Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Infinite Space (NintendoDS)

Infinite Space is a science fiction RPG/visual-novel developed by Platinum Games and released 2010 for the Nintendo DS. In the game the player takes control of Yuri, a 16 year old boy who wants to become an adventurer exploring the galaxy.

The game starts out with an anime intro that is based on a few anime short movies created for advertisement purpose for the game. This by itself would be nothing special, but in the case of Infinite Space this causes some initial confusion as the intro doesn't present the beginning of the game, but the first hour or so of the regular gameplay and thus shows things that your game character has not yet done. Worse yet, the events portrait in the anime shorts all differ quite a bit from what actually happens in the game, so it ends up being confusion instead of helpful. So its probably best to just skip past that.

The premise of the game, with the boy being 16 year old and buying his own space ship is also a bit weird and hard to believe, but given that this is Japanese, it is probably to be expected, the game however doesn't really continue much with this plot line and basically just uses it as a starting point to get you into the role of an inexperienced spaceship captain.

The gameplay in Infinite Space follows a very simple overall structure, as the focus of the game isn't in providing a freely explorable universe, but on telling a mostly linear story, thus the game is split up into mainly four parts navigation, ship-to-ship battles, upgrade management and talk with other characters. The talking follows normal Japanese visual-novel conventions and works similarly to what can be seen in other DS games such as Trauma Center or the like, meaning it works by presenting an static 2D image of the character over a static background and the text he is saying. Choice from the player is very limited in those discussion, as the discussions for most part run linearly, only rarely is there a bit of choice intermixed and in those cases its mostly about "Yes/No" kind of choices, not selection of a topic or sentence as in western adventures. Interacting with a character multiple times is often necessary to get all the dialog, which can however lead to a bit of an annoyancy as used dialog options don't get removed.

The ship-to-ship battles also follow a very simple scheme, instead of complex strategic elements, the player is limited to five base actions "Dodge", "Barrage", "Normal", "Forward" and "Backward". The forward/backward commands let the player move closer or further away from the enemies, which is used to get into or out of weapon range. The normal attack fires a regular shoot, while the barrage command fires a more powerful one. The dodge move can be used to evade barrage attacks, but cannot be used to evaded normal attacks. Battles always take place between two parties, each consisting of up to five ships, however the ships can't be controlled individually, they act as a single group and commands apply to all of them. The multiple ships are mostly used just for cover, as ships in the front lines will be easier to hit then ships in the back. Rearanging ships is only possible outside of battles, not within them. The battles are presented in full 3D, but camera movement is restricted and the ships only move on a straight line, so you will be looking at them basically from an isometric persective the whole time.

Upgrading the ships is possible when docking to a planet and works by either chosing the weapons to use or by installing modules into the ship. Each ship has a fixed amount of room for modules and modules come in the form of Tetris-like blocks that you have to arrange manuall to make the best use of the available space. Modules increase your stats such as health, number of crew members and so on. The game doesn't require any form of micromanagment, as docking to a planet will automatically fully repair your ships and restock crew or fighters that might have lost in a battle at no cost.

The navigation part of the game is what holds the other parts together, it allows you to navigate on a 3D star map, which is presented as a multi-layered 2D map (i.e. like multiple SuperMarioBros3 worldmaps stacked on top of each other). Each node on the map presents a planet to which you can dock and while traveling between planets you can be attacked by pirates that come in the form of random encounters. When docked to a planet one can either upgrade the ship or visit locations to talk to other characters, all of this happens via a simple menu interface, an abilty to walk freely around with your character isn't given.

One nice difference of the game compared to other jRPGs is that it is very fast to navigate. Regular random encounters can almost always simply be skipped at the press of a button, so if you don't want to do them, you don't have to (however as they are the main source of income in the game, skipping them all is probably not a good idea). Furthermore the ship-to-ship battle sequences contain some rather elaborate and slow firing sequences, but again, with the press of the button one can easily skip them, so they don't annoy. Dialogs and navigation also follow a similar scheme, while it will happen frequently that you talk again to a character only to discover that he doesn't have anything new to say, you can just hold L and you will fast-forward through the dialog. All of these small tweak take away a lot of the annoyance that is normally present in this type of game.

Saving in the game is limited to planets. The game provides five save slots and an additional slot for automatic saves, which when enabled will save on every departure from a planet. The game is however very forgiving, allowing you to almost always travel back to a planet after a single fight. So when you encounter multiple ships on the way to a boss battle, you can just turn around and save. There are a tiny few exceptions to this later on in the game, but I never ran into a single situation where I had to replay a longer segment.

The user interface in Infinite Space is almost exclusively touch screen based, some smaller functions such as camera rotation or fast forward have to be done with the dpad or via the L button, but main menu navigation can only be done with the touchscreen.

Where the game stumbles a bit is in the story progression and keeping track of tasks, as the game lacks a quest log, it is sometimes hard to keep track of where one has to go or to which character one has to talk to. Sometimes those hints are also a bit vague, so even if you do keep manually track of them by writing them down, the game can force you to do a bit more trial&error traveling around then it should.

Where it however really gets interesting is in its story itself. While the premise is a bit ridiculous, the game doesn't bother much with it and soon has you free your sister from the hands of pirates, wipe out pirate homebases and later on has you trying to get whole nations united again to fight an even bigger enemy. Along the way you meet a ton of different characters and different factions, many of which will join your crew and in the background there are some alien artifacts whose purpose you try to uncover. At the mid point the game even has a big cut, moving the game story forward for 10 years and then continuing from there. The game does a decent job of not letting it all fall into simplistic categories of good vs evil and even has some of your crew join the opposing factions later on, putting all your doing into question.

Overall as a game Infinite Space certainly has some issues, mainly its simplicity. While there is a never ending supply of upgrades and ships available, I managed to pull through the first half the game pretty much with a simple tactic of moving into attack range, firing, then moving out of it to have my weapons recharge. In the second half of the game it gets even more easy, as by that point the game makes aircraft carriers available, which without much if any risks for your own fleet can easily wipe out everything else, as enemies very rarely carry anti-aircraft weapons with them. However this simplicity didn't bother me, quite the opposite, it allow to get through the story without much if any grind or frustration. The game however does a bad job at explaining things, that the icons at the bottom screen signal attack range isn't exactly clear at the beginning and that assigning crew members to the second in command allows you to use their special power in battles (such as healing the fleet or attacking the enemy ships in the back of the formation, without loss of precision) is also rather important, but again, never really explained.

To progress through the story and work around the lack of a quest log I used a walkthrough, that not only took all the trial and error out of the game, but also provided hints to a few story threads that one might otherwise easily miss. Even with that help this is however not a short game, quite the opposite, it clocks in at around 50 hours, even more when not played with the help of a walkthrough. Given the cut the game has in the middle, this makes the game feel almost like two full length game in one, something I haven't really seen before.

While the story is overall quite interesting and has an enourmus cast of characters, my biggest issue with the game would probably be the ending, which after some 50 hours of preparation, simply comes far to quickly and felt rushed. That whole endgame plot really should have started quite a few hours earlier or just left out completely for a sequel.

As somebody who generally dislikes jRPGs, I enjoyed Infinite Space quite a bit, all the normally annoying parts of that genre take a backseat in this game and the story is really the focus, not the leveling up of your characters or ship, those just happen in the background or provide a little diversion every few hours. So for people looking for a portable story driven space opera, I can definitively recomment this game, there really isn't much else like it out there.

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