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Front Mission (DS) artwork

Front Mission (DS) review

"I’d never seen a backpack on a mech before, but it’s a novel idea ... I mean, why doesn’t my ... nevermind."

I’m not sure why mech combat strikes such a chord in me, and I’m not really sure how I discovered - or was introduced to Front Mission over twenty years ago. What I do remember is that it began on the SNES with an IPS patch and a Japanese ROM file. You can put the two together, just as I did. The patch was a fan translation and a gateway of sorts. Almost a decade later, by some miracle of corporate will and a little coding, an edition of Front Mission was ported to the Nintendo DS, much to my pleasure.

Now I know mech combat games don’t sell particularly well in the west, not even in the form of MechWarrior, which has a touch and go relationship with the gaming community at large. Occasionally a foray into DARPA’s dreamland does fascinate the market long enough to allow one of these experiments to make the international leap. In the late 1990s, Squaresoft tentatively envisioned what the battlefield might look like if “Wanzers” were the primary tool of military progression, come 2100 or thereabouts. Enter the world of Front Mission, an alternative universe wherein the Oceanic Central Unification (OCU) and United States Federation (USN) are at each other's throats for one reason or another.

A new island here, a few stray bullets, who can tell? Make no mistake: Front Mission’s story is thoroughly written, but honestly who’s here for the intrigue? That said, the DS port of this game has a sort of expansion pack built in that takes the form of a USN campaign following the same timeline as the OCU. You assume the role of ... I don’t remember his name, so I’ll go with the one I gave him: “Dude” Clive has just seen horrific combat, and just like any good opening mission, the hellish landscape of war has cost him everything. You take control on the rebound and your objective is to propel Dude through every mission to success.

The USN campaign puts you on the other side of the wall, but the name beside the picture of the dark hard protagonist's file reads “Smirks”, so I’ll go with that. Smirks is a well meaning USN squad commander of reasonably likable pilots, and while Dude’s story was all about chasing his fiancee all over Huffman Island - not as fun as it sounds - Smirk can’t seem to find his way into the heart of his love interest. What’s worse is that his military career is a series of hard knocks and disrespect for his Knight in Shining Armour Complex.

It’s a good thing he can’t catch a break, because it’d be a dull story, otherwise. The second campaign was built years after the first and addresses some shortcomings of its progenitor. For instance, the frequency of unit upgrading is reduced significantly, and more body part and weapon options are made available, besides. There’s a new backpack type added to the mix, and the campaign is about 50% longer in runtime. It does a lot to improve playability, and also ties it into other installments in the franchise for worldbuilding purposes.

The game takes place in three interactive modes: One of these is Wanzer outfitting, in which you see a pixel rendered machine drawn at an isometric angle. You can swap out parts for parts in stock, which you’ll acquire in the shop, as spoils in combat, or ... you know ... laying around the map in out of reach areas. Another mode is a lightweight visual novel in which you’ll see dialogue boxes, character portraits and a menu for interaction options, including the ability to Save or Load your file. They are standard fare but useful thanks to the necessities of resource management.

The third mode of interaction is field combat, which takes the form of an isometric grid spread over terrain that varies in elevation and type. There’s flat ground, forest area, desert, mud, water and a few others. They affect how quickly your Wanzer can move around and the cover they have from enemy fire. Forests offer the most at 60%, obviously enough, and the rest much less. Movement is affected by the type of legs your Wanzers have equipped: Standard two leg models handle most terrain well, but track through water more slowly than say ... a hover system. They’re not used very often, but can make all the difference when you need to defend an ally quickly in a few missions.

These mechanics will sound familiar to players of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, and they do share qualities. There’s a triangle of weapon types and combat styles, with one significant distinction: Guns can beat fists, but missiles can beat them both without even looking. Mechanical fists don’t run out of ammo, whereas both machine guns and shotguns do; missiles have an even shorter supply, between three to eight in payload. Naturally each type has an effective range: Fists require you to step right up to your opponent, whereas guns can fire from a distance of three squares away. Missiles can fire up to six blocks away, but no less than three. For the most part you can get away with having team members specialize, but there’s a limit imposed by reality that has to be addressed.

