Front Mission 1st DS - Reader Review  

Lock & Load
by JuMeSyn

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30-40 Hours
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   Passed over for release outside of Japan several times, Front Mission has finally been officially released to the English-speaking audience. Tactical RPG goodness is thus made available to all who were intimidated by the language barrier, with the additional perk (to some potential players) of featuring giant robots. Front Mission 1st is not a game for the easily intimidated or for RPGamers without a zest for number-crunching, but seekers of deep tactical action should promptly investigate.

   In the world of Front Mission, the Americas have combined into the U.C.S. and most of Asia/Oceania into the O.C.U. These two massive unions have an interest in Huffman Island, a new (presumably of volcanic origin) island with greatly coveted mineral deposits. One year prior to the main events of Front Mission, Roid Clive presides over an O.C.U. reconnaissance of a factory on Huffman Island, which manages to turn bloody despite his best intentions. This incident results in war, and Royd is discharged from the official army due to his leadership at the war's accidental start. One year later O.C.U. mercenary recruitment officer Olson finds Royd in an arena trying his best to forget how the war started and resulted in his fiancee Karen's death. Royd listens to the offer and embarks on a new military career.... There is a second storyline following the U.C.S. from the leadership of one Kevin Greenfield, but as I have not yet begun this storyline commentary is lacking.

   The war that rages on Huffman Island is fought by large robots called Wanzers. At a glance combat in Front Mission is similar to many other tactical RPGs: moving about on an isometric grid (fortunately the common aggravations of isometric view are not present here) player units encounter enemies on a square tile grid and seek their destruction. Front Mission varies from many tactical titles with the functionality of its robots however. Save for a few special cases, robots are not one big target. They are composed of a body, two arms, and legs. Each arm carries a weapon (sometimes two when the shoulders are utilized for missiles) and is an individual target. The legs greatly enhance mobility and are a separate target. The body does nothing save hold the robot together; breaking the body destroys the Wanzer. Targeting the bodies of all opponents would be sound strategy, were it not for the fact that weapons hit the opponent randomly. Later in a game a few skills are learned to circumvent this to an extent, but for a lengthy period of time the player will be unable to guarantee attacks will hit the desired part of the robot. The enemy is afflicted with this random targeting as well.

Oddly colored broccoli offers some fantastic cover. Oddly colored broccoli offers some fantastic cover.

   The weapons available are a rather varied lot, but they are grouped into three categories. Melee attacks find the Wanzer physically striking its opponent, short-range attacks have some form of gun blasting the enemy, and long-range attacks have projectiles being flung at the adversary. Long-range attacks are usually preferable to others however, because they cannot be counterattacked while short-range and melee attacks can. Long-range attacks typically have limited ammunition however, and the experience system of Front Mission makes relying upon long-range strikes exclusively somewhat wasteful because not all potential experience will be received. A Wanzer pilot has four experience categories: melee, short-range, long-range, and dodging. Each of these tops out at 9999. Effectiveness with each of these types (dodging being a very useful skill) increases with experience in the category.

   This caveat must be stated: any RPGamers without an inclination to mull over the possibilities for their shopping and equipment are not recommended to seek out Front Mission. Shopping in Front Mission is not done quickly, nor is it optional when improved equipment makes the difference between survival and being blown away in the first turn. Each of the four Wanzer parts must be shopped for: legs, two arms, and body. Each of these parts has its own statistics: one arm may have extremely high HP but low Defense and high Weight. Legs can also be hovering or floating; each lends itself to certain types of terrain while performing poorly on others. Weight is an important consideration in this process also, because the Weight/Power ratio of a Wanzer rules all. If a Wanzer's makeup exceeds 100 W/P it will not be allowed; this forces creative choices upon the player at times. Backpacks are eventually available to allow additional horsepower, but the need to balance weight with offensive/defensive strength does not go away. Weapons come in their own varieties: some arms have built-in weaponry that precludes the attachment of anything else. If built-in weaponry save a punch is not available the player may install shoulder weapons as well as hand-operated. Shoulder weapons can either be shields or missiles. Hand-operated weapons run a gamut from clubs to flamethrowers to machine guns to shotguns to long-range-enabled bazookas. Also, the only way to use items is to equip them onto Wanzers in a separate menu from the shop. Considering that items are the primary method of healing this is absolutely essential.

   Buying equipment for every soldier gets expensive, and the money earned from battles may not be enough to cope with the needs of the Wanzers. This is where the Arena comes into play: the player chooses one unit to face off with an opponent for cash. Every battle in the Arena will earn money upon player victory and lose it should the player's unit go down, though not always much money. The player has control of the battle save that no items may be used. In this way money may be accrued and additional experience gained (though at a substantially lower rate than in missions).

The modern cowboy; piloting a robot and being undead. The modern cowboy; piloting a robot and being undead.

   Combat is easy and uncluttered, save with the somewhat aggravating difficulty of being unable at times to gauge the effect of height differences upon incoming strikes with long-range weapons. This is quickly adjusted to however. The stylus can be used to control the action, though since the game was not wholly redesigned around this aspect most of the areas are too small for comfortable stylus usage. Using the touch screen to advance text is useful however.

   Visually Front Mission is not a feast for the eyes, but nothing is particularly ugly either. Wanzer graphics change depending upon what is equipped, and considering the massive number of permutations possible this equates to an enormous visual library. Everything on the field is quite small though, and the color palette fairly dark. Even the quick scenes of robots exchanging fire look quite similar as the game progresses. Audio is quite good: Yoko Shimomura and Noriko Matsueda deliver a lot of effective music that fits the grungy future tone quite well, with a few pieces that are more cheerful scattered about. Sound effects are good as well with the flamethrower effect being a particularly noticeable one.

   Challenge is affected somewhat by the random flings of the AI; if Royd or, in the other storyline, Keith goes down instant Game Over results. Any other unit lost is returned post-mission however, with a monetary deduction extracted to cover the repairs. Enemy AI is not the best however, and a seasoned tactical RPGamer will be able to win without great difficulty. The O.C.U. portion of the game can probably be completed in 30 hours: I took longer. The U.C.S. portion apparently is a bit shorter in return for being harder. As to extras, assuming the ability to play an entirely different storyline is not enough: there are some hidden characters and a few bonus missions along with a few hidden weapons and Wanzers to find. The game is quite linear but these items offer great replay incentive, at least once.

   Front Mission would have been a welcome entry into the SNES library back in 1995, devoid as the system was of tactical titles in English. The game has perhaps lost the distinction it would have possessed with a 1995 English release, but that should not dissuade RPGamers from seeking it out now unless extensive menu interaction on a regular basis is disliked. All seekers of deep tactical combat; go forth.

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