When you hear people say ‘games aren’t as hard as they used to be’ they’re probably referring to Front Mission 3. This game is hard. I mean balls-to-the-wall hard. It’s the kind of hard that saw a generation of players throwing controllers into walls and screaming aloud in rage to God above and cursing Squaresoft, but at the same time it’s one of the most rewarding games of the original Playstation generation.
Front Mission 3 comes from that golden period where SquareEnix (then Squaresoft) were releasing hit after hit for Sony’s then-new Playstation console. Slipped in there between titles such as Final Fantasy VII and VIII, accompanied by Legend of Mana and Chrono Cross, it holds its own among such fine company and even manages to do a few things none of these others can. The game has a solid sci-fi setting, deep tactical system and customization that would make Final Fantasy Tactics blush.
Graphically the Playstation was still undergoing that formative period where blocky 3D polygons were replacing 2D artwork and sprites. Games from this period look a little rough by today’s standard and some don’t hold up at all, but the nature of a Mech-based combat game allows for Square of the time to play to the strengths of the medium. Giant robots are all sharp angles and work well, though Human characters are just passable. The fully 3D sequences are supplemented wisely by 2D illustrations for speakers and backgrounds for story sequences, allowing for more complicated scenes to remain visually appealing. That Mechs can be customized on all levels including colour, weapons and armor and that this is visually shown in the field is a masterstroke and a rare event for the time. 2D illustrations have a more adult-manga hybrid with western illustration that helps sell the seriousness of the drama later in the game.
Sound is also of a very high quality, with mechs stomping across the field with weight and every punch of rocket launch accompanied by a feeling of weight. I’d say that the sound design eclipses anything seen in the Final Fantasy series, although by modern standards some of it seems to have a tinny quality when played through high quality speakers. Musically the game has a serious and dark tone that is just a shade above being dour. Military themes and pushing pieces that add to the thrill of battle and yet make you worried about the outcome deliver exactly what the game needs to sound great.
The clever part of Front Mission 3 is that early in the game you’re asked to make what appears to be an innocent choice between relaxing with a work colleague or visiting your step-sister. This decision spins the tale down two wildly different and complimentary timelines and adds a great amount of replay-ability. Events you hear about in passin in one could be your focal mission in another play through, whilst some characters become allies or enemies. You are put into the shoes of ‘Wanzer’ pilot Kazuki and his friend/annoyance Ryogo (based on how you choose to interact with him early on). You play through an early tutorial that gives you the basics as Kazuki, testing out a new model Wanzer before being asked to deliver it to the Japanese Defence Force base where they witness an explosion where a new weapon is tested and things quickly escalate from there as the JDF and DHZ scenarios divide to show different sides of the conflict. This plot is very carefully supported by a very finely crafted world, in particular a whole virtual internet has been included to give us background information and a greater scope for the world. The plot is deeply involving and political from the get-go and although it can fall on the side of over-seriousness and threatens at times to fall into depressing territory it manages to push through with powerful twists and turns.
Gameplay is split evenly between battles and 2D sequences where you explore the game in the style of a Visual Novel. In this mode you spend time speaking to characters, upgrading your mech (wanzer), perusing the internet and moving from location to location, occasionally making difficult choices. It’s not very inspiring from a gameplay perspective but the level of detail on display and the interpretation of what the internet might become as a news and information outlet (for 1999 they certainly guessed a few things right!) make it tolerable. Combat is the meat of the game and the system in play uses the traditional movement and height/direction rules seen across Tactical RPGs and adds some new features including the ability to target different parts of an enemy unit to disable them instead of destroy them in order to capture spare Wanzers for parts or trade-in value. This is great fun but hard to pull off when missions are tight to finish later in the game, they involve leaving the mech as a small human character after your opponents pilot is dead or has ejected and getting into their own machine. Your vulnerable in this form and your own mech can be hijacked, but the rewards can be worth it. Destructible terrain is also on display, as are a number of non-mech targets such as tanks, helicopters and humans with conventional weaponry. Enemies can call on reinforcements or airstrikes in some battles and approaching a set weapons platform is a daunting prospect. Ranged fire is safe but less reliable, and attacking triggers an immediate action on the part of your opponent so if you can disable them or choose a target with no ranged/close ability then that’s a favourable tactic. Enemy AI is merciless and competent, knowing what your after and protecting/attacking it with full force. This can make missions to protect civilian characters prime candidates for controller-throwing tantrums. The game gives Wanzers skills based on a random chance to learn one from the weapon they are using and even then there’s a limited space to equip them into. Spare parts can increase this cap as well as level your mechs armour and damage output so you’ll spend no small amount of time tweaking each character’s mech to its fullest. I advise having each character specialize in a different form of combat and keeping your lead character as an all-rounder to support or step in when one bites the dust. Missions are hugely varied with many different hazards, victory objectives and random events to ensure that no two battles ever seem the same. Be warned though, it’s almost impossible to grind in this game and that puts the focus on your decisions as a reason for victory or failure.
With all of the HD remakes that SquareEnix has been pushing out over the years I’d really love to see this game given the same treatment, it’s something of a forgotten gem of the PSOne era. I’d love to see a fully voiced and lovingly recreated rendition of this game in the future, and then perhaps it will redeem the Front Mission series which has fallen onto hard times of late and stepped away from its Tactical RPG roots into standard shooter fair. I can’t give it a perfect score because there are some elements that just don’t hold up today and it may be a little too difficult for some, requiring a commitment modern gamers may lack. As of now the game is available as part of the Playstation Classics range on Playstation Network and can be played on PS3 and PSP/VITA devices.