26th Mar 2010 | 12:42
You know you're in dangerous sci-fi waters when a world has a made-up swear word. Battlestar's 'frak'. Judge Dredd's 'drokk'. Infinite Space gives us 'grus'. Syntactical reverse engineering struggles to pinpoint the exact meaning. "What the grus!" suggests 'hell', but that doesn't translate well to "what a load of grus". "Grus you!" suggests something worse. Normally we'd file fictional swear words alongside nobbly prosthetic foreheads and reach for the off switch. But normally Platinum and Nude Maker1 aren't at the helm.
This is pure melodrama. Farmer seeks life as Zero-G Dog (the space equivalent of the cool kids doing BMX tricks down the bus station). As boy becomes man he faces pirates, politics and artefacts from beyond the stars. Allegiances form and rivalries burn ferociously. Enemies become lovers. Boy robots become girl robots. A geek cross dresses and almost gets molested by hairy space pirates. Epic events carry Infinite Space. Lift them and comical, nuanced life teems underneath.
At the heart is your ship: a build-it-yourself beauty and one of the best RPG heroes of all time. Ships show you how meaningless most traditional RPG stats are. Strength, defence, dexterity: these are cold numerical parts of an invisible maths formula. Installing an engine, shield barrier or crew cabin into the USS NGamer makes an unmistakable difference. Fast ships sprint across battlefields like Road Runner. Radar rooms let cowardly captains fire from afar. Installing a second bridge helps laser fire accurately thump into enemy hulls. Build it and fun will come. When did you last relish in a +1 increase in Psyduck's SP defence? Ships are skeletal frames waiting for parts, or modules, to be inserted. Space is tight. Do you champion crew happiness or the tech they maintain? Every inch given to meatlings is one taken from guns, shields and engines. We swiftly jettisoned manners out the airlock after our initial boat of pampered space idiots exploded in flames after a single is a glaring omission. Trying to weigh up the pros and cons of five ships in unison is also tricky with only one set of stats on screen at any time. The amount of factors you control is unbelievable for a DS game and, at times, a little unworkable. But when you fire the cannons you've struggled so hard to tune, however, much is forgiven...
GALACTIC BATTLE STARS
Combat initially seems simple. As a battle gauge fills, attacks become available. There are three levels of attack: dodge, fire and barrage. A smart relationship exists between the three: dodges avoid potentially fatal barrages, but amplify normal projectiles into something much worse. Thus begins the waiting game. Is a dormant enemy charging up a barrage or waiting for you to dodge? We love making the right call: dodging a barrage and unleashing our full arsenal on an enemy too depleted to dodge back.
It's a double-edged sword: victory and failure on a single button press. We've never cursed louder than the hundreds of times a barrage has sent us to the title screen. We've never cheered harder than the times we've defeated an entire fleet on a sliver of health and whole lot of foresight. Over time, the lack of options actually emphasises how ship design can alter proceedings. A less fatigued crew raises the battle gauge faster. Long-range weapons place hero Yuri out of reach. Play fast and furious or with methodical cunning? What other RPG can boast such a responsive combat system?
And don't the devs know it, structuring missions to test your grasp of every facet. In one mission you target specific ships in the fleet. In another, you try to lure enemies into a trap without firing a shot. The addition of anti-air units ten hours in reinvents the system again - now you have hundreds of fighter ships in your metal belly. A warning: save often. Tinkering costs money and investing in a poor ship design can heighten some difficulty spikes (and there are many) to near impossible size. A single save file can paint you into a corner.
What Infinite Space lacks in the soft approachability of a Pokémon or Mario RPG, it makes up for in bombastic scale and mettle. Hundreds of planets. Hundreds of interesting, fully formed characters. Hundreds of lasers, mess halls and intergalactic toilets to equip. Infinite Space feels like proper grown-up gaming and a proper grown-up journey. Our hero grows from man to boy, and the DS matures with him. Brutally uncompromising, but never anything other than ridiculously silly fun, Infinite Space really is a grusing revelation.