"This series proves that high medieval fantasy does not have the market cornered on Strategy RPGs."
The year was 2000. The location? The United States of America. The conspirators? Squaresoft and Electronic Arts (temporarily merged to form Square EA). Their goal? Release so many good games that their fans would buy more than they had time to play.
Anyone my age or older ought to remember Square EA's "Summer of Adventure" – Legend of Mana, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross. But that was just one season. In that same year, Square sent a flurry of games across the Pacific, including SaGa Frontier 2, Vagrant Story, Parasite Eve II, Final Fantasy IX, and Front Mission 3.
At the time, I was 16, working a part-time job (Dairy Queen) and learning to express my love of games in writing (my first full year at RPGFan). I bought every single game Square EA published in 2000. But with school and work, I simply couldn't keep up. To date, I still haven't finished Legend of Mana or Parasite Eve II, and it took me until 2005 to finish Final Fantasy IX. I either sold or lost all my PSone games over time, which is why I was (and am still) ecstatic about the PSN/PSone Classics Store. If only our library was even close to what Japan's.
With the PSone Classics store, I've been able to play all kinds of great RPGs I missed in my youth. In the last month, I clocked a solid 75 hours playing Front Mission 3, clearing both of its forked-path scenarios. With all the new games beating down the proverbial door, it takes something special to hold my attention for that amount of time.
Other Ocean City
Let's change settings. The year is no longer 2000. It's 2112. The location? Ocean City. But not Ocean City, Maryland. This is a new Ocean City, an artificial floating island built off the southern coast of Okinawa (Persona 3 fans take note: Front Mission did it first, though I'm sure it's been done plenty of times before that). This new Ocean City is home to many Japanese residents, most of whom also work in commercial or government capacities. The military/industrial complex is active in Ocean City, and that includes Kirishima Industries, a company that builds Wanzers for the Japanese military (the JDF).
What's a "Wanzer," you ask? Simply put, it's mecha. The name is a portmanteau of "walk" and "panzer," but being Germanic (panzer = tank), you shouldn't pronounce the "w" as "wuh," but as "vuh." Wanzer doesn't sound like wanker; it sounds more like the first two syllables of Fonzarelli. EH!! *double thumbs-up*
Front Mission 3's protagonist is a Wanzer test pilot for Kirishima Industries named Kazuki Takemura. He nicely fits the "hot-headed youth" trope. He has a borderline-obsessive desire to love and protect his adopted sister Alisa, and when anyone says anything he dislikes, his only response is "Shut Up!" Seriously, this guy tells people to shut up so often that it may as well be his catch phrase.
The story kicks off when an advanced weapon called MIDAS is stolen from the USN (North America) and taken to Japan. The Japanese military tries to re-create the weapon, and in attempting to do so, their cloned weapon explodes, taking out a section of a military base. This incident kicks off the plot, which involves global conspiracies and genetically-altered humans. How you experience this story depends on a seemingly inconsequential decision you make in the first 30 minutes of the game. Follow your friend Ryogo on a Wanzer delivery, and you'll end up on the "Emma" path, working with the USN to retrieve MIDAS. Refuse Ryogo's invitation and instead check your email to hear from your sister Alisa, and you end up on the "Alisa" path, aligning you with the DHZ ("Da Han Zhong," what we know as China), and again chasing the ineffable MIDAS weapon.
Alphabet Soup and Clean Atom Bombs
I've already mentioned the USN and the DHZ. But Front Mission 3, being a story heavily driven by speculative future politics (and a history built from the first two Front Mission titles and some spin-offs), has acronyms (or, technically, initialisms) out the wazoo. The world is broken into various, roughly continental coalitions: there's the USN (North, and partially South, America), the DHZ (modern-day China), the EC (what we know now as the EU), and the OCU (the "O" stands for "Oceania," so it's Australia and all the Southeast Asian islands). Japan goes in and out of the OCU throughout the 21st century, trying to maintain some sense of independence.
