GAMEPLAY NOTEBOOK Entry 4

Games Currently Playing:
Ascension War: Incursion
XBL Indie games
Infinite Space

Entry 4: Infinite potential, limited success.

Midterm crunch is on, but as always bits of gameplay happen here and there. Still, as day to day happenings change, so do the games I play, and as usual, when the going gets tough, the portables see more use. An interesting thing that did happen this week though was that while doing research for my 503 class, I ended up spending some time in the indie games area of XBL; while I wasn’t there to play games, I couldn’t resist downloading a handful of trials, to predictably mixed results. Still, its an interesting way of getting some games out there to be played. I sat through a session on XBL publishing at SIEGE and am ever more intrigued by the possibilities here.

Infinite Space

Infinite Space is a game that I picked up with some doubts. On the one hand, the subject matter and touted features couldn’t be more up my alley, but on the other, it is essentially a jRPG, a genre I have long since ceased to have much patience for. Its not surprising then that my analysis is pretty mixed.

I decided on Infinite Space (IS) this week for several reasons. I was going to be on the road, so a portable game was ideal. Like Sins, its a game that I’d purchased but hadn’t gotten around to playing. It also has some thematic similarities to Sins and has some elements that I was interested in exploring due to some of where my thoughts are going for a future game. It’s developed by Nude Maker and Platinum Games, two Japanese developers with solid reputations, and not known for jRPGs, so I had some hope for this one. During development, the developers compared the story and scope to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End”, a hard sci-fi classic. The premise, to have a deep space combat and exploration game on the DS, seemed very promising and ambitious.

Like many jRPGs, Infinite Space is a menu-based game. By this I mean that as a player, one never gets the impression that one is controlling the ship/character represented on screen directly; the graphics rather are there to essentially illustrate what you are doing with the menus. This can lead to the player feeling removed from the action; I often feel more like a manager or planner than a hero or even a general. I feel this is an interface issue; games like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic are equally decision based, as opposed to direct-control like an action game or even action RPG, but because of the interface design it often feels more like I am in direct control of my character or units. Particularly with the DS’s stylus, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to add somewhat to the immersiveness of the game. On the other hand, because the player is representing the commander of a small fleet of ships, rather than a single character or even a small party, I feel that the sense of remoteness is less jarring; the player is after all sitting in a command center giving orders, not personally manning the cannons.

The basic combat system is simple; it takes a paper-rocks-scissors approach (literally, there are three choices). The player can choose to dodge, to take a normal attack, or a full barrage attack. A full barrage does a great deal of damage, but is negated by a dodge. A normal attack does less damage but is harder to negate, and a dodge protects you from a barrage but actually makes you more vulnerable to a normal attack. To this you add a dimension of time, since you must wait for a gauge to fill up before you can perform actions, and a dimension of distance, since you can choose to fly either towards or away from the enemy (but not to the sides; combat is literally linear). Underlying this is a complex system of stats representing your ship and crew members that affect everything from the ships speed, to the accuracy and damage of the weapons, and even how fast your actions gauge fills up. This creates an interesting and somewhat frustrating dichotomy. The combat system itself, though not a bad design, can quickly become repetitive and tedious. This is made worse by the three biggest flaws of the jRPG genre: length, grinding, and random battles. On the other hand, the underlying strategy and construction “games” in which you design your ship and assign crew members and the like can be very interesting, and apparently gets more so as the game progresses and more options become available. You are then playing an enjoyable sub-game whose ultimate purpose is to make it easier to succeed at a less enjoyable sub-game.

The story is presented via dialogue between the characters over still images. To advance the plot, it is often necessary to go to specific place, or trigger a specific conversation at a given planet’s space port. The problem with this system is that it is often unclear where you have to go next or what the trigger is, so the player ends up having a lot of conversations at random bars. Even worse, sometimes to move things forward you have to speak to a certain person a second or third time, and there is nothing to indicate this. So in my playthrough I often found myself speaking to everyone twice to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and since most characters only have one dialogue, this led to many repeated chats. The story so far is interesting and well written but unspectacular; however one does get the impression it really hasn’t gotten going yet. From what I’ve read from reviewers it gets more and more intriguing and is one of the reasons to stick with the game, but ultimately that the ending is unsatisfying.

Aside from being menu driven, the game’s presentation is quite good. Ship models are varied and I found most of the designs appealing; the interface looks appropriately futuristic, and the bridge views are well done and reinforce the feeling that the player is in command of a great space vessel. Being able to fly back and fourth can be confusing (and a little frustrating given the tedium of random encounters) but it does create a feeling of freedom and exploration. Characters are rendered in somewhat stereotypical anime fashion, but while unremarkable they are attractive enough.

Overall Infinite Space is almost frustrating to analyze. There is no denying the game’s ambition given the DS format, and the depth of both the story and the underlying ship-and-crew creation system are impressive and satisfying. Yet for every two steps forward, the game takes a step back by holding on to conventions of a genre that in my opinion is for the most part obsolete now. Combine with a combat system that though clever cannot sustain interest for the length of the game and you have a mixed bag of a game that though hardly bad, is full of missed potential.

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