Only the well-informed among us know the details of Square’s “Front Mission” series. While certainly successful in Japan, the series has not performed all that well in North America. Perhaps this is because we were introduced to the series a little late, and our initiation was the PlayStation’s Front Mission 3. Whether you’ve followed the series or not, now is your chance to finally play the debut Front Mission title, a game that hardcore series fans consider one of the best.
Here’s the history lesson. In 1995, Squaresoft released the original Front Mission for Super Famicom, developed by a small studio under Square’s wing called G-Craft. The game was a success, and was quickly followed up by an action/platformer for the Super Famicom. The series continued on its course with various sequels and “cousin” titles (Alternative, Online, etc). But the original remained a fan-favorite, so it saw more remakes than any other game in the series. Front Mission was ported to WonderSwan Color in 2002, alongside many other popular Square titles. Then, in 2003, just at the time of the Square Enix merger, a compilation title was released for PlayStation called “Front Mission History.” The first three games in the series were put in this collection. FM2 got a minor face-lift, and FM3 remained entirely the same. But the original Front Mission, now titled “Front Mission 1st,” doubled in size. The original, linear plot was now complemented with a second scenario. You started on the opposite side of a two-party conflict, and every mission from beginning to end was different from the original path. It was like getting a second game within the same game. An FMV cut scene was also added to Front Mission at this time.
This PlayStation “Front Mission 1st” only had a limited release, as the Front Mission History collection had a short print run. But fans were eager to have an accessible version of this great Strategy RPG, and Square Enix was just as eager to please those fans. In March of this year, Square Enix released a DS port of the PlayStation “Front Mission 1st,” and added even more bonuses: side quests, additional Wanzer upgrades, and some hidden characters that could join your party. It is this version, the port of a remake, that finally makes it to North America. If there ever was a good time to bring the original to stateside fans, it would be now.
Like all subsequent Front Mission titles, this game takes place in a fictional future, near the turn of the 22nd century. The story is of a new island that appears in the Pacific (between Asia and North America) due to a volcano eruption. The new island, named “Huffman Island,” was simultaneously claimed by two different nations, desperate for land. One nation was the OCU (Oceanic Community Union), and the other was the UCS (United Continental Statesmen). In simple terms, these are the future east/southeast Asia (Japan, Philippines, etc) and the whole of North America, respectively. If you’d like, you could even simplify it in your own mind to “Japan vs. the US.” Small conflicts and skirmishes took place after the island’s formation, but eventually, boundaries were formed to split the island in half, and peace was made.
At the start of Front Mission, in the year 2085, trouble is brewing. Hostile activities around the central border of Huffman island have roused up political interest, and what starts out as a few small attacks turns into the “Huffman Second Conflict.” The majority of the game has you, the player, taking part in this conflict. The game’s original story, as seen on the Super Famicom, placed you with the OCU. You played as a mercenary-for-hire named “Royd”–a terrible romanization, for the record (many fans translate this name as “Lloyd,” which is an actual name–along with Ryuji Sakata, Natalie, J.J., and Hunter). The Royd-path prologue opens with Royd seeing his fianceé, Karen, attacked and kidnapped by UCS forces. This is the driving motive for Royd and crew to side with the OCU during the conflict.
The additional scenario has you play as Kevin, a member of the UCS military. Kevin also pilots a Wanzer alongside the love of his life, Maria (though their relationship is not exactly “established” like Royd and Karen’s is). Playing the game from Kevin’s perspective, you never make real contact with Royd’s group in the OCU, though they do appear briefly in one scene. The UCS scenario is shorter in length, but it reveals some very interesting details about the game’s plot; namely, it contains details surrounding the true villains, and the specific how’s and why’s behind some events that Royd and crew never see. Kevin’s path is also, in some ways, a precursor to Front Mission 4 and 5, in that it uses some characters that become very important in those later games.
What makes the plot to Front Mission so appealing? There are more than a few points to consider here, but I will tell you what I find so attractive about the game. First, there is a sense of realism about it. The conflicts in Front Mission are not a simple matter of good vs. evil. In the OCU, and in the UCS, there are good people, and there are bad people. Fortunately, this means that you get to play as good, honorable individuals regardless of the path you choose to play. It is easy to sympathize with Kevin or Royd, and by the game’s conclusion, it’s easy to imagine that these two could be good friends. Indeed, if they had ever met on the battlefield, they would only be enemies by way of their allegiances. That is, Royd’s search for Karen and Kevin’s search for the truth ultimately lead to the same place.
