Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Why can’t the Wii be like its cool little brother, the Nintendo DS? It seems like every month that adorable little console gets an awesome new game while my Wii Fit balance board gathers dust. Worsening this disparity is Sega, which on June 11th released Infinite Space, an epic sci-fi RPG that puts to shame almost anything you’ll find on PS3 or Xbox 360. Something of a flawed masterpiece, Infinite Space is a huge and ambitious game for a handheld though not without its blemishes. It’s like Scarlett Johansson in an ugly dress: sure, there’s something to criticize, but you’d be an idiot to pass up on it.
Infinite Space puts you in the captain’s seat as you battle to save the universe in starships, fighters, and even the occasional hand-to-hand scrap. The gameplay outside of battle consists of compulsive ship customization and navigating two galaxies to advance a massive story. Plot progression has a visual novel feel, as it is a text and dialogue heavy game. It’s also a character heavy game when you consider that there are 150 cast members, crew, and NPC’s taken together. With roughly the same number of unique ship designs, scores of different fighters, weapon systems, modules, and ship enhancements, you could call it craft heavy too.
Really it’s just a heavy game. I’m surprised that this particular DS cart doesn’t weigh 10 pounds. The sheer amount of content is staggering. There are dozens of planets to visit, each with their own charm. Outside of visiting bars and shopping, there often isn’t a heck of a lot to do on each world. Nevertheless it does feel like whole galaxies are at your fingertips. A single playthrough takes between 60 and 80 hours and will easily go over 100 if you get into ship customization and side missions. Let me break down the former just a tick.
You start with one ship, but gradually gain the ability to command up to five. Making new ships requires ship schematics, which you’ll have to buy from companies or earn by fulfilling certain conditions in the story. The four basic types are cruisers, destroyers, carriers, and battleships. Be sure to shop wisely and check all the parameters as some ships have special attacks or defensive capabilities, like ballistic shields. Once you buy a ship you’ll give it a name (I named my ships after Transformers because I’m old school like that) and then get to trick it out something fierce. You’ll set up a mixture of weapons for each ship, ranging from laser cannons to plasma beams to missiles. You’ll add modules to improve armor, HP, attack range, accuracy, weapon power, and command speed. You’ll install engine systems to jack up your battle speed, rec rooms and cafeterias to keep morale up on long voyages, laboratories to help your science team develop new ship modifications, and so on and so forth.
How exactly are you going to afford all of this madness? By smiting space pirates, of course. Enemy encounters occur when cruising between planets and in most cases you’ll be able to decide whether to intercept the enemy for a fight or evade them and stay on the road. Once in battle, you’ll use the stylus to advance or retreat from the enemy on a 2D field (3D would have been epic, but it’s still awesome, trust me) and select from six basic commands: attack, full power attack, evasive maneuvers, anti-aircraft guns, launch fighters, and raid ship. The last command isn’t always possible, but if you pull it off, you’ll go into hand-to-hand combat mode, essentially a rock-paper-scissors match-up with its own special attacks and parameters. The real fun lies in baiting enemies into using full power attacks which can be completely dodged using evasive maneuvers, then countering with an attack or special move of your own.
This isn’t even getting into setting up your crew, an immensely fun process that evolves as you meet new characters. You have 35 posts to fill, with jobs like artillery chief, medical officer, and cook. Finding the right people will boost your fleet’s stats in various ways and unlock special skills in battle. From a gameplay perspective I can only think of one meaningful criticism: the challenge is uneven. There are encounters that feel somewhat like Ender’s Game, chains of battles where you are outnumbered five to one and you find yourself wondering “Am I supposed to actually win this fight?” Yet in the game’s second act, it seems too easy to just swarm enemies with a large squadron of fighters and use healing techniques (the healing alone breaks the game IMHO and I am dedicating myself to not using it at all on my second run). There is a challenge mode unlocked after clearing the game, as well as local multiplayer, two nice consolations to the above issue. Overall, the game plays great. For a DS title it is hard to ask for more.
The graphics are bound to be a love-hate relationship for most players. Some things are done very well, for example the anime character portraits and numerous ship and module designs. I enjoyed the artwork, the lovingly detailed ship enhancements, and many of the blaster animations in battle. Each ship and fighter is unique, an impressive feat considering the number of these crafts.
