Front Mission 3 review...sort of.

I’m on the fence about nostalgia. My track record for going back and playing old games from my childhood and enjoying them as much as I did before is about 50/50. I still love SaGa Frontier, and games like Kartia and Legend of Mana were even BETTER than they first were in my opinion. Some games make me think, “Yeah, I can see how this was good ten years ago but not now” like Breath of Fire 3.

But like, some games, like Front Mission 3, are just really bad. It’s funny, cos I remember thinking this game was the shit when I first played it.

NOTE: The reason that this is a ‘sort of’ review is because there are two completely different story arcs for the game. I completed the longer of the two, but I’m only about four or five missions into the other one. I highly doubt my review will change based on my completion of the second story…but, I guess it COULD. So, here’s my review of about 65% of Front Mission 3.

Roger Ebert is my favorite movie critic, hands down. Funny enough, he once stated that he believes video games are incapable of being true art. His reasoning was that the amount of choice and free will given to a player can interfere with the message a story might try to convey. While I don’t think this is true in all, or even most cases, Front Mission 3 is one of the types of games makes it very hard to prove him wrong.

FM3 (and the entire series, for that matter) takes place in a fictious world, where several countries have made alliances to gain influence and power on a global scale. Wars are now fought using bipedal robots called wanzers. You assume the role of Kazuki Takemura, a wanzer test pilot at some sort of wanzer research facility in Japan or something. Anyways, there’s a huge explosion on a Japanese military base, and Kazuki, being the dumbass that he is, forcefully makes his way onto the base with his best buddy, Ryogo Kusama - a delivery truck driver for wanzers.

Depending on some seemingly insignificant choice you make in the beginning of the game, the circumstances in which you learn about the explosion, the people you meet, and the places you go are very different. No matter which choice you made, though, the result is the same: the explosion was caused by a bomb called MIDAS - an atomic bomb that causes no damage to its target environment. Either your sister - a scientist who worked at the base - is kidnapped by an agent that hijacks MIDAS, forcing you to go save her, or you save your sister from the accident site and decide that you’re up to the task of getting MIDAS back from whomever stole it - even though you’re just a wanzer test pilot and a delivery guy.

FM3 is one of the most indecisive and incongruous examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen in my life. First off, the way the characters are written sometimes completely contradicts their established personalities. For example, Kazuki, while being stereotypically headstrong, his overall good sense of judgement and rationality separate him from the stereotypical heroes of most RPGs. However, in the story path where you save your sister in the beginning of the game, Kazuki kicks it off by assaulting Japanese military officers with no provocation. What the fuck? Or, take Ryogo, who is such a hilarious character. Ryogo is perhaps the most tragic sufferer of the incongruous writing. One of his quirks is how coquettish he is with every girl he meets. Sometimes, this is written brilliantly, like the way he makes fun of the attractive wanzer pilot, Cindy, for being too butch (“Try to act more ladylike if you wanna ask me out in a date!”). At other times, though, he’s so unsuave and unsubtle that it’s hard to believe it’s the same person.

This might be forgivable if the plot was good, but it’s mediocre at best. FM3 seems to have had a hard time deciding whether it wanted its story to be character-driven or story-driven, and it’s worse off at both for it. For example, FM3 has such a hard-on for its combat that the game will milk out any story-related reason it can possibly give you to fight. In the story variation where you don’t save your sister, there’s a section where you are running away from the Japanese military for about nine battles in a row! That story path has about sixty-nine battles, so that means more than ten percent of the game is spent on drawn-out chase sequence. Keep in mind, too, that this isn’t the only time this happens in the game; any banal reason you can imagine for engaging in battle will happen. There’s so much fat to be trimmed off the game that it might require liposuction.

When you finally get to the nitty gritty, even THAT isn’t very good. The moment which really killed FM3’s story in my eyes is a big one: In one of the two story paths, you are helping a group of rebels try to overthrow the government of Da Han Zhong - one of the previously stated country alliances that consists of China and Taiwan. You are made to believe that the current DHZ government are a bunch of corrupt dicks, and that the Hua Lian Rebels are fighting for freedom. Then, suddenly, the rebel leaders become a bunch of douchebags right near the end of your stint in the DHZ, making it feel like you just helped a bunch of dicks kill some other dicks.

While it’s true that this isn’t the point of the story, about half of the game consists of helping the rebels while they help you retrieve information on the whereabouts of the antagonist. It’s hard not to put your heart and soul into a struggle so passionate as a freedom fight. Keep in mind, too, that you talk to civilians all the time, giving insight into how unhappy they are with the state of the nation - the tense atmosphere, in fact is one of the few things that FM3 hits right on the mark. So, when you find out that the people you gave your life for don’t give a damn about anything but their own personal gain, it just makes you think, “What was the point of all that?” The irony is that in the other story arc, the DHZ are your allies, and even though you don’t spend half of the damn game there, it’s still weird to team up with them, knowing how evil they are.

Perhaps the overarching theme of FM3 is that in war, there are no good guys, and people fight only for survival and supremacy. I doubt it, though, since the original Front Mission contradicted the hell out of that. I really have no idea what FM3 was trying to say, but there are a million ways to talk about war and its effect on the world, its countries, the people, the economy, the soldiers, the leaders, and so on. Couldn’t the writers have picked just one theme and molded it to perfection? It might be nice if the writers could figure out what their fascination with war is and stick to one theme for the entirety of the game.

