Having the means to build a fully customized fleet of massive starships armed to the teeth with the latest destructive technology and thrash your way across a string of pirate-infested galaxies should make for a killer time. For anyone who has grown up on a steady diet of Star Wars and Star Trek, epic space battles and grand tales of cosmic conflict make a mouth-watering premise for a portable role-playing game. As its name implies, Infinite Space is a vast and expansive sci-fi RPG that will send you rocketing into the furthest reaches of space to show scores of intergalactic baddies who's boss. Getting caught up in an armed struggle between warring planetary factions has its exciting moments. It's also a real struggle to enjoy at times, due to a number of substantial gameplay design issues that will gradually erode your enthusiasm until you're left wondering if the many frustrating hours you've sunk into the quest were a fair trade-off for the limited fun it yielded.
The game's young hero, Yuri, enthusiastically finds himself at the helm of his own starship with a ragtag team of unlikely companions after being exiled from his home planet for disobeying laws against space travel. Motivated by a drive to explore the depths of space and recover mysterious artifacts called epitaphs, the party sets out to do battle against dangerous space pirates and other unsavory forces in their search for the relics. They soon get sucked into the growing threat of war between planets and organizations. Yuri's leadership experience matures alongside the power of his armada. Having a hands-on role in deciding every aspect of the fleet's growth and operation is a big part of what makes Infinite Space so enticing. Your back-and-forth travels between dozens of planets and numerous solar systems inevitably unlock a staggering number of blueprints for new ship classes, weapon upgrades, and fascinating mods to boost your fleet with. With all those goodies to play around with, it's easy to get pleasantly lost in the task of assigning crews to posts with maximized efficiency, tinkering with the ship mods by dropping them into puzzle-like grids, and grinding for cash to spend on heavy-duty ships.
Charting a course through connecting routes between certain planets is the only way to navigate the cosmos, and the multilayered galaxy map in each system seems overly complicated at first glance. You can figure it out given some time and experimentation, but just when you get the hang of hopping between planets, the plot will send you to bigger galaxies with even more confusing networks to explore. Stopping at a planet lets you save your game, access the planet's facilities, and automatically replenish your fleet's health and fatigue levels. Beaming down to the surface, you can visit local taverns to chitchat with your own crew and non-player characters, pick up important blueprints at shops, and advance the story in some instances. Quite a bit of your time is unfortunately spent plotting routes on the minimalist galaxy interface, which leaves much to be desired. It's functional in a rickety, bare-bones sort of way. Other areas of the game are more impressive, but they're not without their own flaws.
The open space between most planets is filled with hidden enemy pirate fleets lying in wait to pounce on you. Real-time battles have you issuing split-second commands on a virtual control panel with quick stylus taps while you track the action of ships on the top screen. The slick interface mimics the bridge of your ship. Unleashing volleys of attacks triggers close-up scenes of the action showing your vessel unloading its barrage before offering a view of the enemy ship getting pummeled. Destroying opponents' ships yields a satisfying explosive sound as you watch them break apart. Engaging your flagship's forward and reverse thrusters helps you move in and out of range to fire on enemy ships. Meanwhile, you also have to pay close attention to a battle gauge that slowly fills, since it has to reach a certain point before you can issue attack commands. Which attacks you should use varies according to what your target is doing, because the effectiveness of specific attacks is greatly increased or decreased based on what move the enemy pulls out of its playbook at any given time. You need to constantly be on your toes, because a moment's hesitation can make all the difference between being vaporized and trekking onward to victory.
In the slightly less common instances where you duke it out in melee battles with your crew on planet surfaces or on board adversaries' ships, combat is very much a game of rock-paper-scissors. Selecting an attack that beats your enemy's attack lets you do damage without taking any for a short time, but things quickly go south if you start off on the wrong foot. Both sides attack at the same time, and there's a delay of a few seconds from the time you queue up an attack to the time it triggers. Opponents are also very good at anticipating your next move and countering it before you have a chance to react. These encounters are a lot less cohesive than the fleet battles, which makes them a lot less enjoyable. You can avoid them most of the time, but sometimes the plot shoehorns you into these fights.
Infinite Space's tough-love approach to battle and the way its progress structure plays out will be a major turnoff to some. Losing your flagship in fleet encounters or having your crew wiped out in melee at any point in any battle is an instant game over. While that alone isn't particularly devious, the game's story missions often throw you into several back-to-back heavy-duty fights in a row without a chance to repair your ship or recover your fatigue meter between them. Making it through to the other side of these encounter gauntlets with a sluggish, exhausted crew and a fleet that's being held together with chicken wire and spackle feels impossible at times. Of course, you can always go back and grind a bit to buy more powerful gear and pony up your fleet--except when you can't. There's at least one point in the story when, if you choose to proceed with the mission, you won't be able to go back until you beat it. If you aren't powerful enough to trounce the slew of baddies dumped on you or if you forgot to equip any crucial items, pray you didn't save your game after accepting the mission.
Once the adventure gets under way, the quirky personalities of the anime-style characters do grow on you as the story develops and gets more intense. Unfortunately, figuring out where you need to go and what you need to do in order to get the plot moving along in some stretches of the game is painful. Sometimes you have to visit places and talk to characters multiple times in a row just to get the key morsel of information you need to proceed. The path forward is often unclear, and the result is that you'll wind up aimlessly clocking frequent-flyer miles throughout the galaxy without accomplishing much until you stumble on that one hot spot you missed.
Infinite Space is a decent game sci-fi fans will undoubtedly want to love, but its geeky glow loses some luster as the blemishes start to crop up. Upgrading your fleet, managing the detailed aspects of each ship, and decking them out with cool enhancements give the more tedious portions of the game some purpose. Whether it's enough to keep you enthralled through dozens of hours of space battles depends on how much patience you can muster.