Over the span of its 4 previous releases, Square's Front Mission series has established itself as one of the top strategy RPG franchises ever to hit home console gaming. However, up until now, the stellar series had been completely confined to Japan, as the US branch of Square elected not to take a chance on any of the previous Front Mission games. Front Mission 3, the inaugural installment to hit American shores, isn't the series' finest game, but it does provide solid strategy RPG gaming to fans of the genre.
Taking place in 2112, 10 years after the events surrounding Front Mission 2nd transpired, Front Mission 3 revolves around a civilian college student named Kazuki Takemura. Kazuki, a straight-laced individual, works as a Wanzer test pilot for a private sector manufacturer called Kirishima Heavy Industries (in the Front Mission world, mechs are called "Wanzers"). As the game begins, Kazuki and his free-spirited buddy Ryogo Kusama are assigned to deliver a pair of Kirishima's newest Wanzers to a base in Yokosuka. As they are dropping the war machines off, however, a huge explosion rocks the base.
Unfortunately, Kazuki's adopted younger sister Alisa is an employee of the sabotaged base, and fearing the worst, Kazuki and Ryogo elect to search the base for her. Although their goal is simple, their actions draw them into a huge global power struggle that could mean the end of life as they know it.
Front Mission 3 actually has 2 separate but related possible storylines for Kazuki and Ryogo to experience, and a decision near the beginning of the game determines which one the player will get to see. The storyline chosen determines your allies, your enemies, and many of the individual events that occur in the game. The diverging plots help give Front Mission 3 much more replay value than the average game.
However, Front Mission 3's storyline has many problems, the least of which is an uptight, petulant protagonist who this reviewer found excessively difficult to relate to. Character development is present to a small extent, but it's really weak for nearly all of the characters in the game. The plot fails to impress from an event-based standpoint, too, seeming less like a cohesive storyline progression and more like a series of preposterous military events that could have been prevented if anyone in the Front Mission world had the common sense to do a reasonable job of planning.
In addition, the scenario design is notably unimaginative. For most of the game, I felt like I was led around on a giant wild-goose chase looking for a bomb. Within the scope of a complete plot, a couple of scenarios of this nature is acceptable; when they take up most of the game, though, there's a lot left to be desired.
Front Mission 3 also doesn't help itself with its translation quality. Although the dialogue does a pretty good job of avoiding spelling errors and blatant grammatical problems, the majority of it is worded in the most confusing way possible. Not surprisingly, the dialogue flow is terrible, and many of the characters' responses don't match up at all with the statement or question that they are responding to.
To its credit, though, the dialogue does convey the personalities of some of the characters reasonably well. For example, the petulant Kazuki's statements are immature and dull, and the rambunctious Ryogo uses a healthy dose of West Coast slang.
Like Front Mission 2nd, Front Mission 3 is a turn-based strategy game, with AP determining the extent of actions that your Wanzer can perform in a round. Different weapons have varying ranges of attack and cost different amounts of AP to use. The battles occur in distinct player/enemy phases, and, like in Front Mission 2nd, skills can be used to augment your characters' combat abilities. Experience is gained through combat and is specific to the weapon used.
Also noteworthy is the fact that there is some freedom of action (through menu-based commands) between battles. Between scenarios, players can replenish supplies, customize their Wanzers' parts and weapons, talk to NPCs, and even go on the Front Mission world's internet. On the internet, players can receive background story info on the Front Mission world, exchange emails with NPCs, and learn about the products of the numerous manufacturers that exist. Although this network option has little impact on the outcome of the game, it proves to be an enjoyable diversion.
The most noticeable improvement about Front Mission 3 is that it corrects its prequel's biggest flaw. The gameplay executes much more quickly than that of Front Mission 2nd. The long load times required to enter battle in FM2 are pretty much completely absent in FM3. When you choose to fight in FM3, the camera just zooms in, and the battle begins. In addition, the lengthy posturing between the mechs during the battle scenes in FM2 is gone. The mechs just go straight at it once combat is initiated, saving a lot of time in battles.
All of these improvements in gameplay speed during the individual battle scenarios cause Front Mission 3's loading time between scenarios to be very frequent and very lengthy. Although this isn't exactly desirable, it's preferable to having to wait 8-10 seconds every time you attack an enemy or vice versa.
