and if you're a giant robot gear head who loves Armored Core or Carnage Heart, you'll be in heaven here.

Of course if you are playing on hard mode, you are going to need to be less creative with your designs and build many of your units identically with very powerful weapons, particularly missiles so you don't get counter-attacked. My strategy through most of the hard mode campaigns was to make all my units missile boats with shields to block with when I did get attacked, and to reload constantly and keep firing from a distance. It was the realization that I had to build this way to survive hard mode that made me appreciate normal mode more. By about halfway through a normal mode campaign, I could steamroll through a level with my eyes closed; the enemy truly didn't stand a chance. But I also had an eclectic squad of Wanzers that specialized in different things. Setting those Wanzers up with lots of different equipment and experimenting with different builds is half the fun of the game, and normal mode lets you do that and still be successful. I also realized that I am a bit of a Front Mission veteran. I played a ton of FM3, and the knowledge I gained there gave me a huge edge in playing this game. Not to mention I've played a bunch of tactics games with the same basic idea as Front Mission. If you are a newcomer to the genre, or even just to the Front Mission series, I bet the difficulty is pretty good. And if you are a veteran, hard mode will make you consider all kinds of factors you never had to before, such as range, defensive maneuvers, formations, and allocation of force. It's a shame you have to beat the game in order to unlock hard mode...

Another element I thought of as a flaw when I played the game years ago was some elements of the story. In particular, there is a certain spoiler-ific conceit that I thought really jumped the shark and was typical anime nonsense. This time around, however, I saw it in a different light. It involves a technological breakthrough I thought too far-fetched. But in just the few short years since last I played this game, technology in the real world has come a long way. This game takes place something like 50+ years in the future, and I realized that something like what is described in the game is within the realm of possibility. It could actually happen.

Speaking of the story, it's pretty great. The main characters on each side of the conflict are really strong leads. Both are struggling to find their lost loves as war separates them, and both bond with a unlikely crew of allies along the way as they struggle to do the right thing in the midst of the chaos of war. Despite their similarities, these two characters are quite different in attitude, and their supporting casts are all great. After many battles together, you start to feel a bond with these soldiers, and through the short conversations you have here and there, you start to learn what makes each one tick. Both campaigns have great standout moments, such as fighting an elite unit in one campaign and then getting a chance to control them for a few battles in the other, and seeing two sides of the unraveling of the mystery at the heart of the conflict going on around you. The personal stories of the two main characters also build to amazing conclusions and smart epilogues. It's great stuff, and several notches above what you might be expecting from the story telling in an older Japanese RPG like this one.

The graphics in Front Mission are agelessly beautiful sprites, and each one is customized with all of the hundreds of parts and weapons having a unique look. It's just amazing looking. The occasional sleek looking Wanzers are far outnumbered by the tons of more bulky, lumbering, heavily armored giants. Think Battletech more than Robotech. There is also a little bit of Mode 7 in there, and an FMV from the PS1 re-release of this game (which I think is also the origin of the game's 2nd campaign). The character portraits are wonderful too. The beautiful concept art for the game was done by the incredible Yoshitaka Amano, who is famous for his Final Fantasy concept art, and the in-game portraits feel like a cross between a classic anime look and his art. If you can pick up this game with the manual, you'll also get a look at his jaw-dropping concept art, which is truly stunning. The SNES era midi tunes in the game are also something else. Almost all of them are good, a few are great, and some, like the final few pieces in the OCU campaign, are haunting, midi masterpieces.

Front Mission is a really great S-RPG experience. It's different; the sci-fi and military setting place it far apart from the typical fantasy genre experiences, and the intricate Wanzer building handily replaces more basic equipment shopping. It also conveys such an immersive feel. You feel like you are living through a war, taking part in the campaign, and seeing how the whole concept of war affects peoples' lives on several different scales. The DS is also the perfect hardware to play a game like this, as the bottom screen shows the action while the top screen gives you tons of detailed information about each unit you select. It's hard to imagine having to switch to another screen to view data in other versions of the game when it is available at a glance to you in this version. It's a shame that the Front Mission series seems to be dead. After a misguided (or so I hear) attempt at an action game during the past console generation, there hasn't been any news of new entries to the series. Here's hoping that one day it gets picked up again and takes us on another personal battlefield tour of war in progress and giant robot construction and combat. It's a 5 out of 5.

Robotic_Attack's avatar
Community review by Robotic_Attack (August 27, 2016)

Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.

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