This brings me to the next point. Front Mission’s plot is great because it includes the sort of conspiracies that we all imagine are behind every major modern conflict. History shows us time and again that the reasons people go to war have a “surface” motive, one which rallies up the troops, and then a “true” motive, one that the people know little about and would likely disagree with their leaders upon pursuing. Such is the case in this particular Strategy RPG, and the pace and execution of the plot is excellent.
Front Mission’s plot is also appealing because of its setting. A fictional near-future using the powers of the world and giant mecha? Sign me up! It’s a wet dream for mecha fans, war buffs, history buffs, and political science majors.
Finally, there are the characters and their dialogue. The English translation, disregarding the whole “Royd” thing, is superb. The characters themselves feel genuine. There’s nothing sappy or extreme about them. They feel like real people, and real soldiers. And heaven help you if you call Royd “emo” because of his general apathy. His reasons for acting the way he does are presented, and they are presented well. In this sci-fi setting, a strong, bitter, gray reality is presented. Yet there’s reason to fight on; this meta-narrative presented by Square Enix is one that fans should pay attention to.
The aura and atmosphere of the Front Mission universe is marked by two things: the Wanzers, and the people. Wanzers are “walking panzers,” or in other words, giant mechs. They are big, ridiculous machines created for the sake of causing major destruction and killing other people. These weapons of war, awe-inspiring though they may be, are also drab and lifeless. These piloted mecha aren’t the sort of sleek, glorified hero-machines seen in regular Japanese culture (Evangelion, Sakura Taisen, etc). You fight in bulky, mass-produced Wanzers that, even if they look cool, are still disposable at the end of the day.
These mecha are contrasted by their pilots. With character designs by Yoshitaka Amano, a renowned artist who gained fame with his work on the Final Fantasy series, these pensive, sometimes-anemic men and women have powerfully calm demeanors and facial expressions. It may be a personal preference, but if you love Amano’s character designs, know that some of his best are found here in Front Mission. His female characters are particularly striking; Natalie is a character you’re bound to remember for a long time after playing this game.
Those things aside, the graphics in Front Mission are pretty basic. The majority of the game takes place on a somewhat-detailed map, and each “attack” happens on a more detailed screen, with simply but effective animations showing what the Wanzers do to one another. There are also times of “exploration,” which is little more than menu-based place-hopping. The backgrounds created as the setting for the game’s dialogue are also a paradoxical mix of drab colors (metal-gray, earth-brown) with stunning detail.
The game’s soundtrack was co-composed twelve years ago by Yoko Shimomura and Noriko Matsueda. Shimomura is best remembered, these days, for her work on the Kingdom Hearts series. North American fans will recognize Matsueda’s jazz-inspired music from the Final Fantasy X-2 score. Back in the day, these two young ladies worked together to create one of the most memorable and unique soundtracks Square had released. This game has amazing music, but not at all in the same vein as Uematsu’s Final Fantasy scores. Indeed, it is even difficult to trace Shimomura’s later works to the sounds and styles she uses here. But Matsueda’s contributions are uncannily similar to her work in Bahamut Lagoon (another Square Strategy RPG for Super Famicom), Racing Lagoon, and The Bouncer. Industrial, jazz, and ambient techno are her tools of the trade, and while they are only lightly represented in the game’s music, they are there, and they definitely shape your perception of the game as you play it.
A few additional tunes were written by Hidenori Iwasaki for the additional campaign (the UCS/Kevin route). Iwasaki was an obvious choice for the additional tunes, since he wrote the majority of the songs for Front Mission 4 and 5, and is hence the musical frontman for all recent Front Mission projects. The songs he added to Front Mission are few, but they are perfect for this game. I commend Square Enix for choosing this composer to continue the Front Mission standard of excellence.
Dialogue is not voice-acted, though there is one voiced sound effect that series veterans know and love: “Thank you.” A computerized “Thank you” voice is played for each and every transaction at the parts shop. Sound effects are masterfully done, especially for their time in 1995. The transition to DS didn’t seem to hurt the sound quality either, and I am happy about this.
When Front Mission was first published, it made a pretty big jump in Strategy RPG sophistication. Square built off of the traditional Strategy RPG model first seen in Fire Emblem and Shining Force, but added one key element that made Front Mission stand out. That key element? Area-specific damage. In Front Mission, each Wanzer has a specifc amount of HP for four different parts: body, left arm, right arm, and feet. The destruction of each individual part means something very different. If you finish off the body, that means the whole Wanzer is dead, and there’s no more attacking it. Taking out the legs restricts field movement and also lowers evasion. Weapons are equipped to a Wanzer’s arms (and shoulders) and taking out each arm removes that method of attack. If you take out both arms, the Wanzer has become a walking target with no way to fight back.
