Review: Front Mission 4 (PS2)

Front Mission 4
Genre: Mech Strategy RPG
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Mild Language, Violence)
Developer: Square Enix Division 6
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 6/15/04
Official Home Page: FM4 @ Square Enix USA

I’m back! Did you miss me? Before anyone asks, no, this isn’t a permanent return. It’s merely something I’m doing because I had the game, I had some time, and Lucard asked me to. There may be more to come from me in the future, but you’ll have to stay tuned.

The Front Mission series is one that isn’t well known in North America, but is relatively popular in Japan. America has only been graced with the presence of Front Mission 3 (and of course, now 4), so it’s understandable that it may not be as well known as other works from Square Enix. That will change though.

Since merging with Enix, there have been many changes on the Square front. The renewed friendship with Nintendo is one, the recent talks of possibly doing a game for the Xbox is another. Another change is the drastic departure from standard gameplay in Final Fantasy XII.

Probably the biggest thing to come out of the new love child of my favorite RPG makers is a new focus. Square has decided not to rely on Final Fantasy alone as their big RPG powerhouse. They wanted to create another über-franchise, so they picked Front Mission to get the love it has always deserved.

In addition to Front Mission 4, they also have a complete remake of the original Front Mission, which has never been released in the states, as well as a Front Mission Online game. Hopefully both these titles will be released in America, but only if you go out and buy Front Mission 4! But how will you know if it’s for you? Read the review! Duh!

Story
One of the few things I remember about the story in Front Mission 3 is that it was political and complex. The story in 4 is just as political, and may even be more complex. Or should I say stories plural?

When the game begins, you witness the attack on a German army base by a group of heavily armed walking tanks, or Wanzers as they are called. Note: since the word is derived from German, so it is pronounced Vanzer. Note #2: I couldn’t find a translation for Wanzer, so I will assume it is derived from the German word Panzer, which means armor. Possibly walking armor is the translation?

Getting back on topic, after the attack on the base, the European Community (EC) is trying to figure out who attacked Germany and why. To do this, they put the Blauer Nebel (which means “Blue Fog” or something similar), an elite German force, in charge of the investigation. Assisting the Blauer Nebel is an independent Wanzer test group known as Durandal. These are your main playable characters of this part of the game. Durandal really wants to get to the bottom of the matter, yet for some reason, the Germans don’t want them investigating. What reason would they have for stopping Durandal? And who really IS behind the attacks?

Halfway around the world, in Venezuela, Governor Diaz, the head of the state, has declared independence from the Unified Continental States (UCS). In retaliation, the UCS sends forces against the governor. Our 3 main characters from this half of the game, who are members of a UCS Wanzer patrol, are slacking off when they see a plane crash nearby. Inspecting the plane, they discover a cache of $25 million worth of gold bars that Diaz had apparently stashed for himself. Thinking they can run off with the money, they desert the army and try to get out of the country with the gold, but the run is harder than they thought, and they get caught up with revolutionaries attempting to overthrow Diaz.

I can’t do the story justice without spending pages on it, so I probably mangled it, but it should give you a run down. It is really complex at times, yet not difficult to understand. The characters are all very likable and have their own personalities. As you continue on the game and get more engrossed, you really WANT to find out who attacked Germany and you really WANT to help out the revolutionaries. The two separate stories are interspaced, so you play a few missions as the Durandal and a few as the former UCS pilots, then back to Durandal, and so on. The stories also subtly intertwine, which is nice. For example, after the Germans are attacked, they blame the UCS for the attack, and so the UCS withdraw a portion of their troops from Venezuela in preparation for the retaliation. It’s little things like this that make the game more realistic and more enjoyable at the same time.
Rating: 8.0

Graphics
You saw who made the game, right? It’s Square Enix, so it’s expected that they will put heavy emphasis on graphics, and this game is no different. From the opening CGI sequence, I could tell that the graphics would be exceptional, and I was right.

The Wanzer designs are quite varied and well executed. I’ve read some complaints that they are boring, but this isn’t Gundam. Realistically, they would try not to make their Wanzers flashy because it wouldn’t make any sense.