But even within these countries, there are other organizations that the script refers to by abbreviation over and over. There's the FAI (the FBI and the CIA all in one), the CIU (the OCU's Intelligence department), the JDF (Japan Defense Force, the Japanese military), and many others.
The only true "acronym" (a related word turned into initials) is MIDAS. I don't remember the full acronym, but basically (and this is explained early in the game), MIDAS is a nuclear bomb that doesn't have long-term environmental consequences. The bomb uses gold (hence the relation to "Midas") as an irradiated element and is known as an "Auric explosion," as the irradiated gold eventually naturally converts back to hydrogen as it lets off extreme heat that destroys everything in a spherical range. It is neutralized as it makes contact with water. The science is certainly in the realm of pure sci-fi, but the concept behind it is interesting. You don't use nuclear weapons because it has the long-term effect of making land uninhabitable. But what if you could destroy select targets without long-term environmental effects? The stigma would disappear, and they would be used.
So it's an arms race. The added plot twist is that only one scientist is smart enough and skilled enough to create a stabilized MIDAS; her name is Emir Klamsky, but she's called "Emma." No matter what path you take, you will hear plenty about her, as she has intrinsic ties to many other characters in the game's plot.
If you're down for some political intrigue and lots of game-specific jargon, you'll love the plot. It's hampered by a shoddy localization by today's standards, but it is enhanced by a de facto database that requires awareness and participation. A pseudo "web client" can be used between missions to explore the web. You are given URLs and passwords to hidden locations by NPCs at bars and via email. Keeping track of it all can be a headache, but I enjoyed it just as much as, if not more than, the web-browsing and emailing in the .hack//G.U. trilogy.
I love that the branched storyline generally puts you on one or the other side of a conflict, yet you're always still doing the "right" thing. This isn't about moral ambiguity in war, though. It's more about assertion of the will. Wherever Kazuki and crew find themselves, they make the best decisions they can. When aligned with the USN, they help the Hua Lian rebels fight the DHZ, but when the rebels compromise their own values for power, Kazuki calls it quits. Similarly, in the path where Kazuki and pals help the DHZ, they see the plight of the rebels and only fight when provoked. That the game begins and ends in the same place, but with a twist on who does and doesn't die, is also interesting. Hardcore Front Mission followers should take note that neither path, "Emma" nor "Alisa," can be determined as "canon path," as Front Mission 5 (the only game that takes place after FM3 in the timeline) doesn't provide enough detail to determine which ending took place.
War Just Got Uglier
The 32-bit era was as much a curse as it was a blessing for the visually inclined. Yes, FMVs are awesome, and yes, it's nice being able to store higher-resolution 2D portraits. But, in the necessary attempts to begin to flesh out in-game 3D environments, console gaming went through a period of ugly-duckling adolescence. Few games from the Squaresoft RPG library exemplify this as well as Front Mission 3. The fact that I can better understand, visually, what's going on in the 16-bit original Front Mission than in FM3 during a battle is quite telling. The attempt to expand and modernize the platform happened too soon, but I suppose it had to happen.
While many of the mecha animations are, shall we say, "passable," the rest aren't. Significant slowdown for the most basic effects (smoke, explosions), and strange, robotic movements of the actual people roaming the 3D environment all contribute to a sense that Square left the animation work to the second- or third-tier designers while they kept the top talent for Final Fantasy IX. Environment textures are also pretty poor, and with the fixed camera, it's difficult to tell in some varied terrain which is the hill and which is the valley.
"War never changes?" Maybe not, but the graphics behind war sims sure have changed. And in the case of the Front Mission series, things got worse before they got better. Compare screenshots of this game to both the original Front Mission and the never-localized Front Mission 5. You'll see what I mean.
A quick note on the music: again I'll use the word "passable." Almost every entry in this series is handed to a different composer or team of composers. Hayato Matsuo, understudy to the venerable Koichi Sugiyama, made what I count as easily the worst of the five main-series soundtracks. Koji Hayama's contributions help, but not enough. Give me Shimomura, Matsueda, or even Hidenori Iwasaki any day over the lackluster compositions found here. Strangely, Matsuo has written great music for lots of other RPGs (see: Shiren the Wanderer), but he doesn't shine here.
