This is of course not a new game. Front Mission first appeared on the SNES, and the franchise has graced the PlayStation, PS2 and even mobile phones. This is a port of the first game, with touch- and dual-screen support added, but not in a mindblowing way. The retro-shoddy graphics and typography have their special charms, but mostly they make one pine for a new installment of the franchise rather than paying anew for an old game.
Front Mission is a “strategy RPG”, more or less a turn-based strategy game with a story and recurring, level-advancing characters. The protagonists are a band of mercenaries caught up in a tragic war on the fictional Huffman Island. And yes, that war involves a shit-ton of mechs, or as the series charmingly dubs them, wanzers.
What is it that we want out of mech games? For me, the ideal game would allow for 1. near-infinite tweaking in the garage, followed by 2. combat that imparts the size and majesty of giant robots. These are games for scifi gearheads, and the importance of the swapping out of robot parts should not be ignored (I’m looking at you, Mechwarrior). Front Mission definitely has all you could ask for in the wanzer part department. You are faced with quite a number of parts and weapons in the first city, and as you progress through the campaign, stopping at new towns and cities each with new parts on display, the number of options quickly spirals up into the stratosphere. The choices are not simply for looks – there are a number of attributes carried by both mech parts (body, arms, legs, CPU) and weapons, and the way you customize your wanzers and your squad is completely up to you.
But the game fails to do #2. I’m not saying the gameplay is no good; I tend to enjoy strategy RPGs (I like any variation of strategy game). But you face large numbers of similar enemies, and every battle is marred by slow, unskippable animations of mech fights that cumulatively slow down the gameplay to a pace a narcoleptic snail might enjoy. It doesn’t help that most of the strategic thinking happens in the garage. Once you’re on the field, you basically send in your close-combat bruiser wanzers to give your missle-firing bastards some room to breathe and hope you remember to use your repair chips in time. Repeat.
The story ain’t bad, but man, I’m starting to think my DS is infected with some sort of scrolling text disease. Every game with the lines of text that animate on typewriter style and then wait for you to press A. At least in this one you can press B and speed them up a bit. The radio-voiceover-over-gameplay model of narrative delivery has its problems, but I started to yearn for it. I had forgotten all about the drawbacks of texty games.
Generally, the mechophiles will still play this game. We will twiddle our thumbs through the combat and yearn to be back in the garage. We will keep playing because the holy grail of mech games is still nowhere to be found.