Infinite Space is a Japanese-developed space RPG for Nintendo DS that originally hit stores back in 2010. I originally wrote this review for Nintendojo. It is probably the closest thing I’ve ever played on a handheld system that approaches a science fiction novel. (On a console, that award probably goes to the Mass Effect trilogy.)
Infinite Space (DS)
(8.5 out of 10)
Games set in space are a niche; titles like Independence War or Dark Star One aren’t bound to arouse much notice beyond a small cult fanbase. Authentic space-based RPGs are even more niche; although they were a few gems in the 1980s (StarFlight, Sentinel Worlds, Hard Nova) and a couple of recent entries (the Russian-developed Space Rangers), there isn’t much out there. What’s more, nearly all the aforementioned titles are PC titles, with console or handheld versions exceedingly rare.
Enter Infinite Space, a space-based RPG for DS from Nude Maker and Platinum Games. On paper, two developers known for horror and gore should not be able to deliver a sprawling epic to an underpowered handheld. Yet they somehow manage to succeed, bringing to the little dual-screen one of its longest, richest, and most engrossing titles ever.
To call this game an epic is no understatement. The game may well be DS’s longest and will run most gamers at least 50 hours from start to credits, not including the game’s nice “New Game +” mode. The storyline is equally epic, encompassing two distinct acts (divided by a powerful plot twist) that are filled to the brim with unique political institutions and a deep ensemble of memorable characters. Although not clearly fitting any current space franchise, there are broad shades of Star Wars (and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek) embedded in the game, and astute sci-fi fans will detect a few obvious nods to those franchises.
The actual gameplay seems simple on the surface but proves as complex as the characters that operate within it. Most of the game involves going from system to system, righting wrongs and dealing with complex empires and various characters, although the developer does a great job of mixing things up so each new chapter in the game feels fresh and different from those before. Along the way, crew members are acquired and placed into various posts, ships are purchased and upgraded, and decisions are made. The decisions in particular are worthwhile, if sometimes maddening; the game allows for branching pathways and it’s not always clear what those pathways will lead to. A small choice at one point in the game can lead to another character’s death later on, a state of affairs that may frustrate perfectionists but also gives the game replay value.
Much of the game takes place in the stars, and space combat takes place on a 2D plane. (Encounters in space are generally random but players usually can choose at the outset whether to fight or avoid the enemy.) The action is real-time and is generally controlled through the touch screen. Players can move forward or back and can attack, unload a barrage, dodge, deploy fighters, and effect a few other standard and special attacks. A battle gauge bar that continually replenishes operates on the side, and since different selections consume different amounts of the bar, some strategy and foresight is necessary. This is especially true early in the game, where a blasé attitude toward combat and opposing fleet formations can result in a quick death.
Life on land in Infinite Space is a secondary business, although it has its perks. Most land action feels like a text adventure with pictures, and most planets are a variation of the “planet with a bar and a spaceport” theme. Breaking things up a bit is melee combat, which uses its own unique gauge system as well as a sort of rock-paper-scissors approach to fighting.
For the RPGer, there is certainly plenty here to tickle those fancies. Crew members each have their own unique stats and they gain experience points and level up. Ships also grow with time, gaining research upgrades and new possible equipment. (Grinding, commonplace in RPGs, often proves necessary here as well, which different players will react to according to taste.) The equipment customization is particularly addictive, as it is uses a Tetris-esque approach to cramming various modules — from sickbays to navigation bridges — into ships of varying sizes. Add into that the ability to customize a huge loadout of weapons and sometimes fighter craft, and the sheer volume of permutations alone make ship customization good for hours of addictive gameplay all by itself.
Platinum Games did a good job with many of the game’s finer points. Touch screen control is smooth and intuitive and is complemented by a few optional face button controls. Combat and space flight can be accelerated through, especially useful in reducing the time spent grinding. Some of the options related to the aesthetics of combat can also be tweaked some.
The game certainly has its limitations, some of them inherent to DS. The graphics, for example, are good but not great. Conversations consist of cutout pictures with text. Cutscenes are scarcely better, made up of little more than still art with text. Space combat is visually serviceable but by no means mind-boggling, with special effects that are pretty pedestrian. The sound is also limited, with MIDI tracks and only bits of voice work, although the music score still manages to be grandiose and epic enough to fit the game’s space opera premise quite well.
There are a few other shortcomings. There is a great deal of text, including a robust help menu, but there is no quest log, so Infinite Space may not be kind to vast stretches of time between gameplay sessions. The selection of ships is enormous but there is no way to preview interiors prior to purchase, so re-loading of saves often proves unavoidable. Finally, there is local LAN capability for multiplayer combat duels, but the niche nature of this title all but ensures that it will rarely, if ever, be put to use, and it seems a throwaway for a game predicated on a lengthy single-player experience.
Despite its imperfections, Infinite Space somehow manages to be better than its component parts. The space action, although basic, is addictive. The land action, though mostly text-based, remains fun throughout. The storyline, too, is powerful, thanks both to subplots that are complex without being confusing and a vast array of great characters, who shine despite being essentially static images. Add in smooth touch screen controls, a grand soundtrack (even if it is MIDI) and a galaxy of planets (even if they are often similar), and Infinite Space is as good a space RPG as a person could reasonably hope for on DS. Highly recommended.