The removal of each individual part of a Wanzer grants decent experience point bonuses. So, if you have the time and resources, it’s best to save the body for last. Also, the arms generally have less HP than the other parts, so taking out one (or both) arms may be an efficient way to keep your allies safe from harm. However, the ability to choose which parts you wish to target comes only by gaining levels and receiving particular skills. Each character will only learn a few skills through the course of the game (two or three skills per pilot is standard at endgame). One skill allows you to target body parts at short range, and another skill allows you to target at long range. There are other skills that allow for counter-attacks, dodging, dual weapons usage, and other forms of increased weapons effectiveness. All of these are factors in how you’re going to survive, and how you’re going to take down your opponent. But before you can target specific parts, damage is done randomly against the enemy Wanzer. This adds a realistic element of chaos to the battle, and it will help you determine how to most effectively deal damage from turn to turn. Generally, it’s safest for many allies to gang up on one enemy Wanzer until it’s down, and then move on, but there are times that this is not the best strategy. And it’s because Square developed this multi-target enemy that these various strategies become important.
The “survival” element is another part of what makes this game especially fun and challenging. Healing items are limited, and again, you use them one at a time on different parts of your mech, which uses up a whole turn. So constant healing is even less doable in this game than it is in other Strategy RPGs. If you lose a part of your body, the only way to do that is by repairing it, but this requires the use of either a repair vehicle or a repair “backpack,” which will thoroughly limit one pilot’s mech to pretty much being a healing machine, since each mech has a weight limit based on its power output.
This brings me to the next element of this excellent Strategy RPG: customization. Every pilot is different, with specialties in melee, short, and long-ranged combat. Setting up that pilot’s Wanzer accordingly is crucial. As you set up a Wanzer, it’s also important to take into account each part’s defense, HP, weight, and power. A Weight/Power ratio is always displayed on-screen, and it cannot go over 100. So you have to decide: do I want a heavily-armored mech, or a mobile mech with light weaponry, or a mech with nothing but powerful (but expendable) long-range capability? The options are overwhelming, and a newcomer to the Front Mission series may struggle with all that’s required to make a mech decent. Just “buying the best parts” and throwing them all on one mech doesn’t work; you’ll be overweight and you probably won’t have the money to do that anyway. Decisions should be made wisely, and multiple save files should be kept in case you blow your money on something that proves worthless in subsequent missions.
This port also received some much-needed system enhancements. The options menu allows you to speed up battle animations. A recommendation to everyone who plays this game: just turn everything to “fast.” You’ll be happy you did. This game would certainly have been more tedious without this feature.
My final point regarding gameplay is that porting this game to the DS was a great idea. Having a second screen to display information is key. I’ve played the original Japanese version on Super Famicom, and if there was one thing that always got me in trouble, it was not being able to keep track of all the information. I needed to know the stats of my mechs, and the enemy mechs, at all times to make decent decisions. Having a second screen available, displaying all sorts of helpful information, was crucial. I suspect that most gamers will enjoy this beneficial add-on.
No gimmicky features came with the DS port. You won’t be blowing into microphones or using the stylus for special attacks. The touch screen is only used for menu selection and troop movement, and even then, they are completely optional. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves the DS fan without full use of the system’s potential.
But what really irritated me was the directional pad, and its application on the isometric field. You know, the squares are positioned like diamonds on a 45 degree angle. There are different ways to align a D-pad to this setup, but most isometric Strategy RPGs make it so that the D-pad is part of the 45 degree slant. So when you hit “up” you’ll move one “up-right,” whereas “left” will take you “up-left.” Personally, that’s what I’m used to. Just building this in as an option in Front Mission would’ve been nice. Instead, you get that up is up, down is down, etc. And while this sounds natural and intuitive, it simply is not. Moving from panel to panel on the field just looks weird as you hold the D-pad down in one direction. Nothing moves in a straight line; your targeted panel jumps one right, then one left, one right, one left, another left, as you simply hold the D-pad “down.” It’s very disorienting.
Though I consider this a significant problem, it is the only control problem I found. Otherwise, “it’s all good.”
I’ve seen and heard a lot from gamers who are simply “fed up” with Square Enix and its mainstream, all-style-and-no-content games. If you’re one of those people, maybe you’ll take solace in this Square classic that was never-before released in English. This game brings both style and content to the table. It doesn’t pretend to be anything greater than it is: it’s a very straightforward Strategy RPG. But once you start playing, I suspect you’ll see what makes this game so special. Do yourself a favor and pick up this lesser-known title. Hey, maybe with enough sales, Square Enix will take the hint and release Front Mission 5 in North America as well.