The Front Mission games constitute one of the Company Formerly Known as Square's best-kept secrets. This venerable series has always combined addictive turn-based strategy gameplay with the trappings of a full-on role-playing game, all set within a war-torn near-future world in which giant walking tanks called wanzers rule the battlefield. The Front Mission games have offered up deep gameplay as well as some great storylines, but most of the games have never made it to these shores. In fact, Front Mission 3, a 4-year-old PlayStation game, is the only title in the series to be released stateside. So the upcoming release of Front Mission 4 is an exciting event for longtime fans--it's been a long wait, but the new playable demo of Front Mission 4 proves that the wait is almost over. The gameplay here looks as though it's going to really appeal to fans of other strategy RPGs, such as recent hits like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
If you've played other turn-based strategy games, you'll be able to get into Front Mission 4 in no time. As far as the gameplay goes, you take turns with your opponent moving your wanzer units and attacking the enemy forces. The depth comes from learning how best to deploy your wanzers and their weaponry, which includes gigantic rifles, shotguns, missile launchers, melee weapons, and more. Wanzers can sustain damage to their arms, legs, and torso independently--it may be strategically tempting to take out an enemy wanzer's arms, preventing it from attacking, but concentrating damage against the body can blow the thing right up. Positioning and counterattacks also figure into the gameplay, and you'll need to balance the desire to keep dishing out damage with having to keep your own forces alive.
Wanzers aren't robots--they're machines with human pilots inside. Front Mission 4 offers up a story that revolves around these characters, particularly Elsa, a talented young French wanzer pilot. The Front Mission 4 demo introduces you to her as well as some of her colleagues and lets you engage in several different loosely connected missions from the game's campaign. There's also an extensive tutorial that teaches you all about the game's basics as well as some of its nuances, such as the effects of time of day and weather on the battlefield and the effects of your wanzers' facing and various status ailments that may afflict them.
Visually, Front Mission 4 bears its series' signature near-future look, most evident in how the wanzers seem clunky and utilitarian rather than sleek and sophisticated; their weapons are direct and dangerous-looking but not at all fancy. The game uses a decidedly drab color scheme, which may be appropriate but doesn't lend itself to stunning visuals. Anime-style animated portraits of the various characters pop up during the extensive dialogue sequences, and between-mission dialogue features full speech, albeit with somewhat ham-fisted voice-acting performances.
The gameplay itself seems like tried-and-true stuff, and frankly, like other strategy RPGs, the game is fairly slow paced. You can accelerate some of the combat animations, but this is still a deliberate game.
The demo offers enough content to give you a good taste of what to expect from the full version of Front Mission 4 when it ships this June. It isn't going to be a game for everyone, but those who relish stats-heavy, addictive strategy role-playing experiences should definitely stay tuned for this one.