As a rule the advantage is yours by way of repair options, strategy or technical superiority. There are some missions that put you on your heels, though, because your opponents are going to reduce your machines to scrap if you get too close. The sole means of eliminating them is to abuse your missile privilege. This isn’t a product of poor game design, but a component of artillery combat. So much of modern warfare is drastically removed from “romantic” notions such as the sword and gun, but the developers chose not to avoid the presense of remote tactical weapons on the field. As the series progresses, however, you’ll notice that there are different approaches taken to balancing combat with missiles while not removing them wholesale with a farcical excuse.

There are other ways to spice up combat, thankfully. In Front Mission your pilots aren’t classed for a particular role – not in the OCU campaign at least. Experience is obtained when they use the weapons they’ve been assigned, so choose carefully, at first. By the end it won’t matter: Everyone will have missile launchers, at least for the OCU campaign. In the USN campaign, your units are more pigeon-holed into classes and necessity will dictate that you stick with what you have. It’s easy enough to school a pilot in multiple weapon types, so flexibility isn’t a concern.

As your pilots level – and they will given enough action/enemy kills – they can acquire fearsome abilities among the likes of: Speed, which increases the amount of rounds fired in a single encounter (as many as 12 for a weapon that normally fires 6), Stun, or the most dangerous of all Duel, which allows your pilot to target any of its enemy’s five parts. This ability can be used by any weapon type, by the way, a “feature” nonexistent in future installments. There are improved versions of these skills as well, but you’re not likely to acquire them on the first playthrough.

You must be wondering how Front Mission addresses repairs, because it has to, right? I’d never seen a backpack on a mech before, but it’s a novel idea ... I mean, why doesn’t my ... nevermind. They can carry as many as twelve items: Repairs come in five varieties, and there are useful defensive items like Flash and Chaff that can be used to stun opponents and defend from enemy missiles, respectively. Don’t overlook them. “Dude” Clive’s campaign also comes complete with a supply truck where you can resupply ammo and repair your busted up machines during combat. There’s also a handy-dandy repair backpack for the new Engineer that can even restore broken parts that aren’t the [Body].

Naturally, as the inexperienced commander learns sensible tactics that minimize the damage to the squad while eliminating the enemy, they’re going to wrack up a rather large repair bill. As long as you evade specific mission parameter instant fail conditions, you can scrape through, but it’s not going to do the squad finances much good. Each downed Wanzer has to be repaired and that is done at the full cost of the completed unit. The OCU campaign is upgrade heavy, an issue addressed in every campaign and game since, but there is an alternative to save scumming: The Arena pits two Wanzers against each other for an odds-against reward based on how much you gamble on your pilot. It’s a tricky thing to create a combination of an adequate machine with a talented pilot who can eek out an unlikely win.

To spend all that time and not mention the art style or music even once suggests that both are forgettable and the truth is neither are going to set the industry on fire. They are simply functional: Neither attractive nor unpleasant, yet distinctive and bland enough to mesh well with the intended military aesthetic. Translation: A lot of greens, greys and washed out faces. Wanzers are allowed to be colourful, and you can tweak their colours to your liking. I prefer to color code them by weapon style. The music doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before, and if I had to put words to it... well, how about a militaristic mashup of European rythmic tempos atop an almost Art of Noise grind-clank audio palette? It sets the tone servicably even if it couldn’t hit bar room jazz with the side of a barn.

There’s no denying that Front Mission is engrossing if you’re into turn based strategic combat, and that the game has enough depth of story and variety of battle scenarios to keep even a veteran on their toes. Once you’ve completed the campaigns, however, there’s not much left but to try New Game+ and crank up the ratio of your enemies hit points and damage. Choose between .5x to 10.0x if you like those odds, and don’t forget to search out those secret Wanzers and body parts. I’m not the sort to take on a titan, but I do like playing them on the Nintendo DS, and I can easily recommend this valuable pickup for any fan of the genre.


hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (January 16, 2019)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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