orth American fans of the Square Enix series Front Mission haven't had too much to rejoice about following the 2004 release of Front Mission 4. Despite positive sales figures for both that title and Front Mission 3, Square Enix decided to keep the next two installments in the series as Japanese exclusives. They recently threw American gamers a small bone, however, with the release of Front Mission for the Nintendo DS. Sure, it's a re-release of a re-release of a twelve-year-old SNES game, but it's still full of giant customizable robots and some pretty decent tactical game play.
Players of more modern strategy RPGs are bound to scoff at Front Mission's simple game system and clunky menus — even I, a fan of the series since 1999, was surprised that more wasn't done to update the game for its debut on the DS. Although menus can be navigated using the stylus, it often proved faster (and easier) to use the d-pad. Graphics are passable at best — I was reminded on more than one occasion of the PC strategy game The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. Compared to other titles in the Front Mission series, weapon types and customization options felt extremely limited. For instance, attacks are pretty much broken down into close range (anything that isn't a rocket or grenade) and long range (rockets and grenades). Having spent a good part of my time in Front Mission 3 outfitting my team's snipers, this was a huge disappointment.
Still, once I got past my first few hours with the game and began treating it for what it was, things got a lot better. In order to appreciate Front Mission, you'll first have to recognize its historical significance. After all, this game was one of the first strategy RPGs to grace consoles. Missions sometimes require multiple attempts, either as a result of the game's high difficulty or the unclear nature of certain objectives — sometimes all the player needs to do is destroy a particular enemy to complete a mission, but nowhere is this information provided.
As with many games of this nature, things become a lot more accessible (and a lot more interesting) the further into them you delve. Though your units will feel underpowered at the beginning of the game, things really speed up about five hours in when your pilots begin learning special skills and techniques. There's a lot of micromanagement that needs to take place if you're to have a balanced fighting force: it might seem like a good idea to field all your pilots on every mission, but it actually makes more sense to keep a few of them back so that the ones you do bring to the battlefield have access to as much experience as possible.
In between missions, you'll uncover various aspects of the games clichéd (albeit well-written) story. You can purchase new parts and participate in arena battles as you travel from town to town on the game's world map. Make sure to speak with every NPC you encounter along your travels — many of these will become valued additions to your party. Also, make sure to overhaul each of your primary units whenever your team is given some downtime. Unlike other games in the series, I found myself doing complete redesigns after every mission just to keep up with the enemy. Still, these frequent design sessions do a lot to keep the game fresh over the tens of hours of play it provides. Play is further extended by the inclusion of an entire secondary campaign in which players are able to experience the game again from the "enemy's" perspective.
If your idea of a good turn-based strategy game is Advance Wars, then the long spans between encounters and clunky menu systems of Front Mission probably won't be for you. If you're a longtime fan of the series, however, and you'd like to see one of the games that would spawn later greats like Final Fantasy Tactics, I can't recommend Front Mission enough. Overall, it's a challenging title that remains remarkably playable after more than twelve years.