Thursday, 29 April 2010

Review - Infinite Space

  • Game: Infinite Space
  • Format: Nintendo DS
  • Other Formats: None
  • Developer: Platinum Games/ Nude Maker
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Genre: Role Playing

Out of all the fictional jobs that we wish existed in real life, starship captain has got to rank near the top. Exploring never before seen regions of space, fighting battles with guns that could take out a small country and sending anonymous crewmen to die pointlessly, it's got everything. Strangely, despite the number of games that try to mimic Star Wars in some way, this Star Trekian life is something of a rarity in gaming, but now comes Infinite Space to satisfy all your redshirt-sacrificing needs.

The story focuses on Yuri, who in accordance with JRPG tradition is a young boy coming of age who must face up to his great destiny and mysterious powers. Said powers in this case being an ability to activate the Epitaphs, magic space boxes that are somehow connected to the Void Gates used to travel between systems. He also needs to face up to the Lugovalian Empire that is rapidly conquering all galaxies that stand in its way. As generic as the overall plot sounds, the characters, dialogue and subplots are consistently well done, as are the numerous homages - and not just the expected Star Trek/ Wars/ Gate similarities either, Arthur C. Clarke fans will recognise a lot of themes within the story.

Frak! Smeg! Frell! petaQ! Drokk! It's not proper sci-fi until someone hurls a made-up swear word at you. Belgium!

At the heart of the game are your ships themselves. There are over a hundred in all, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The game offers an impressive level of customisation, with your design choices making a noticeable difference to how your fleet operates. Shields and armour let you go toe-to-toe with the enemy, radars and long range weaponry let you hold back and attack them from a safe distance, and security offices give a big advantage if you try to board enemy ships. Simply buying the best of everything is not an option, as your ship has fairly limited space for modules, so for every improvement you make there is a tradeoff in terms of something else that must be left out. You also need to manage your crew, hiring staff for everything from First Officer right down to accountants and the serving staff in the mess hall.

Ship upgrades are done through the medium of Space Tetris.

When battle begins, the two fleets are placed at opposite sides of a battleground, with the options to move forward or back, or to fire any weapons that are in range. There is a kind of rock-paper-scissors dynamic to the three main moves - Barrage is made up of three times as many shots as Normal, but can be almost completely negated by Dodge, dodging a Normal attack however just makes you easier to score a critical hit on. As the game goes on, you also gain access to fighters, AA guns, boarding parties and special attacks. The number of combat options is very limited when compared to the ship upgrades, but if anything this goes to underline just what a difference the right design choices make.

The battles use the strangely underused gimmick of turning the DS touch screen into a control panel

All this may seem somewhat overwhelming, and in truth it often can be. This fact is not helped by the often shockingly poor levels of user friendliness. There are dozens of stats to take into account, plus special skills for all your crew and many of the ships, but the only way to learn what they all mean is to drop whatever you're doing and go to the tutorials at a starbase. Ship customisation would also be a lot easier if you had the relevant stats visible on the top screen - as it is you are told what improvement the current module will give, but not how effective you already are. Most unforgivably, there is no way to look up your current objectives, so if you can't remember where you are meant to be going then your only options are a) fly to every one of the dozens of nearby systems, checking every building until you finally reach the one that sets off the plot, or b) GameFAQs.

These annoying problems with accessibility may well be enough to make many players give up in frustration, but stick with it and once it clicks the scale and ambition are truly impressive. A great game at its best, it's just a shame it makes you work so hard to see it.

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