Survival of the Smartest
The interactive portions of Front Mission 3 – combat and customization – are largely cerebral affairs. And while players can certainly break the game with overpowered mechs, such a pursuit would still take hours of extra time in the Simulation mode. The challenge is in finishing each mission and finishing it well, on the first time through without any time spent in Simulation. It can be done, and it can be done without a walkthrough. But you'll have to be a most discerning and observant player to get it right.
Not that the game leaves you blind. The first few "missions" are tutorials that teach the basics: movement, attacks, attack types, phases, counter-attacks, etc. The whole series has devoted itself to the idea that each part of the mech has separate HP, and when that HP reaches zero, it has a different effect. Each arm lost means the weapons attached to that arm are no longer usable. Lost legs significantly decrease mobility and evasion. And, of course, if the body's HP reaches zero, the whole Wanzer is destroyed. The human pilot also has an HP bar, which is important because pilots can choose to eject (or be forcibly ejected). This adds an interesting dynamic to the game, wherein you can actually steal enemy Wanzers mid-battle; the AI doesn't seem to realize they can or should reciprocate.
As the game continues, you learn about skill acquisition, AP assignment, offense and defense types, and more, with each mechanic introduced in rapid succession throughout the first 10 to 15 missions. Americans never got the second Front Mission, and though we only got the first on the DS, long after FM3's American release, my order of play was the DS title, and now this. With that in mind, I can see the natural progression and increased complexity from the first game to the third.
But after all is said and done in the land of endless menus, theory meets reality on the battlefield. And the combat is splendid. There is always a luck factor in place since you never know how much it will take to destroy an enemy. Yes, before choosing to attack, you can see percent accuracy for your attack and the enemy's counter. But, if a special skill is invoked, all bets are off. And while you cannot choose to target any one body part, some special skills can *randomly activate* (only if you set them, or are trying to learn them from a piece of equipment). Early in the game, you have little to no skills, so the difficulty is held relatively low. As the challenge increases – enemies have higher HP, more skills, stronger weapons, and appear in greater number – you have to make good decisions to survive. For example, you might develop a character that exclusively uses missiles and make him learn "Leg Smash." This ranged attacker can then knock out the enemy unit's mobility quickly, allowing the rest of the crew to clean up a force that has low evasion and can't get around the map.
All this increased customization comes at a price, and that price is one chosen by Square for the sake of balance. In the first Front Mission, there were troop limits on the map, but it varied, and you could have as many as 12 in a battle. Front Mission 3 limits the number of controlled party units to four. In both story paths, your party size grows to eight. Conventional wisdom suggests ignoring four party members and always putting the other four in battle to obtain more skills and experience points. However, certain parts of the game force your team to split, so all party members have to be used at some point (this happens far more frequently in the "Emma" path, for some reason). The characters themselves are carte blanche, though. They arrive on the party with an equipped weapon as the suggested default, but you can make them as specialized or diversified as you see fit.
Almost every battle in both campaigns is fun, engaging, and challenging. The overall experience can rightly be described as dangerously addictive. Being able to play this on the PSP, this was the sort of game I could play late into the night while lying in bed. "Just one more battle," I'd tell myself. I haven't had a Strategy RPG put me into the throes of insomnia since Square's other
SRPG on this same console, Final Fantasy Tactics.
I Love Wanzers
This series proves that high medieval fantasy does not have the market cornered on Strategy RPGs. This runs contrary to my own biases over the years. I enjoyed the first Front Mission, but I worried it was a fluke. Well, perhaps not.
If you've not played any Front Mission at all, $6 is a fantastic ticket price to enter the wild world of Wanzers. If you played Front Mission 3 in the past, but only did one of the two campaigns, perhaps now would be the right time to see the "other side" of the plot. If you like turn-based, "Tactical" Strategy RPGs like FF Tactics, you are almost sure to like this game as well. Unless, of course, the graphics strain your eyes enough to give you headaches. The graphical caveat aside, this is a good one for most any RPG fan.