Review – Infinite Space

As a fan of the occasional science fiction novel, I’ve wanted to see a real sci-fi JRPG for a long time. The Star Ocean series occasionally tantalizes – then I’m reminded once again that the vast majority of each Star Ocean game ends up being the standard medieval fantasy-themed magic-filled claptrap anyway (or super-science with no explanation, which as we know is indistinguishable from the former). The Phantasy Star games have a science-y atmosphere, but they’re more post-apocalyptic in nature and there are only bits and pieces of the sci-fi around. Xenogears and Xenosaga probably come closest, but the former was more fantasy themed and the latter was too focused on inappropriate religious references to bother with much science, despite all the spaceships flying around and weapons research going on.

I ultimately expected Infinite Space to be the same sort of disappointment, and was pleasantly surprised. Although the game doesn’t go into the details of how the ship engines work or what the warp-gates are (for good reason on the latter), it was still a highly space-y game. Whether it is a JRPG or not is more debatable (I’d call it a strategy game structured like a JRPG), but it has the most science of any game I’ve played from Japan. Not that I’ve played all of them, mind you, but this is a pretty damn sci-fi themed game.

So what’s special about Infinite Space? Why would you want to play it? For me, the first thing I’d call out is the Plot. It gets a capital P because it is far and away the focus of the game. The Plot is initially focused on the space wanderlust the main character, Yuri, has immediately upon getting his first spaceship. Once you get a little further, things become more complicated – yes, Yuri’s still out to solve the mystery of the MacGuffins, but more importantly there are interstellar politics interfering, and Yuri and company are as eager to right wrongs as any RPG cast. Needless to say, twists and turns abound, and just when you think things are coming to a head, Act 2 pops up out of nowhere. The Plot of IS occasionally smacks of standard Anime space-opera fare, but it is high-quality as those things go. It is also unexpectedly dark – some people die, some people change, and some people are just assholes. The only comparable games in terms of plot scale are the Suikodens. IS is the deepest DS game plot-wise I have seen (and man, would I love to see a game that tops this one).

Ship customization is another major feature that makes IS stand out. For those who’ve played some PC games that involve spaceship building – Master of Orion 2, Stars!, and so on – Infinite Space’s system will be somewhat familiar. Weapon ports are static, but ships’ interiors can be customized with modules built out of differently-sized blocks. Each base spaceship design has a certain amount and layout of space, and you decide which pieces to put in where to make the ultimate spaceship. Infinite Space doesn’t always make design decisions easy. In fact, the instruction manual is pretty much worthless, and the in-game Help system is incredibly vague (“The ‘Captain Bonus’ gives a bonus to the ship captain’s skill” – do tell!). This feature came second to the plot as the biggest time-sink, out of pleasure rather than necessity. It really brought out the tinkerer in me that I didn’t know was still around.

If that weren’t enough, there’s also a crew assignment system. As you go through the game, you’ll get additional crew members. Some are mandatory, others are optional – similar to Suikoden once again. An off-the-cuff guess would put the total number at 70ish members. Each has their own portrait and (surprisingly) full name. Many have plot events where they’ll tell you stuff in taverns when you pick the “Talk to your friends” option. More importantly, of course, each has a set of numbers indicating their abilities with regards to several jobs – navigation, artillery, maintenance, and so on. Many also have special abilities that make them better suited to particular jobs. Your task is to put the right people in the right places. For the first half of IS this is fairly easy – you don’t have an artillery officer, so when you find someone with decent artillery skill you put them in there. Later, you run into more complex decisions – a character might be great in two different places, or you might have to pick between someone with a high skill level and another with a special ability for that position.

At a distant third would be the exploration and combat. While there’s some of each, they really take a backseat to the rest of the game. Exploration is pretty simple – go places outside of where you’re told to go. I usually explored to find new crew members, rather than the fame points and “phenomena” (pretty things in space) you can find. Combat starts off as a simple affair with only three options. Every couple of chapters adds a few more options, but ultimately the focus remains the same – avoid getting hit by a barrage at all costs, and hit the front spaceships first. Thankfully, combat (and indeed everything, including plot) can be skipped at a blinding speed. This is particularly useful when you need to grind for money.

Speaking of grinding, it’s about time to talk about the parts of the game that aren’t so great. Did I mention grinding? Throughout much of Infinite Space I found myself strapped for cash. I really wanted to try out a new battleship design, but I didn’t have the money. Pretty much the only option is to fly around in local space killing everything you find. You can speed this up some by loading a ship or two with Holds (giving you money each time you stop at a port), but it’s still fairly slow. I spent around five hours of the total 38-hour playtime doing this, but much of it was unnecessary in the end. Another part that’s not so great, but easily offset – it’s very possible to save the game in a position where you are stuck at a battle you can’t win. I can only think of a couple of places where this is the absolutely the case (no access to a shipyard, basically) – but there are a half-dozen where it’s possible but very, very hard to win. Use multiple save slots – problem solved. This game has five save slots (not counting the annoying auto-save which nobody would ever use), of which I used two most of the time.

Space is a big place, and Infinite Space really gets that idea across. There’s a lot of depth to this game, and it’s a blast. I’d highly recommend Infinite Space to anyone who enjoys a good story or a solid set of customization systems. It really feels like a lot of solid work went into developing this game, and I look forward to seeing what else Nude Maker can do.

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