Likewise, the environments are excellent. There are a decent amount of battles that are fought within a city, and you actually feel like you ARE in a city. Buildings provide excellent cover, but hinder you as well, unless you are carrying a grenade launcher or rockets, which can arc over buildings. Every battle has a different environment and each one feels EXACTLY like the place that its supposed to be. Cities feel like cities, villages feel like villages, and the mountains feel like the mountains. There was no half-assed work here. And despite the enormity of some of these highly detailed maps, there was little to no slowdown present, except possibly in the in game cinematics. Either way, it wasn’t very noticeable.

Character designs are likewise well pulled off. In reality, during the course of the game, you don’t see the people per se. You see their faces during dialogue, but there is no human movement. Despite that, each of their faces is unique. There are similarities between several people that are from the same country, but that’s understandable. Still, they are different enough to be able to tell a difference. One beef with this is that their mouths move when the character speaks, and it looks somewhat like a ventriloquist’s dummy, but they did a decent enough job.

Overall, the graphical quality of this game isn’t the best in the world, but it’s still better than the majority of games on the system. The color scheme is rather dull and drab and the whole style is very in touch with reality rather than fantasy. Great job all around.
Rating: 9.0

Sound
While many recent games have improved in this aspect, there are still some that aren’t up to par in the sound department. Fortunately, Front Mission 4 hits a birdy, or even an eagle.

The music in the game is very appropriate. In many cases it is militaristic in nature, sometimes it is very ambient, and other times it’s ominous. As in most games, the music sets the mood, and this is no different. And unlike many games, the music comes to the forefront more than usual. I’m not saying it overpowers anything else, but it’s just more memorable than just background music usually is. Not as memorable as say Danny Elfman’s music in movies, but it’s not forgotten the moment the power is switched off either.

One thing that has made me happier than anything is the move to voice acting in games. Some games aren’t so strong in this department (Final Fantasy X, to name a big one), but there is one particular group of voice actors that have graced several games with their talents, and made the games that much better for it. This group is known as Animaze, and they have worked on such games as Xenosaga Episode I and .hack. And their work in this game is nothing less than excellent. There are a few minor quibbles, usually having to do with accents, but people are never happy when a voice actor has to use an accent. But despite that, the voices are great and each character is played very well.

Finally, we have the sound effects. And this certainly is a game that you’ll want to crank up the volume to. Gunshots and explosions sound very authentic, and it’s really cool to have all your guys light up another enemy one right after the other. I only had one problem with the sound effects, and that had to do with gunshots occasionally dropping off. Like you’d fire 15 shots, and hear only 5 of them. It wouldn’t do it all the time, and seemed to occur after playing for a while, so I figure it’s just the lovely PS2 hardware overheating.
Rating: 9.0

Control
It really doesn’t get more simple to control. During dialogue, you hit X to continue the dialogue. Not too difficult to grasp. Combat is just as easy to control.

See, every battle you’re placed on a map that’s basically like a huge detailed chessboard. Every turn you can move a certain amount of squares. You move your cursor to the square you want to go to (easy to tell where you can go), and then you can attack. There are multiple weapons that each have a different range. For example, rifles shoot further than shotguns. The range is shown in red whenever you attack, so you can tell who you can attack. Usually, Wanzers will have multiple weapons which can be switched when attacking. The basics are really simple. But there’s a lot more strategy than that.

First off, every Wanzer has a certain armor type that protects it against certain types of attacks. For example, a Wanzer with Impact armor gains more protection from shotgun blasts, but is weaker to Machine Guns, which are a piercing damage type. There is also fire damage, which is mainly missiles and grenades. So it pays to be aware of what type of armor your characters have, and it’s good to outfit your Wanzers with different weapon types for greater effectiveness.

Your pilots can also gain link points, which they can use to link up with other pilots, which allows them to do attacks in succession, and do more damage in the process. There are also special skills that you can learn that will allow you to do different special attacks. You learn new skills by expending skill points that you accumulate (a la traditional xp) after battles. It gets more complicated, but I don’t want to re-write the entire manual, so that gives you a basic run down.

