It’s been a resurgent year for strategy RPGs, and it’s also a good time for mechs. So, it’s a great time for Front Mission to come back to the forefront. The West has had a strange relationship with Square Enix’s mech series, but with Forever Entertainment’s (FE) plans to remake at least the first three games, it looks like we’re about to become BFFs. It’s not a series without the first game, so let’s start at the beginning. The original Front Mission got a somewhat muted remake/re-release back on the Nintendo DS, long after the series made its global debut with Front Mission 3. Now, FE has refurbished the wanzer (Front Mission’s version of mechs) with a fresh salvo of firepower. But can this title from 1995 — when the company was still called Square — keep up with today’s SRPG young guns, and is the remake worthy of a classic title?
Front Mission 1st Remake‘s updates to the original game are mainly cosmetic, but the visuals got a complete overhaul, with a polygonal style replacing the Super Famicom’s pixels. Compared to the original version, the graphics land closer to Front Mission 3. It makes sense to go for a more uniform look with more remakes to come. I still appreciate the older graphics, which now take on a well-worn quality that hearkens to Square’s golden age; at first, I thought the new look was too clean for such a gritty story.
However, the more I played, the more the new visuals grew on me. I began to notice many minor details. Trees sway on the overhead map, you can see tiny birds flying about while destruction is happening down on the battlefield, and rushing water looks more realistic, giving the tropical setting life. City scenes look like they’re from a neo-noir tale, somewhat like Blade Runner, with designs that appear at once futuristic (for 1995 Japan) and also from out of the 1920s. The wanzers themselves look a little too plastic at first glance, but up close, creeping rust spots give them character. In the closeup battle scenes, there’s a satisfying impact and reactive movement when attacks land and projectiles correctly hit specific locations that are taking damage (as each part of the wanzer has its own hit points). There are also environmental noises on the isometric battlefield, such as car alarms, that only sound when you are scrolling past them and get quieter as you move away, a cool touch that I hadn’t seen in a strategy RPG title before. The iconic character designs from Yoshitaka Amano get touch-ups without mussing up their integrity, thankfully.
The music also gets a high-definition update that makes the orchestral and techno-funky tunes sound much sharper than the original soundtrack. It’s not the full re-recording of music that Final Fantasy VII Remake received, but the sound is smoother than the original MIDI, giving the original eclectic soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura and Noriko Matsueda a more organic sound. All in all, the update is successful at bringing a more modern presentation to a nearly three-decade-old game. I’m still partial to the pixel graphics because I love that Super Famicom/SNES look, and I definitely would have been happy with a simple port of the original game. I appreciate the work that went into the update, but it does lose the original atmosphere to a degree.
With all of that, other than hearing the bass-heavy lo-fi music as a fascinating listen for comparison (and I loved both versions of the tunes), there’s little reason to check out Classic Mode other than out of sheer curiosity. For one, “Classic Mode” is a misnomer, as it’s closer to a lower-definition version of Front Mission 1st Remake: closer to the general appearance of a PSOne game, rather than the original game’s appearance. The main differences are that the camera is not adjustable and the mechs slowly amble, which is painful to sit through when the Remake speeds them up while also giving them a fun new jet-boots animation.
Under the shiny new exterior is the same old Front Mission, a game that’s entirely of its 1995 origin. In stark contrast to modern games, Front Mission 1st Remake makes no effort to ease you into its complex gameplay. After a short tutorial giving you the bare basics, little more than how to move and attack, you’re thrown headfirst into a workshop flooded with weapons and parts and immediately forced to figure out how to adequately outfit a fleet of wanzers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I found it refreshing that I was left to sort out the mess on my own rather than getting extensive explanations on how to do everything. But it can be intimidating at first. It’s not just that your funds are limited: you have to scroll through long lists filled with numbers to put together a wanzer that can hold up in battle. You’re also expected to independently learn some of the system’s more esoteric aspects, like when a situation calls for a multi-shot gun rather than a single-shot one. That said, it’s incredibly satisfying once you’ve got your robot legs under you and you learn how to efficiently best enemies. The workshop transforms from a cold hard steel hell into a tinkerer’s paradise.
Battles are rough around the edges to start, too. The gameplay is based on the old Tactics Ogre-style grid that any strategy player should be familiar with (though Front Mission released before Tactics Ogre). Attacking feels random until your characters gain a few levels because you can’t choose which part of the enemy’s wanzer to hit. Each of the wanzer’s arms, its body, and its legs are targets for damage, affecting the unit in different ways if a part is destroyed. Taking out the body completely destroys it, and you can have several mechs firing away for several turns before they actually hit the right location for enough damage. Adding to the frustration are a few difficulty spikes, mainly in the first half of the game.
Controls were also a frustration in the original game, and this issue has been addressed with a change, but not at all fixed. In battles, the cursor is more free-floating, making it more difficult to pick the precise square you want on the isometric grid. Once again, if you’re willing to push through those issues, the combat sings as you watch your workshop plans come to fruition in battle. Decisions that earlier confounded me became based on my knowledge rather than the need to select something, and it made me happy to pat myself on the back when I steamrolled an army of wanzers.
The original story, featuring the separate journeys of the awesomely named Royd Clive of the Oceania Cooperative Union and Kevin Greenfield of the United Continental States (loose stand-ins for the global East and West) during the Second Huffman War around the final quarter of the 21st century, is intact. Being one war story among many out there, Royd’s story specifically feels a bit dated now, though it was ahead of its time for 1995. Kevin’s story, on the other hand, which was initially released in 2003 as part of the Japan-only Front Mission 1st package, provides an added dimension to Royd’s half, making clearer the great tragedy of war, as the whole story presents a fuller perspective of well-meaning soldiers from both sides of the war caught up in a meaningless conflict at the behest of hidden forces much more powerful than they. The second part is also much more even and thrilling overall and also offers a greater variety of challenges. Kevin’s path also provides a hopeful outlook on a rather bleak story.
There’s a great contrast between Royd’s mercenary group, the Canyon Crows, who are hired by the OCU and Kevin’s Silver Lynx, a specialist group for the UCS. All of the members of Royd’s outfit have personal motivations for fighting: some are willing to do whatever it takes to help their loved ones survive, and for others, it’s simply a paying gig. None are particularly invested in helping the OCU win the war. Kevin’s crew, on the other hand, are wholly committed to the UCS’ success, and they only come into internal conflict with UCS higher-ups when their military-driven sense of honor is offended. Yet, both groups wind up drawn into a publicly hidden mess of corruption and atrocity out of a
Call of Duty™ sense of duty that goes beyond merely following orders. Kevin’s story, in providing the extra perspective, is an add-on that takes a now-rote story and helps keep it shining on. It also offers an updated angle on the old story that was more fitting for the time in which it was released in the early 2000s, considering the state of politics and war around the world at that time. It’s an anti-war tale that feels as though its spirit just found its completion this year in Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Regardless of how essential Forever Entertainment’s updated Front Mission 1st Remake update is, the game itself is a classic. It’s wonderful that it’s now available on a modern platform and that the developers have sparked their own revival for a series that has been mostly dormant for over a decade (Left Alive? Never heard of it). With one game down, it’s easy to look forward to the eventual remakes of Front Mission 2 and 3 and, hopefully, even more to come after those with Forever Entertainment in the cockpit.