You might be saying, “But hey, Skankin’ Garbage, this is a strategy RPG, so who cares about the story? I like strategic battles!” To you, I’d say, “This is definitely NOT a strategy RPG, and this is probably not the game for you.” See, this is another place that the developers really failed. I haven’t played through Front Mission 4 yet, but I’m beginning to believe that the very game design concept of the Front Mission series is fundamentally flawed.

Combat works something like this: You and your squad of four wanzers take on a stupidly large enemy squad, taking turns hitting each other with punches, guns (or rather, bullets fired from guns) and missiles (fired from a missile launcher) until either the players or the enemies are defeated. All attacks are subject to immediate counterattack if within the range of your opponent’s weapon, except for missiles. While it’s admittedly more complex than that - and way more complex that Front Mission, which felt more like a practical joke - it feels like a lot of the older problems of the series have been fixed, only to create a whole new set of problems.

Let me just get right to the point, though: FM3 is a failure as a strategy RPG because the game relies way too heavily on chance. Right from the outset, there’s one very big design flaw, and that’s the fact that each wanzer has a seperate HP value for four different parts - the body, the legs, and the right and left arms. You can not choose to target any specific part; every attack hits a specific part of the body at random (except for Machine Guns, which hit parts randomly, or Shotguns, which divvy up the damage to all four parts evenly). This is preferable to being able to target specific parts - FM1 allowed you to do that, and the game was broken as hell because of it.

Still, the only way to remove a wanzer from combat is to destroy the body. This creates aggravating situations where you can be killed in two or three attacks by total fluke, because the enemies happened to hit only your body. Or, the opposite can happen: enemies will deal damage very evenly to all four parts of your wanzer, never actually disabling a single one. There’s almost no way to control what happens, making the game a big crapshoot.

There’s also this ‘neat’ feature where every attack in the game has a chance of stunning its target, or even ejecting the pilot from the wanzer at random, which forces that person to spend their turn getting back into their wanzer. There is no way to protect or prepare yourself for this; your only hope is to never get hit ever, which is impossible.

Another way that this game improved over the original Front Mission is the way it handles equipment: Almost all pieces of equipment are roughly the same, making it so that you don’t have to keep buying new parts every two fights. The way equipment differs from each other is that they each have different combat skills to be learned if you do certain things while in battle. This is also a huge contributor to the randomness, and here’s why:

  1. The conditions for learning a skill are really vague, and sometimes don’t give you the whole story. Like, it might say “Melee”, which means that you need to hit someone with a Melee attack to activate it. However, sometimes it means, “Hit someone with a Melee attack while you have a shield equipped,” but will make no mention of a shield.The game makes no effort in helping you figure this out, so you could be trying to learn a skill for the entire game with no luck, all because you don’t equip shields on your melee character.

  2. You have no way of knowing what skills you’ll learn from a part beforehand. So, you could spend a long time trying to learn a skill off of a part, only to have the skill be some terrible skill that doesn’t help you at all.

  3. After you learn a skill and set it (that is, you can only have a certain amount of skills equipped for use at a time), it will activate randomly. So, if you get a skill like Salvo, which causes a Missile-user to fire all remaining missiles at a target, it might activate when the opponent will be killed in just one more attack, making it a complete waste. Or, if you have the skill Brace, which grants you higher defense but allows your opponent to attack first, it might activate when you have very little HP remaining, allowing your opponent to kill you off for free.

Granted, there are ways to mitigate the randomness of combat, but the same thing can be said for Monopoly, and in the end you’re still rolling dice. The problem is that the strategy lies completely within the preparation, and very little within the battle. I’ve went into some battles using a particular strategy and got obliterated, only to try again using the exact same strategy and watch the exact opposite situation pan out. It hardly feels like I’m winning because I played smart, but rather, because my skills activated at the right time, and I hit the right parts. What I’m driving at is, why even strategize when the game is more random than Monopoly? At least in Monopoly, you know how much you’re going to get out of each property when you purchase them!

To wrap up this review, I’ll tell you something interesting that ties in the worst parts of the gameplay with the worst parts of the storytelling: When you are about to kill an enemy pilot, they have the chance to ‘Surrender’, which means that they won’t attack you. However, they might choose to come back into the battle and attack you if it looks like you’re losing. You can fix this by attacking an opponent during ‘Surrender’, in which case they will become ‘Surrendered’ (big difference!), effectively removing the wanzer from combat. Frequently, though, an opponent initiates ‘Surrender’ when the next attack will destroy their wanzer. So, when trying to force them into ‘Surrendered’ state, you frequently kill them. Also, If you leave them alone, they’ll almost always reenter the fight, even if you’ve rendered them unable to attack by destroying both of their arms.

Do you see what I’m saying? Kazuki Takemura is very opposed to needless violence and murdering, and yet, the game all but assures that Kazuki and co. have to slaughter defenseless opponents, or even opponents who are asking for mercy. Roger Ebert, I don’t agree with your stance on video games as art, but if you ever need to provide a case example, just say “Front Mission 3.”

Funny enough, he once stated that he believes video games are incapable of being true art. His reasoning was that the amount of choice and free will given to a player can interfere with the message a story might try to convey.

He does have a point though. I always* make Rick leave with Ilsa away from Casablanca.

*Okay, that’s a lie. Would never do.