By Louise Yang . November 1, 2007 . 12:48pm
Think of a well known SRPG, like Final Fantasy Tactics. Now replace all those units with mechs called wanzers. Replace magic attacks with long range missiles. Replace melees with short range rifles and punches. Put in an HP bar for your wanzer's body, arms, and legs. Replace the epic story of kingdoms fighting each other with a futuristic story of two super powers (the OCU and the UCS) duking it out on an island (Huffman Island). Then add in a whole bunch of stats for all sorts of attributes from the weight of mechanical legs to a pilot's accuracy rating. That's the simplest way to describe Front Mission 1st.
Since Front Mission 1st is touted as a strategy game, I thought that it would be like Advance Wars where all the strategy lies on the battlefield. After playing for a few hours, I feel that most of the strategy lies outside of the battlefield. Wanzer customization is really the heart of the game. Winning a battle depends on how you customize your wanzers and which ones you bring into battle.
If you're a stats junkie and numbers make you weak in the knees, the game's options in customization will be your favorite part of the game. If you're new to the series, it may be a bit overwhelming at first. A wanzer is divided into several parts: left/right arms, body, and legs. Different types of parts can be bought in the shop to replace your stock wanzer parts. The parts effect stats like movement and how much damage your melee punch causes. On top of that, there's a whole crapload of weapons you can purchase that range from short-range rifles for each arm to long-range missiles from the wanzer's left and right shoulders. The fact that the game shows the different equipment and weapons that your wanzer has equipped, even in the shop menus, is a nice touch.
Battles are broken down into player turns and enemy turns. During player turns you can move your wanzer and choose a weapon to attack enemies within range. After choosing a weapon, the top screen changes to show the attack animations, which will include arms and legs getting blown off. During an enemy turn, players can choose to guard or use a shield if the enemy uses missiles on them, or even counter-attack with a melee or a short ranged weapon if the enemy is using one of those attacks.
The separate health bars for arms, legs, and body bring on another layer of strategy. Some attacks have a damage spread that gives a little damage to all the parts, while other attacks like a melee will concentrate on damaging the body. Once a wanzer's body HP goes down to 0, bye bye wanzer. Similarly, if both arms are destroyed, the wanzer will no longer be able to attack. The strategy comes in the form of choosing between a long range attack that has spread damage, or a melee attack that will likely damage the body but will cause your wanzer to attack last.
Some DS features in the game make it hard to believe that this game first came out on the SNES. The use of the top screen for stats about friendly wanzers, enemy wanzers, and the terrain is brilliant and extremely useful. The touch-screen controls are so competent that selecting wanzers and pointing to where they should move are painlessly easy. Unfortunately, the slight lag between choosing an attack and the attack animation loading reminds me of just how old the game is.
Things like the slight hitch in load time and the fact that there's no way to see an enemy's movement range might make the game feel dated, but the gameplay and crazy customization more than makes up for it. There were many missions where at first try I got creamed in, but after adding a few wanzer upgrades and switching out a weapon or two became laughingly easy. The fact that the stats a pilot gains upon a level up depends on how you used that pilot in battle, like whether they mostly used long range or short range attacks, gives me a satisfying feeling of making progress.
With all the SRPGs being released these months, it's easy for something lesser known like Front Mission 1st slipping by unnoticed. Players astute enough to pick this up will not be disappointed as long as they have patience for all the stat tweaking.