Infinite Space was originally released around 2010 without, as far as I know, a whole lot of fanfare. Although it’s a frustratingly uneven game at times, it also has a whole lot of very interesting ideas in it and deserves way more attention than it got; unfortunately, like so many cult games, getting to the creamy middle requires biting through about 5 hours of uninspired plot points and a very spotty tutorial.
At it’s core, Infinite Space is a JRPG, with many of the things that entails- a fairly linear storyline, an explicit separation between battles and ‘overworld’ scenes, and a teenager on a quest to solve the mysteries of the universe. Infitite Space’s big innovations are a heavy focus on customization and a storyline that’s smarter than your typical anime gibberish and- in a way- seems to be attempting to introduce a few of Bioware’s concepts.
Infinite Space follows the adventures of Yuri, a teenger from a backwater planet who was given a mysterious treasure called an Epitaph by his father. Since it wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, he decides to leave his home to see the universe, bringing his sister and hiring a ‘launcher’ to be his mentor along the way. After some time battling pirates, he becomes involved in organizing his galaxy and its’ neighbor to defend themselves against a pending invasion by the massive Lugovalian Empire as he attemps to unravel the mystery of the Epitaphs and his purpose in the universe. It’s a pretty straightforward setup, but it’s decently well-told and populated by a large cast of relatively unique characters.
The unfortunate first issue with the game is that the first act of the storyline- where Yuri more-or-less aimlessly fights pirates for 5 or 6 hours of game time- is probably the weakest. It’s lengthy, and it doesn’t really highlight any of the game’s strengths- it may be intended as a ‘tutorial’ period, but I can’t help but think cutting some segments out of it would help. It also often feels as if the game is simply working through plot points as quickly as possible early on- some of the more egregious examples are retroactively explained later in the game, but it’s still a big chunk of time that feels like pushing through dead wood to make it to the good bits.
The second portion of the game- organizing resistance against the Lugovalian threat- is by for the longest and best, where the game really shines. This portion of the game introduces a lot of political figures in a lot of warring nations that Yuri and his crew need to sort out. The writing here really captures the difficulty of doing so, to a much greater degree than similar sequences in a great many RPGs have- your enemies in these struggles act because they are concerned about the fate of their nations, or are self-interested, or more often are simply carrer soldiers who happen to be on the other side of the battle, not supervillians acting out of the simple cruelty or transparent evil that infects most giant universe-conquering empires from the top down. Likewise, there are benefits to living under Lugovalian rule, and when one character who appears early on in the game resurfaces later as a Lugovalian officer, it’s possible to understand why.
After the first act of the game, there are only a tiny handful of antagonists who are villians because they are transparently evil and for no other reason- something that I appreciate and that very few RPGs can claim.
Throughout the game, there are a number of ‘split paths’ in the storyline, or minor choices you make which may have consequences much later in the game. It’s a nice touch, and I see it as a move to be closer to the Bioware model- unfortunately, these choices aren’t terribly common, and some are clearly designed to have a ‘right’ answer which provides some sort of bonus. It’d say it’s a step in the right direction; while the game’s still mostly on rails, at least they try to change it up and obscurethat fact a bit.
Things go downhill, however, in the third act, when the game focuses again on the “high-level sci-fi” storyline. Very few of the game’s “big questions” have satisfying answers, and unfortunately the whole thing boils down to a ham-fistedly ambiguous Gainax ending. I was pretty disappointed with this, but the rest of the game was solid enough that I’m willing to forgive it.
The game’s systems are interesting- they’ve got some holes in them, and there are some things that aren’t really covered in the tutorial, but all-in-all it’s pretty enjoyable. For most of the game, you’ll be tooling around the galaxy with a fleet of up to five ships built from plans you’ve collected. Each ship can be further customized with various ‘modules’, placed like Tetris pieces on a grid- a grid whose exact size and shape is dependent on the ship. It’s a good system, and allows ships of the same model to be significantly different while also providing a way to differentiate between the many available ship designs that’s less trivial than simple stat adjustments that can be directly compared. As mentioned above, there’s a large cast of characters who’ll be joining your crew; each of these crew members can be assigned to a job on your fleet to provide stat bonuses as well. There are a limited number of jobs, and you’ll fill them all well before the end of the game, but it’s a good way to remind you that you’re on a ship with a huge crew, not just the handful of characters who regularly appear in cutscenes.
While this system works, on the most part, there are also a number of annoying oddities that mar the experience quite a bit. There are a number of seemingly-obvious missing pieces to the ship-buying interface. While you can look at the stats of any ship you have plans for and sort on a specific one, there’s no way to compare a ship you’re looking at to one you already have or to each other directly; you’ll have to flip back and forth between the two ships you’re interested in on the ‘buy’ list or, worse yet, the “Customize fleet” and “buy ship” screen, two menus apart. Likewise, you can’t see the module grid for a ship until after you’ve bought it- although there are only a few ships with truly awful layouts, it still seems an obvious omission. There’s a “database” available from the title screen which includes brief blurbs about each ship you’ve seen ingame, but these texts are not visible from anywhere else in the game… Once you’ve built up a decent stock of plans, most of the game’s ships start to blur together; maybe it’s a minor thing, but I can’t help but think that a button to bring up the flavor text for a given ship on the purchase and customize interfaces would have gone a long way to give ships more personality.
Combat is an action-RPG-ish system; it’s a bit limited, but serves its purpose. Essentially, your fleet and the enemy’s are placed at either end of a single linear path; you can both move back and forth to close with the enemy or retreat from them- important, since all your weapons come with minimum and maximum ranges. Taking action consumes portions of a ‘command guage’ that fills during battle; how fast this fills depends on the skill of your command crew and the modules of your ships. You start with a couple different actions- a normal attack fires all of your guns, a barrage fires all your guns a couple times, and dodging gives you a big bonus to evading barrages until you take another action. Eventually, the game also introduces the ability to launch fighters which do gradual damage to enemy ships and prevent them from retreating, an anti-air option to counter fighters, and the ability to board enemy ships. The latter seems like a missed opportunity- in theory, it seems an equalizer against higher-preformance ships, but in practice it’s often arbitrarially disabled in battle, consumes a lot of command guage, and is difficult enough to win reliably that it doesn’t seem worth it. The enemy fleet is also working with the same commands off of its’ own command guage, which is visible to you- watching the enemy fleet carefully can tell you when they’re dodging and when they’re about to attack.
Combat is quite difficult early on- something that’s exacerbated by a poor tutorial and a number of fairly steep jumps in difficulty in the game’s early areas. (Protip: if you look at the ‘enemy ship’ indicators in battle, you can see where they are in the enemy’s formation. You have a massive penalty when attacking ships that aren’t in the front lines, and the target selected at the beginning of the battle is typically a flagship in the rear of the formation. This took an embarrasingly long time to click for me.) Not paying enough attention can be quite lethal early on, even in random encounters. That being said, once you’ve got the hang of things and built up a fleet for one strategy or another, you probably won’t need to switch it up for the rest of the game; I took a battleship-centric ‘big-gun’ approach and relied on Barrages, but I know there are other players who swear by Fighter-based approaches as well. Attack animations could be a little better-managed; they’re skippable but long, and skipping them hides how much damage you’ve done and which of your attacks has hit or missed.
Infinite Space brings a lot of new ideas to the table- the level of customization available will appeal to Armored Core fans, and I certainly hope that more Japanese companies begin incorporating Infinite Space’s split-path-heavy model. While there are times when the game falters- and there is a certain amount of gritting your teeth required in the opening chapters- it’s an interseting, solid game overall, and I’m glad I hunted it down.