Other new gameplay elements include being able to leave your Wanzer to take over abandoned units and being able to force enemies to abandon their units when you hit them with a strong attack. Not surprisingly, enemy pilots are much more susceptible to attack outside of their Wanzers, so this feature can help you eliminate enemies more quickly. Unfortunately, though, enemies can do the same to you. In a touch of realism, enemy units also often surrender when they are reduced to low hit point levels.
In spite of its many new features and refinements, Front Mission 3 actually doesn't play quite as well as FM2 did. This is due to the fact a lot of Front Mission 3's features greatly reduce the amount of strategy that it holds. First of all, you can only send 4 units into combat at a time in FM3, whereas you could send all 12 of your playable units into combat in FM2. As a result, you don't have to face as many enemies per battle. Second, the scenario maps are significantly smaller in FM3. Finally, changes were made to the AP system that take away a lot of its strategy.
In Front Mission 3, your characters receive more AP than they did in FM2. In addition, the effect of surrounding or being surrounded by your enemies has been greatly weakened. In FM2, surrounding your enemies was the key focus of gameplay, because you could render an enemy virtually helpless by surrounding him. In FM3, however, you can pretty much run around doing whatever you want, because being surrounded by enemies isn't something you truly fear, and because the overall difficulty of the game is low.
FM3's control is very strong, like that of FM2. The responsive cursor moves in almost the exact same continuous fashion, and the camera can be manually rotated in 45-degree increments. The menus are well organized, utilizing the same basic layout that those of FM2 had.
The only weakness in control is that you can't manually tilt the camera. In a few of the maps, it's really difficult to tell by sight alone exactly where your cursor is. Although you can eventually figure out where the cursor is by moving it around, this represents a needless waste of time and energy.
Visually, FM3 is solid but unspectacular. In play, the polygonal backgrounds are well detailed, but they don't stand out from those of most other RPGs of today. The mechs are small on the gameplay maps, but they do prove to be impressive in their level of detail when the camera zooms in during combat. The weapon effects are unspectacular, but they get the job done. The character art is really nice, though; it's the best that the series has yet seen, in this reviewer's opinion.
The few scattered CG cut scenes are really well done, too. The direction and material of the movies are excellent, and the graininess is minimal.
Unfortunately, however, the overwhelming majority of FM3's cut scenes are generated with its in-game polygon engine, and they look absolutely terrible. In them, backgrounds, people, and mechs all get really, really blocky up close, though the impressive detail level of the Wanzers remains intact even when the camera zooms in. Objects and backgrounds alike struggle to remain cohesive as the camera pans around. The animation of Wanzers, vehicles, and especially humans is both choppy and clumsy.
Worst of all, these ubiquitous cut scenes seem to be perpetually running in slow motion, and there's no apparent way to skip them. Because they're nothing to look at to begin with, their slow speed only causes them to be veritably sleep inducing. Without a doubt, sitting through these lengthy but vacuous sequences is the most annoyingly tedious aspect of playing through FM3.
Sound-wise, FM3 continues on in the vein of its prequel, too. The sound effects are very solid, with booming explosions and realistic clanking as the Wanzers walk. The tandem of Koji Hayama and Hayato Matsuo takes the compositional reins from Noriko Matsueda and churns out another atmospheric yet militaristic soundtrack. Unfortunately, even though FM3's soundtrack carries on the general stylistic feel of Matsueda's FM2 soundtrack, it doesn't contain the compelling melodies that Matsueda peppered its prequel with.
The scattered bits of voice acting in FM3 are there more for background noise than for anything else, but it's nice to see that they were left in their original languages (Japanese, Russian, and English), with subtitles added in where needed. The level of emotion in the acting is appropriate for the nature of the interaction that it's present in, and the spoken dialogue accomplishes its task beautifully.
Front Mission 3's numerous flaws prevent it from being considered among the elite strategy RPGs, but it certainly is a solid effort and a worthy continuation of the series. Strangely enough, I did find myself a bit more addicted to the game than I expected to be, so all strategy RPG fans out there are encouraged to at least give this one a try.