Amidst all the big JRPG releases of March ’10, namely FFXIII and a new Shin Megami Tensei game for the DS, it would be easy to miss Infinite Space, a fairly ambitious sci-fi RPG. The back of the box instructs the player to “embark on an odyssey to unite the universe,” which certainly sounds like a daunting task, especially when combined with a title like Infinite Space. The game itself, however, has both incredible successes and glaring flaws that bring its would-be greatness back down to Earth.
In the world of Infinite Space, mankind has colonized outer space to an extreme degree, to the point where they inhabit many galaxies. This concept in and of itself is original considering most science fiction franchises limit themselves to one region of space or galaxy. Upon starting the game the player is confronted with many JRPG conventions that may detract from one’s initial interest in the story; I speak primarily of starting as a 16-year old boy named Yuri who wants to (and eventually does) leave his home planet and travel the “sea of stars.” On the way he fights space pirates and meets many new friends (read: crew members) as expected. Beyond these humble beginnings though, is a rich degree of character development for both the main characters and many of the NPCs, which is incredible given the large size of the cast in the game. Moreover, as political intrigue in the Infinite Space universe becomes increasingly complex and Yuri becomes more involved with many factions across the galaxies, the player is confronted with many varying ideologies and conflicts, illustrating well the state of man in this far future age. In many of the chapters the player will be forced decide between fighting for one faction or another, or choose which part of a large-scale mission to assist with, which vastly changes the story and crew members that decide to join you. Various plot twists and an epic ending also help to add spice to a game broken into fairly obvious chapter divides. Infinite Space offers an increasingly enthralling story worth experiencing, despite hours of somewhat mediocre gameplay.
Infinite Space can essentially be divided into three main portions: traveling around and speaking to NPCs, battling in fleet battles, and customizing your fleet. Traveling is a menu-based affair as you make your route through the planets and other sectors. Once you arrive at your destination, you once again use menus to head to taverns, pirate lairs, and other locations to speak to others and get a large part of the aforementioned story. Fleet battles are, of course, the main part of the game. You encounter various fleets when traveling from planet to planet who are just dying to destroy yours. There are also many event-related and boss battles to be fought. Battles are fought by maneuvering your fleet back and forth on a linear path. There are indicators on screen to show when enemies are in range, and you can use the touch screen to launch a Normal attack or a Barrage attack. Later in the game you are given access to more commands such as launching fighter planes to attack your opponent, anti-air, and Melee, which allows you to board the enemy ship and play a rock-paper-scissors-like mini-game in a battle between crews. All these commands cost varying amounts of the Command Gauge, which gradually fills up as the battle goes on. The entire battle process sounds quite daunting at first but becomes straightforward as you get more experienced, to the point where many battles can be quite routine and boring.
The issue of the learning curve in Infinite Space leads to perhaps the biggest problem with the game, which is to say the lack of much of a tutorial. I would highly recommend reading the instruction manual to this game before you play it, as the game does not tell the player most of the information he or she needs to be successful, especially in early battles. There is also an online resource at Sega’s website called the “Zero-G Commander’s Guide” that is good reading (it also includes a timeline of the Infinite Space universe). In-game there is a help-desk you can visit at spaceports that will give a brief description of just about any of the many gameplay concepts, but it can be annoying to have to go there to ask whenever you need to know something. Even your crew members’ abilities are just listed on their profile as names with no description of what they do; you can only find the description at the help desk. This confusion is what makes the beginning of Infinite Space somewhat difficult and annoying. Moreover, the touch screen is used for just about everything in Infinite Space and there is no option to use normal buttons in battles or traveling the map. This took some getting used to.
Returning to a good note, however, we come to the last part of the gameplay: building your fleet. There are many different ships to choose from with many different stats to consider. On top of which ships to include in your fleet (which maxes out at five), there is also an involved modification process for each ship where you put rooms of varying shapes into a grid. These include everything from better engines for more speed, radar rooms for added range, security offices for more melee, and even mess halls for better ship livability for your crew. You can also upgrade weapons and stock various types of fighter planes on ships, as well as pick and choose your crew members and what positions they hold, from 1st Officer to Head Chef. This number-crunching modification system is both the largest RPG element of the game as well as one of the most fun, and players will undoubtedly enjoy improving their ships’ specifications to suit their particular style of play. The game usually ends up taking you through a star system destroying enemy fleets until you begin to have trouble in battle, at which time you will need to scrap your old ships and buy new ones.
The music and sound effects in Infinite Space are somewhat mixed in quality. Sound effects are typical laser and thruster sounds of any sci-fi game, and explosion noises you hear constantly are unremarkable. In addition, none of the battle music (one of my personal favorite parts of RPGs) really stood out, and I have trouble remembering any of it. It was fitting of the science-fiction, fleet-battle setting but did nothing to get the heart pumping about whatever battle one may be waging. The event music on the other hand, like the story events themselves, was often very fitting and memorable. There was even a J-pop song with decent vocals for the DS stuck in for the credits and an important battle, which was a nice and surprising touch.
The graphics in Infinite Space are a mix of somewhat blocky 3D ships for battles and nicely drawn 2D pictures for story scenes and some backgrounds. The starscapes shown during travel and battle are pleasing enough to the eye, but the 3D ships are not the best graphics on the DS despite what the developers may have tried for. Though some of the ship designs are quite interesting or original, many of them just look blocky or grainy on screen. The character designs are quite varied considering the large number of characters shown in the game’s dialogue scenes. Menus and the overall graphical style of the game’s fonts and such very much complement the science fiction theme of the game as well.
Overall, Infinite Space is a tough game to pin a clear-cut review on. Some of its elements like its story and modification system are expansive and enjoyable, whereas the lack of a tutorial is troublesome. You will likely spend 30-40 hours on the story mode of Infinite Space, and with various branching story paths depending on which factions you choose to side with as well as many missable crew members and unlockable ships, there is enough content to warrant a second playthrough. The game also has a carry-over feature for the second playthrough and also has some additional content only available the second time through. I would certainly recommend this game to anyone looking for a solid science fiction story in a JRPG or for anyone looking for something quite different from many RPGs on the market today. Potential players should just be prepared to take many of the game’s shortcomings in stride in order to better enjoy its good points. I am hopeful that there will be a sequel to Infinite Space or a game with a similar system that adds a bit of polish.