By Laura . April 5, 2010 . 3:39pm
Infinite Space, the new science-fiction RPG released by Platinum Games and Nudemaker, is quite the hefty game, with hundreds of ships, weapons, customizations and characters, as well as a broad story. I recall some of the reviews that I had read for the Amazon Curve for this game mentioning that they had clocked in 80 hours, 100 hours, or even over 200 hours. With this knowledge, I know that I am definitely not in the place to talk about the story I have witnessed thus far in this game; it’d be like giving a lecture about a beach after having seen a single grain of sand. Instead, in this playtest I’m going to elaborate on how the game plays.
Talking at Taverns
The game mechanics can be split into three sections. The first is the conversation portion of the game, where you talk to other characters, either in story events or at the tavern. This part plays out like a visual novel with the text on the bottom and the character’s profile picture above it. The portrait for each and every one of the characters is beautifully drawn (I’ve always been a fan of Gonzo); however, because the images are completely static, they don’t really convey the emotion of the situation or the dialogue. One picture per character, with no animation such as blinking or hand movements. This seemed like an odd decision in a game that so heavily emphasizes characterization, but with the sheer content of the game, perhaps there was no other choice.
Otherwise, this portion of the game plays like many other visual novels. Go through the dialogue, make your choice when prompted, and continue reading. The choices often have the benefit of giving you extra EXP in a certain area for a certain character. For example, choosing the more confident-sounding reply granted me an additional 20 points of experience for Yuri’s leadership level, and in another choice, the character you decide to give a medicine pack to gains two extra points in medicine. There are also some choices that may or may not result in character death, so the five save slots provided by the game can and should be used very freely.
In addition to these five save slots, which are available through the System menu whenever you’re planetside, there’s also an extra save slot that is reserved for the auto-save feature. If this feature is toggled on from the configuration menu in the Options screen, every time you leave a planet, your progress will be saved in slot number six, apart from your own save files. I found this function came in handy many times, especially when I was unsure about what choices to make in a conversation that could potentially change a character’s fate. I also tend to forget to save very often, since the game seems to flow together smoothly with no big breaks other than the boss fights. Today, my game actually froze when I had closed the screen down, but luckily the auto-save had saved my progress so I didn’t have to do all my sidequests and grinding again. The only problem with this option is that the speed is a bit slow, unlike in other games where a save can take a split second, but I’d much rather sacrifice some time to save the game every time I leave a planet than having to start all over from my last save … which was three hours prior.
Coming back to the conversations, one of my favorite aspects of the game is the fast-forward option. This isn’t ever mentioned in the controls, but by pressing the R or L button, you can fast-forward all of the dialogue as well as the cutscenes. Tapping the screen during a cutscene also skips it. In fact, this is also the case during battle scenes. Usually, every time you attack, two or three scenes are played (depending on whether Dodge is used or not). Each of these can be skipped by tapping the screen while the cutscenes are playing, and the best part is that they can be skipped separately. For example, if you want to see how much damage is being dealt, you can skip the “attack” sequence and watch the “damage” portion. But more on the basics of fighting later.
Taking Things into Your Own Hands
The second part of the game is the customization, which some people feel was the most interactive and fun aspect of Infinite Space. Throughout the game, you collect blueprints for ships, modules and weapons, which you can then take to a shipyard to get constructed and fixed onto your ship. Buying the blueprints themselves doesn’t cost much; it’s the actual construction that deals a heavy blow to your wallet. However, once you have the blueprint, you can build the ship as many times as you want, provided you have the credits. Each ship starts as a blank slate, with a set number of open slots in a certain formation in which you can set modules.
The modules – the bridge, radar room, sick bay, engine room, etc. – are all Tetris-shaped blocks that you can fit into the ship to increase everything from crew size to attack, attack range, and other stats. Coming up with the right combination of assets that fit within my budget and situation was actually pretty fun, once I got used to it. For example, when I was up for a long journey, I would add plenty of crew rooms and make sure I had as many modules that increased the livability as I could, which decreased the rate at which the fatigue bar filled up (more on that later). If I’m not doing a lot of fighting, or if I’m over-leveled for an area, I add a few holds, which are fairly large at 2×2 squares, so that I can earn some money every time I dock (hey, why not?). Each ship also has a set number of weapon slots, on which you can outfit a gun of your choice, with each gun having several parameters (other than price) such as power, number of times fired per-attack, and minimum and maximum attack range.
Arranging the crew works much the same way. Other than Yuri, who’s stuck in his position as Captain, everyone can be shuffled around between a variety of positions. Each job, be it 1st Officer or Mechanic or Accountant, can have a character assigned to it, and each position takes a single stat into account. For example, the mechanic position uses the “Maintenance” stat, while the Chef and Accountant jobs prioritize the “Management” stat. What these stats do is explained briefly in a help tutorial the game provides, should you actually choose to read it, although, nowhere is it talked about in the game itself. It is assumed that you’ll go with your intuition and try to choose the highest number possible for the highlighted stat simply because you know it’ll do something good.
