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Front Mission 4: sturmschwach

Front Mission 4: intro

(Original image source: Front Mission 4 demo intro.)

“They still have a lot to learn about military tactics, but I’m  sure Thammond will whip them into shape.”

Combat in Front Mission 4 is played out with a polished turn-based system. The interface is slick and simple, the game mechanics reasonably complex yet accessible. The problem is FM4 combat, which features clashes between giant mecha, is often less than gripping.

Players will start out commanding a mere three mecha units in battle and will eventually lead up to a dozen units (including temporary allies). Game speed can be intolerably slow due to the mecha animations, and selecting the Fast speed setting will help pick up the pace.

In battle, this strategy RPG requires surprisingly little thought for most of the lengthy campaign. There is a distinct lack of any real challenge, something compounded by the fact there is no provision to increase the difficulty.

Part of the problem is incurring damage in this game is only a trivial inconvenience. The damage model is of the all-or-nothing variety. For example, as long as its legs have 1HP left, a mecha’s mobility isn’t impaired in any way.

Moreover, damage is easily mitigated in battle—this extends to regenerating lost limbs (which also recovers attached weaponry)—with time the only cost to pay. A mecha with a repair backpack will be able to carry out repairs throughout the battle. A mecha is only lost when its body component is completely destroyed, but deep into the game, this, too, may be the most minor of problems as players will have the ability to instantly resurrect completely destroyed units in some scenarios.

With all these crutches available, tactics need be no more complicated than moving units to the nearest enemy and concentrating fire on a single target.

The greatest tactical challenge FM4 has to offer is mastering the subtleties of the Link system which allows pilots to support linked teammates either offensively or defensively. To best exploit links, the player will have to plan ahead and move units in just the right order. Unfortunately, there’s rarely an urgent need for that thought and care since the AI opponent leaves a lot to be desired.

Front Mission 4: intro

(Original image source: Front Mission 4 demo intro.)

“You incompetent fool! Why did you not detect them sooner!?”

The player will be spared loading a quicksave on many an occasion because the charitable enemy will often pass up the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce. Enemy squads rarely include repair units, and enemy units will sit placidly and twiddle their manipulators even as their teammates are torn apart by the player.

The battles that do require the most focus (and not coincidentally, the ones that are the most satisfying) are the story missions found late in the game. These typically feature mission-critical allies who are under attack as soon as the mission begins. Here the player will have to forego caution, make some hard decisions about target priorities, and take immediate and decisive action.

The tense final battle epitomises that type of scenario. It is predictably tougher than prior missions but the dramatic spike in difficulty might shock players lulled by the leniency of earlier missions. It’s by no means an impossible mission as thoughtful pre-mission tweaking coupled with focused tactics on the battlefield will ensure victory is possible, but it does raise the question of why Square Enix shied away from providing a similar challenge for most of the game. This is hardly a company renowned for “press any button to win” games. While FM4 may not exactly be a simple walk in the park, it would have been a much more satisfying experience if the AI consistently provided a greater threat.

Simulator battles offer a chance to improve pilots and earn money for upgrade parts by playing new scenarios on completed mission maps, but given the general lack of difficulty in the game, it’s probably best to avoid grinding these in order to give the AI opponent a sporting chance.

Posted in Games, PS2.