The actual rendering and resolution of ships in battle is not so great. Also, the various worlds are not differentiated much graphically (the fact that almost all of them have the same music doesn’t help either) nor are the various space sectors. Given its visual novel style, however, you ought not expect any fancy cutscenes. There are several instances of 1st person exploration through mini-dungeons and enemy ships, but they all use the exact same architectural style and look identical. The graphics more than the gameplay will make you wish that Infinite Space had been developed for PS3 or Xbox 360. Nevertheless, there is much to like in the game’s visual style, and where the game does fail graphically, it doesn’t impede the fun of the experience.
Sound effects are decent thanks to some cool laser and missile sounds during battles. The small amount of voice acting is well-done though hardly noticeable. The real sound issue is music, and like the story, it gets better as the game progresses. Some of the best themes are in the game’s second half, right when the narrative gets trippy. Before that, you have a few decent if forgettable battle themes, the same vaguely annoying song at every space port, and some nice ominous overtures during story sequences. Overall it’s actually a pretty good soundtrack that definitely saves the best for last.
Infinite Space is the story of Yuri, a sixteen year-old kid who dreams of voyaging to unknown worlds. His story is every otaku’s wet dream; a large-breasted woman flies down from space, hooks him up with his own ship, funky suit, and katana, then makes him into a full-fledged fleet commander. As Yuri, you set off to save your younger sister Chelsea, battle evil space pirates, and unlock the mystery of an ancient artifact known as the epitaph. There’s also an invasion by an advanced alien race hell bent on dominating the entire universe, just to mix things up a bit. One thing that I really liked are the numerous branch points, moments in the story where you can choose one side or the other, support the revolutionaries or the government, or something to that effect. The ship schematics you obtain, potential crew members you meet, bosses you fight, and story segments you see will all be affected by the paths you choose. The tale is also split into two periods, one focusing on a young Yuri and another centered on his adult life.
The two eras compliment one another quite nicely. Being stuck with the naïve teen for so long makes you appreciate the alarmingly muscular badass adult Yuri, while seeing the man Yuri becomes makes his teen form more respectable. Several other characters similarly grow up, with a healthy mixture of betrayals and surprise revelations to keep you on your toes. There truly is a grand sense of time and space in this game; it is a long story told across multiple galaxies and dozens of star systems. It is that rare RPG that genuinely makes you feel like the fate of the whole universe is at stake and is actually worthy of its grandiose name. Easily on par with anything you’ll find in Xenosaga or Mass Effect, this is not just good science fiction, but a space opera for the ages.
Sadly, there is one major negative regarding Infinite Space’s story: The ending sucks. Seriously, it’s ass. It’s anti-climatic, lazy, and totally unsatisfying. What makes it especially frustrating is that the story is really good up until that point, and it ends right when you think things are about to get really interesting. Instead of the dramatic showdown and resolution you envision, the credits just start rolling, with numerous loose threads left hanging, the fate of many major characters left unclear, and the overall nature of the universe and main character left unexplained. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for such a long game, but it doesn’t quite manage to ruin the experience.
Infinite Space’s controls are excellent and make smart use of the DS’s stylus. Simply tap the bottom screen to select commands during space battles or hand-to-hand combat. Ship renovations are handled similarly in a simple drag and drop fashion. Aside from that, you’ll basically just be pushing the A button to keep dialogue moving. Very intuitive, straightforward controls with no room for complaint.
Infinite Space is an impressive DS offering given its depth and scope. A single playthrough will keep you busy for weeks if not months, and with so many branch points in the story and extra challenges, you’ll always have something to come back for. While the ending was a letdown, I was really impressed by the complexity and intelligence of the story. It really does pay homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s work “Childhood’s End,” if only thematically. This is one game that I would recommend not only to sci-fi or RPG fans, but to any DS owner. It is this year’s Valkyria Chronicles i.e. an awesome Sega developed tactical RPG that is ultimately destined to be under-appreciated. It’s a shame too, because it’s the best RPG of 2009 thus far.