All is not right in the People's Republic of Alordesh. The tiny region on the Asian border of Australia, tired of being oppressed under the Oceana Community Union, rebels against its ruling government with intent for independence. You're caught in the middle of this volatile 22nd century war, a mercenary in command of a handful of mighty walking war machines called Wanzers, and you stand to sway the revolution in one direction or the other. This political problem makes for a king of a strategy game: Front Mission Second (officially titled Front Mission Second), the PlayStation sequel to an excellent but little-seen 1995 Super Famicom title, offers the unprecedented quality across the board that fans have paradoxically come to expect from Square.
The same technology that lent Final Fantasy VII its stunning 3D battle graphics is back in Front Mission Second. The turn-based battles play out on isometric polygonal battlefields that look great but become uncomfortably cluttered when many little bitmapped units pack in close. Suddenly, once shots are fired, the action switches to an extreme close-up of the Wanzers duking it out in real time. Here, the Wanzers look like the 50-ton steel monstrosities they're meant to be. They move gracefully but with tremendous momentum, dwarfing cars and trees and rivaling the skyscrapers that sprinkle the detailed 3D background scenery. Front Mission Second's Wanzers look superior to even the best-looking mecha games out there, such as From Software's Armored Core. Its audio is equally top-of-the-line, with a stirring, dramatic soundtrack highlighting every moment of action and suspense, even during the game's cleverly concealed load times. Meanwhile, booming sound effects do justice to the Wanzers' terrifying weapon systems.
Most of your time with Front Mission Second will be spent engaged in dozens of different large-scale battles where your team of Wanzer pilots fend off scores of powerful enemies to succeed. You and your opponent take turns ordering your respective troops around the field in a manner not unlike Square's more familiar Final Fantasy Tactics. Everything here is on a greater scale than in Tactics; you're in charge of around a half-dozen units and are dealing with over twice that many foes on a huge tactical map in almost every encounter. Despite the scale of each fight, you must micromanage each troop, taking heed of its pilot and his proficiencies as well as overseeing his Wanzer's maintenance piece by piece.
Some of your troops will be armed with powerful, though somewhat inaccurate, long-range weapons including missile arrays, grenade launchers, and high-impact cannons that they can use to whittle down the enemy forces before they get into range. Inevitably, the combat gets down and dirty, with the various mecha tearing into one another with huge firearms and melee weapons. Here is where you must make some tough calls: Will you attack the opponent with your machine gun with the intent of inflicting widespread damage to his vehicle? Or take the fight up close, bearing the opponent's preemptive attack to land a decisive blow to his body with your Wanzer's armored fists? Point-blank melee attacks are extremely powerful but also rather easy to avoid, so maybe your best bet is to start by taking out the enemy's legs. Of course, you can't shoot the legs off a jet or a helicopter - you won't just fight other Wanzers in Front Mission Second, as your opponent will attack with all manner of military vehicles, demanding that you modify your plan accordingly.
Each successful hit earns your pilots experience toward increased proficiency in either close-in fighting, short-range weapons, or long-range artillery. When they gain an experience level in one of these areas, the pilots may acquire special abilities including feints, critical hits, and priority strikes. You must specialize your Wanzers and their pilots alike to succeed, with hand-to-hand and long-range experts supporting your more balanced troops. Likewise, you must think hard about each and every move, both when attacking and on the defense where you select which weapon or defensive measure a pilot will employ in countering the enemy. The combat in Front Mission Second is not overwhelmingly complicated, but rather finely balanced so as to be exciting yet by no means simplistic.
Because you're dealing with so many troops and each round of 3D combat takes close to 30 seconds to play itself out, battles in Front Mission Second last much longer than you may be used to. On the one hand, winning these grueling firefights is definitely rewarding; on the other, the more casual gamer will be hard-pressed to set aside a couple of hours to tackle just one fight, let alone to lose it. Front Mission Second is exclusively for serious strategy gamers, as it pits you against superior numbers controlled by a powerful computer opponent who will capitalize on your every mistake. Luckily, a valuable tutorial exists to teach you life-saving tactics and strategies - though it's presented entirely in Japanese.
On those rare occasions when you're not blasting apart the countryside, you'll witness the plot unfold through mostly linear discourse between all the different and interesting characters in the game. The dialogue is all in Japanese, delivered alongside beautifully hand-drawn, remarkably expressive character portraits. You can only save your progress during these scarce peaceful moments, and you must also take these opportunities to soup up your squad with your mercenary earnings. Dozens of different Wanzer parts and weapons are available both through legal venues and the black market, and you can even customize your machines down to the camouflage paint.
Fortunately, Front Mission Second's menu systems are entirely in English, so you can get into it even with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese. Unfortunately, Square has no plans as of yet to bring Front Mission Second directly to its growing American audience despite the game's well-deserved popularity in Japan. Front Mission Second is a difficult, complex strategy game that's every bit as good as Square's other superlative PlayStation releases. For Square to pass it up for translation only because it doesn't have the words "Final Fantasy" in its title would be a real shame for those longing for a serious, stylish strategy game.