Infinite Space
| Infinite Space

Role playing games, especially those of Japanese origin (JRPGs), often rely on a carrot and stick approach.

There’s always some new ability, skill or plot development to keep the player busy, even if the actual level of input is merely selecting from a few limited attacking options or fighting the same creatures over and over again.

Despite what its title suggests, Infinite Space is a very linear RPG, set along an unwavering path and unyielding plot demands.

Strangely it features one of the best plots and characters of any recent DS titles, while simultaneously whipping the player with a dreadful battle system that makes grinding a real chore.

Ensemble cast

The plot follows Yuri, a prisoner on his own planet due to draconian measures laid down by its ruler that prevents space travel. Having bought the services of a sassy launcher, Nia, and alongside his definitely-only-platonic-love-interest, Kira, he sets out to unravel the secrets of a mysterious artefact his dead father left him.

Along the way the plot snakes, twists and turns every which way, with enough betrayals, revelations and sudden plunges into comedy and tragedy to keep things engaging.

This is fuelled by possibly the largest ensemble of characters in any RPG to date, with over 100 possible crew members available to recruit for your ship over the course of the lengthy 50- to 60-hour story.

While having a large cast is one thing, it would be pointless if they only acted as 'numbers with a picture', but the way in which Infinite Space’s characters interact over the length of the game is a joy to behold.

This is brought to life by a great script and detailed artwork for each character, along with decent full screen cutaways and a full-motion video introduction.

The video does manage to get the plot wrong occasionally, but at least feature some exciting ship-on-ship action in the process, which isn't something you’re going to see for a while.

Ships in a nightmare

This is because Infinite Space is one stupidly tough game at the start.

It’s so frustratingly hard that I even went back to other difficult DS RPGs like Knights in the Nightmare, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor and The World Ends With You just to check if I hadn’t suddenly become rubbish at the genre as a whole.

I hadn’t – it’s just really hard.

It doesn’t help that new concepts are barely explained either, giving you no clue as to what you’re doing wrong or what you need to improve. Why can’t I use the character’s special moves? Where did all my ships go? Who am I?

Even after the two initial chapters have been beaten, and the concepts start making sense, the game still revels in difficulty spikes likely to have you grinding your teeth into dust in term it will take before you get back to enjoying the story.

L plates (1000g)

Making the horrible difficulty spikes slightly more palatable are the 3D battle graphics and sound effects that convey a good sense of place and atmosphere.

Likewise, the way the game handles ship upgrades is exemplary and fits snugly into the overall atmosphere.

Rather than a basic levelling up of characters and ships, upgrades are performed like Tetris, with each individual component coming in a variety of shapes like ‘L’ blocks or squares that need to be fitted into a ship’s hull.

Naturally not everything can be squeezed in to the limited space on offer, which makes carefully weighing up the various benefits and negatives of new modules, as well as shuffling pre-existing parts, a necessity.

It’s a maddingly addictive system that helps keep you playing, if only to purchase the next interesting upgrade or large ship hull so you can finally fit in a new engine or hanger module.

Rock, paper, slightly bigger rock

It’s just as well that the upgrades and story are so good, because Infinite Space has possibly one of the worst battle systems I’ve seen in a JRPG.

There is a command gauge that acts like the Active Time Battle system from Final Fantasy, only with varying stages (Green, Yellow, Red) as the bar fills up.

For the first ten or so hours, you have the choice of Dodging attacks (Green), firing off a Normal volley (Yellow) or, the most expensive option, Barraging the enemy with three shots (Red).

It’s meant to function like a Rock, Paper, Scissors effect in which Dodging negatives Barrage, Normal negates Dodging and Barrage really hurts.

What actually happens though, is that once the enemy ship reaches the Red stage in its command gauge you have a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly whether to dodge or not, with the punishment for guessing incorrectly either a badly damaged ship or one fewer ships in the fleet.

It’s unsatisfying and frustrating to play, especially when your vessels are outnumbered or overpowered. And it doesn’t help that the animations move so slowly that most of the time is spent aimlessly tapping the screen to skip them.

The entrance of Carriers at around the 12-hour mark adds a much-needed extra dimension to battles, but that’s 12 hours of complete frustration just for a Damage Over Time (aka: poison) attack to be added and it doesn’t suddenly make things bearable.

Dealer wins

You don’t have to just engage in the boring ship-to-ship battles however, as closing into an enemy allows the option of trying out the excruciating melee fights.

To illustrate how bad the melee combat is, imagine the Rock, Paper, Scissors set up again, only this time your opponent can change his position once he’s seen your move.

You can then change your position (after losing a few hundred crew members) to respond to that, but the computer has already switched his response to compensate so now you’re losing again. Sounds fun, right?

While these battles are mainly avoidable, there are a few occasions in the story when they are required to progress. Coincidently these moments tended to correspond with sudden bouts of anger and lashing out at family and friends who made the mistake of walking nearby while I was playing.

Sticking point

Infinite Space is a game that tries to move forward with certain traditions of the JRPG, such as eschewing classes and shifting the emphasis from levels onto customisation, but falters horribly when it comes to the basics.

The majority of your time with the game will be spent in the company of a frankly irksome battle system that will both frustrate and bore in equal measure, but with the tangible reward of getting to spend more time with the plot, characters and shuffling Tetris pieces around inside your ships.

Is the carrot juicy enough to be worth pursuing? If so, don’t be surprised when you’re lashed repeatedly by a heavy, barbed stick as you lean in to bite.

Infinite Space

Infinite Space’s strong story and clever upgrade system manage to just about keep the ship afloat against the poor battle mechanics and torturous learning curve