Again, shuffling the crew around was lots of fun. While there are some characters that only excel in one area, there are also a few that could suit more than one position. Should I have Gadina as Security Chief, which will take advantage of her incredibly high combat stat or should I stick her on the Artillery Chief, which will use her slightly lower artillery stat, since I tend not to use melee battles at all? She also has a good piloting stat, which I may take advantage of later when I gain access to fighter planes. Sorting through what I have and what I want from time to time to fit the circumstances is one of the highlights of the game, both in terms of character and ship customization.
All Hands on Deck, to Battle Stations
The final part of Infinite Space is split between traveling between planets and fighting. Traveling is fairly lackluster, since empty space is, well, rather empty, but the game thankfully gives you the fast-forward option to speed the traveling bar / animation up so that you don’t have to wait long to get from start to finish. Before you depart from a port, you set a route along the star lanes between the planets and checkpoints. You can fly as far as you want. I, for one, love to skip over a few of the planets simply because docking at every single planet means extraneous loading and auto-saving time when there’s nothing to do on that planet. However, travel for too long without a break and the fatigue gauge, seen on the left side of the top screen, starts to build up. The higher this gauge is, the more difficult any battles you encounter will be.
Battles are random and can occur with startling frequency or extreme rarity, depending on your luck. When you come across an enemy — usually a patrolling fleet of pirate ships — you have the choice to battle or escape. There are also some encounters from which you can’t run, and then there are some fights where the “melee” option is locked. Generally, I find it a good idea to fight sparingly when I’ve just arrived in an area, since the enemies at that point are fairly strong, but as time goes on and I level up or build a stronger ship, I like to pick off every small-fry patrol fleet I can find to increase Yuri’s fame and, of course, earn money since, at that point, the battles can take as little as five seconds.
The battle system is fairly simple to understand, once you get a hang of what the different functions are and where, although executing them is a matter of both luck and skill. The battles take place on a linear plane, with two fleets – you and your opponent – and your main objective is to control the distance between the fleets (I believe it is assumed that all the ships in a fleet, no matter the formation, are at the same distance, so missiles in-range at the first ship can theoretically also hit the ships in the back row). As mentioned before, each of your weapons have a minimum and a maximum attack range, so you would do the most damage when all of your weapons are enabled; however, that is also the best time for your opponent to attack.
You also have something like an ATB gauge that is separated into three portions: green, yellow, and red, in order of ascension. You can see the opponent’s gauge by the outline of their ship in the top window as well. This basically represents what actions you can take. Nothing can be done at green, while you can dodge and perform a normal attack the moment you hit yellow. However, if you wait until the red portion fills up, you can also release a barrage attack that hits for three times the damage. The downside is, should an enemy choose to use Dodge, your Barrage will miss entirely, while a Normal attack would still have had a chance to connect. After each is action performed, the Command bar (as the gauge is called) decreases by one section, though if you wait a little while, the bar will fill itself again. The rate at which this happens depends on the fatigue gauge during your travels.
If you get within close range of the enemy fleet, you can also use a Melee attack, which results in a rock-paper-scissors style battle with its own time gauge. Each of the three commands, both in ship battles and in melee battles, has its own ups and downs, and timing is one of the most important factors in the battles. Too many times, I’ve found myself one ship short because of slow reaction or impatience.
One aspect I found interesting was that, while the top screen shows what the battling ships are doing, it’s not very detailed. The most it shows are lines behind the ship, which indicate the ships moving forward, or lines in front of the ship, indicating the ships are moving backwards. The screen also displays the enemy ship that you are targeting, as well as their current Command gauge status. Still, no fancy maneuvering and no impressive graphics. Instead, all the information you need to fight is presented in buttons that light up or gauges that steadily fill or decrease. You don’t even need the map at the top of the screen that shows the positions of you and the enemy. Somehow, this reliance on instruments seemed fitting to me, since you’re fighting on a ship. Your movements have to be kept track of by machines, and in the vastness of space, there wouldn’t be much need for fancy visuals and such.
On this note, most of the instruments aren’t explained explicitly in the game. They are, however, detailed in the manual, although in a very hard-to-absorb fashion. Most of what I learned in battles I learned through trial-and-error or observation. Early on, I had no idea what the two red buttons on top of my HP bar were. All I knew was that one was red and the other gray whenever I could use an attack. It was only when I started using barrage that I realized that only one of my guns was firing, and that I needed to get closer for my secondary weapon to be within range as well. Later, when I checked in the manual, sure enough, the small icon was explained in one short sentence.
This seems to be the way most of the information is learned in Infinite Space — even during battles. While everything is stated in the manual, it’s never fully explained in an easy-to-understand manner, and while the battle as a whole is touched upon in the game, there are many buttons and gauges that just aren’t. It reminds me of buying a new car and being told how to drive the vehicle, and then being handed a manual for all the little lights that will appear on the dashboard that are also very important.
After playing the game for myself, I finally understood why there were so many conflicting opinions about the battle system in Infinite Space. While the basics itself are simple enough and are described by Nia (the infamous lady from the trailer) in only a few lines in the in-game tutorial, there are many aspects of the game that could determine your win or loss that just aren’t explained unless you specifically look in the manual. After these parts are grasped, then the battle really does become strategic … for the most part. Luck also plays a huge part in the game, since there are times when you’ll feel like you’re missing every single shot. Despite this, the battles and overall experience are really fun, and I look forward to playing more.