Kazuki Takemura tests pilots prototype wanzers out of a facility in Okinawa, Japan. A hard worker with the nerves and confidence of a soldier, the opening tutorial sees him obliging a potential buyer who asks — against protocol — for a live fire battle test. A grid-based map is presented, a modest depiction that includes blocky sprites and little charm, yet is clean and serviceable. Kazuki can march several spaces, putting the hostile A.I. a few squares away and in range of his shotgun. The proceeding engagement begins, and with it the visual delight of mecha combat.
In this violence, the pixelated forms become fully rendered polygonal beings with shields, massive firearms, and intimidating forms. The shotgun blast is brutal, providing an even spread of damage across the chassis and parts of the walking tanks. Defending units can counter attack with the expense of ability points, where Kazuki may take a vicious return volley of the opponent’s machine gun: POP POP POP! The sounds effects and cinematic angles give grit to Front Mission 3, and although it’s just entertaining fluff before the ultimate result (damage dealt), it’s the greatest enjoyment the game has to offer in its slogging 25 hours.
The buyer is impressed, and dialogue areas await there at the facility with colleagues and friends. You will find many more in the bars, bases, and shops throughout this linear epic. Options to approach NPCs like the ‘drunken man’ or the ‘promiscuous woman’ are presented, but at the first bar in Okinawa, an individual of more significance is found. A U.S scientist (considered an enemy of Japan in this reality) requests aid from Kazuki in infiltrating a top secret base in the city. Kazuki, overcome with worry after a recent explosion from within the base, accepts the mission so that he may confirm the well being of his sister, a researcher who works there. Ryogo, Kazuki’s care-free work partner, also tags along because hey — thi U.S. national is a total babe. And that’s that. A foreign stranger has convinced two men to commit treason through a conversation at a bar. This is Front Mission 3.
The team is caught after discovering a horrible secret within the research facility, but it needn’t be stressful. Front Mission 3 is a lenient tactical RPG in that story centric characters can die in combat without consequence, allowing a blitz to victory. It’s an awkward aspect given the realism of the combat variables at play. You can blow the arms off a mech to render it useless, force the surrender of an enemy pilot if you place him in a no-win situation, and even forcibly eject pilots from their machines after a lucky rocket or gun blast. 0There’s a lot of visible destruction in Front Mission 3 that has immediate effects on the battlefield and in the menus after, when captured mechs can be scrapped or used by your 4-unit team. But oddly, character death is outside this ruleset. Unique enemy pilots blow up there on the field, but you must always wonder if their dramatic pre-death speech is really their final one, or if they will magically reappear unscathed in a future face off.
The relationship between the cutscenes and what the player is actually performing in gameplay is poorly handled, in general. The attempt to paint Kazuki as a naive and good hearted kid, as so many animes do with mech pilots, falters because of it. Consider that Kazuki shows no hesitation slaying his countrymen after infiltrating the base, killing even policemen and other forces as the team escapes from Okinawa. Nowhere does the game stop and address the battles fought like this. But the moment your crew suggests it would be wise to steal a civilian truck, Kazuki puts his foot down: Steal a civilian truck? No! That would be wrong. This isn’t the only example showing such disconnect, but it suffices in demonstrating what you can expect from Front Mission 3’s characters and writing.
Combat is stranger, still. Enemy wanzers, tanks, turrets and artillery will refuse to move or take action until you reach a certain boundary on the field or take out a certain set of closer units. Just let the first troop of wanzers march toward your squad, and watch those gunships in the back pass their turn. From here it’s a quick and no-risk victory, only advancing to the other units when you feel comfortable. Even battles that split up party placement are best handled by simply regrouping and waiting. And any scares that do greet you can be overcome with restockable ammunition and repair items.
Watching multiple health bars melt to machine gun fire and arms being blown off by shotguns is still gratifying enough to give Front Mission 3 an honest try. Scoring a pilot ejection and hijacking the empty mech is a lucky scenario and always fun to hope for. And though less glamorous, so is being able to continuously fire rockets across the entire map, watching it weave around every environmental object on the field, and finally slamming into an enemy wanzer who refuses to take action. A.I. abuse is fun, right? In fact, missile launchers are so unbalanced that most of your memory of Front Mission 3 will be the steady drone of a rocket zig zagging around for up to 10 seconds at a time.
Also add the groaning sound of joints to that list, as characters must gradually come to a halt in their wanzer in every cutscene. Dialogue commences with drawn portraits and yammering mouths, again introducing plot and character development that insults the scope of the story: from influencing civil wars in southeast asia to admirably depicting the post-WWII fears that Japan has of nuclear warfare. But then you have Kazuki, melodramatic and always screaming, horrified by war even though he puts into motion the most violent acts of the story, including full scale invasions of populated cities.
At the end of it all, it is both impressive and painful to hear Front Mission 3 has a totally separate, branching story based on a decision you make in the first few minutes. Different battles, plot outcomes, everything. Another 20 or so hours of gametime. But it’s hard to imagine who would play it.