Battles also net you money, and money is used to upgrade your Wanzers. After most battles, you have the option of using the Wanzer shop which has all new gear for your Wanzers. Not only can you buy weapons and backpacks, but you can get a new body, arms or legs. The way they do it is very realistic. For example, your Wanzer can only hold so much weight on its body, but you can buy a new body for it that increases its power plant, and therefore how much it can carry. This also raises the HP for that body part, but at the same time, you may be losing evasion, so you have to figure if you want to take the damage, or be able to dodge it. There are several sets you can buy also, like a Rifleman archetype, or a Missleer type. The benefit of these is that the whole set is cheaper than buying the parts, but the drawback is that you don’t get exactly what you want.
Rating: 9.0

Replayability
Sadly, once you win the game, you’ve seen pretty much everything the game has to offer. BUT, as Square has been known to do, they have included a New Game + feature. Unlike other games where you have to play through multiple times to get everything, this time around is just for fun. Your pilot skills, experience, and money carry over, but everything else is started from scratch. It’s fun to go in and use overpowered skills on weak enemies, but the novelty wears off soon. One go through is enough, and you probably don’t want to spend the time to go through a second time when you don’t get anything out of it.
Rating: 5.0

Balance
This game requires a lot of thought. You have to plan your battles somewhat before starting. If you go in with just guns blazing, you could easily die on some of the missions. And that’s partially a gripe of mine.

See, the game is relatively difficult until you figure out the different intricacies of it, but after that, it just gets frustrating at times. It tends to lean towards the hard side, and a lot of the game is determined by luck. For example, sometimes it seems like the enemies dodge your shots a lot more than you dodge theirs. But other times, it’s completely opposite. But there are times where you have an overwhelming force, and you get pounded (in the ass no less) by a group of enemies half your size with a quarter of your skills. THAT gets frustrating. But despite that, it is often well played, and if you think strategically, you can win with minimal losses.
Rating: 7.0

Originality
I can’t give this too high a score simply because there isn’t that much originality here. The core gameplay comes right from Front Mission 3 and the other aspects have been seen in other games as well. This isn’t the first mech based strategy RPG, and it won’t be the last. But despite that, it is arguably the best.
Rating: 4.0

Addictiveness
I’ll be perfectly honest here. When I started the game, I could barely go a few missions without taking a break. But as the game continued on, the story got deeper and deeper, and as time went on, the game got more and more engrossing. It got so bad at times that I would have to pry myself away from the TV so I could go to sleep. In fact, there was more than one sleepless night caused by this game, and most nights that I didn’t have problems going to sleep, I had dreams about the game, as sad as that may sound. Not everybody will feel this way though, but despite that, it can get pretty hard to turn the game off.
Rating: 7.0

Appeal Factor
This category is always hard for me to judge simply because there are all types of people out there. But I don’t know if too many people would pick up on this game. It doesn’t have that much appeal to the casual gamer. For one, it’s a strategy RPG, which the mainstream isn’t all that keen on. Secondly, it’s about mechs, which is something that, while unique, may be considered too nerdy for the cool casual gamer that wouldn’t have a problem playing something like Final Fantasy. Despite that, this is Square, and they have a way with making the uncool become cool to the casual gamer.
Rating: 5.0

Miscellaneous
Probably the most engrossing part about this game is the part that is the most mundane. Never before have I had so much fun doing something as simple as buying stuff. Sure, in most RPGs, it’s cool to go and upgrade your armor and weapons, but it takes a whole new light in this game. You have your pick of the latest and greatest Wanzer parts. Do you want to go with higher HP or evasion? Do I want to have two machine guns or one machine gun and one shotgun? This guy is primarily a long range missileer, but do I want to give him a shotgun as well? It’s conundrums like this that helped me get so damn hooked on this game. I’ve spent up to an hour doing this type of stuff. I danced for joy whenever the Wanzer shop got new gear. I would swap out body parts, trying to get the optimal configuration. And there’s no real explaination WHY this would be so much fun. Hell, even Gabe at Penny Arcade, who is pretty much the epitome of a casual RPG fan, and hated the story to this game, loved the shopping and Wanzer configuration so much. And God knows that Gabe is never, ever wrong.
Rating: 10.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 8.0
Graphics: 9.0
Sound: 9.0
Control: 9.0
Replayability: 5.0
Balance: 7.0
Originality: 4.0
Addictiveness: 7.0
Appeal Factor: 5.0
Miscellaneous: 10.0

Average: 7.3

Short Attention Span Summary
While this isn’t a game for everybody, and maybe not even for a lot of people, it’s a great game. If you’re into strategy RPG’s, chances are you’ll find something to like about this game. It’s very rare that you’ll find a game that accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and that’s exactly what happened here. So give this game some love. Square Enix is putting a lot into this franchise, which is odd considering it was not one of their marquee titles before the merger. So give the game a rent, and then buy it, because dammit, I want to see more of these games here!