A few years ago, when the first fire emblem games started coming out in the US a lot of people were telling me to try them out. They said things like, if you love RPG’s, you will love turn based strategy RPG’s. So, I rented the Gameboy Advanced version and, it did not click with me. It was not the perma-death I just would get bored. The fights take a long, long time and being thrown into the deep end with large units, you spend half an hour fighting a battle and then loose and have to start all the way at the beginning of the battle. I tried other games in the genre thinking I was just missing something. Like Phantom Brave or early Sega Shinning Force games for the Genesis, but it just never clicked with me. That was until I played Front Mission III. What made the difference for me? Why did it click when all the other games simply did not?
First, I really liked the story, at least one of them, let me explain. Set in an alternate future, not that different from our own you play as Kazuki on a mission to rescue his adopted sister or her real sister and save the world from the threat of Midas. Midas is the code name for a nuclear style weapon with the capability to level cities without the damaging fallout radiation. You team up with seven other characters to fight genetically enhanced super soldiers and world powers from all over the world to accomplish your personal and far-reaching mission. The story can play out in two ways depending on a seemingly ordinary decision that you are presented with in the opening minutes of the game. In fact, for a long time, I did not even know there were two campaigns as I always made the same choice in the narrative. Allies in one campaign become enemies in the other and vice versa. That said in neither campaign do you play “the bad guy” or the “good guy.” Kazuki is a good person and desires to do the right thing, but his potential allies are morally grey characters that are positively influenced by him as the story progresses. The two campaigns act as a, what might have been, to each other and are different narratively and even influence the battles and locations where you fight. That said I definitely prefer one campaign to the other, but it is cool that you have some options.
The main method of warfare consists of piloting Wanzers, large powerful mechs that you take control of, four at time, in battle against the many enemies you will face. It is epic stuff with all the combat, espionage and intrigue to make a Hollywood blockbuster. It is too bad that it all told through text boxes and the few cut scenes it has have not aged well. Especially the ones using the in-game engine where the humans look like they were cut from cardboard pieces. In short, the story is good however not terribly well told. Some of this is down to the PlayStation hardware, but the rest, well I will get back to that. I really did enjoy the story; I just wished more emphasis had been placed on its presentation.
Cut scenes and character models aside the game look pretty good even by today’s standards. It may lack in the color department, but it portrays a realistic gritty world marred by war. The Wanzers look great, and it is clear they received most of the budget for 3D models and 2D sprites. Both of these are presented together for wide battlefield shots and closer combat views. The transition between these two modes holds up to this day and is impressive given hardware limitations. However, background texture mapping suffers from the texture warping common on the hardware. Music fits the game though sitting here writing I cannot recall any of it, though I never felt removed from the experience by it. As stated, most of the story is told through text boxes. The dialogue is pretty wordy and none of it is voiced, but the character portraits are good and the backgrounds for these scenes are rarely reused unless it is appropriate to do so, as in we are in the same place as before. Easily the most impressive presentation piece is the internet feature. Throughout the game you will have access to a fictional internet service with email, web addresses, shopping and more. This is expanded through exploring and interacting with the few NPC’s, main characters and even in battle. It is fun to poke around in and is a unique experience.
Typical to the genre, all of this game is menus. In a town? Menu. In a battle? Menu. Shopping? Menu. So, the skill gap for the game is low, precision platform skills are not needed. That is not to say that the game has no challenge or that it is easy. In a battle you can control four Wanzers. Rarely you may have support, but you cannot control their actions, always you will have enemies and from the start you will almost always be outnumbered and outgunned. The challenge comes with maximizing your damage dealt while minimizing damage taken and meeting your objectives. Usually, the objectives are always “destroy all enemies,” but occasionally you will have others as well. Best of all though you can fight with all your strength without fear of consequence. Playing Shinning Force, I was always afraid to commit the main character to battle because if he dies game over and in Fire Emblem, with the threat of perma-death that becomes true of every character. So, you hold back your best characters, which means they don’t level, and they become useless. In Front Mission there is no experience just money which you use to upgrade equipment. You can earn abilities for characters through ability points earned in battle, but it is not the main focus. But best of all if the main character goes down, you can keep fighting and he will be back for the next battle. The challenge is just not losing all Wanzers, which is plenty because of how often you are outnumbered. Many times, I wished I could field all my characters, having seven total, but the challenge of the game is in the four character limit. So, things are balanced and if you do not mind a lot of menus then the control is very applicable to the game play style. This also makes the game more manageable. Battles are still long but with so many moving elements like damaged parts needing to be repaired I found the combat more engaging.
The only level design to speak of is the battle maps. These are varied and add challenges through terrain and cover. Say your character is getting pummeled seeking cover behind objects can affect the enemies aim and give you some time to recover and heal. Range is a factor to every action thanks to varied enemy types and range is easily affected by the unique environments and obstacles. A few maps can be revisited in the simulator to earn more money and try out new skills or weapons. I wish there were more simulated maps, or even if all of them could be unlocked, but this does not seem to be the case. In brief I never encountered a map where I thought that it was unfair or uninteresting.
I have finally found a strategy game that I can get into. The combat feels snappy and rewarding and the battles are, for me, fun. The story is full of intrigue despite its limited presentation. I find myself going back to replay it fairly often. I picked up part one on the DS and part 4 for the PS2 and I am looking forward to trying both of them. Maybe all the formula needed for me was giant fighting robots. I would absolutely love a modern remake of three though it will probably never happen. I fully recommend the game.