Monday, March 28, 2011

March Mecha Madness Round 3: The Endless Frontier

"Endless Frontier" is a little used term we use here to describe our respective backlogs.  Instead of decreasing in size, it is constantly threatened by the advent of a stream of new releases to ensure that our journey here will be an ongoing one.

Poetic introductions aside, "Endless Frontier" is also short for "Super Robot Wars Original Generations:  Endless Frontier", which is one of the few SRW titles we have seen released stateside.  As a joint collaboration between Banpresto and Monolith Soft (famous for Xenosaga), this game deviates from the standard strategy genre and instead attempts to take the series in a new direction as a full fledged RPG.  Furthermore, in spite of the title, your characters (for the most part) consist of human(oids).  Although the mechs do play a significant part in the plot, they are not what you control front and center, and your characters do not pilot them at all, thus truly making this a unique entry into the series.  It was also because of this that I delayed my purchase of this game (thus sadly missing out on a great soundtrack CD) and almost avoided it altogether.

Doing so would have been a tremendous mistake.

Initially, the screenshots of the game did not impress me.  I didn't care much at all for the character designs.  Despite being called "Original Generations", this game contained none of the Banpresto Originals I have come to enjoy in past SRW installents:  Only vague homages to them.  On the surface, there was little to motivate me to play this game, which I saw as some strange attempt by Banpresto and Monolith Soft to cash in on the popularity of the series by putting together a lackluster RPG.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While Endless Frontier seemingly holds no connections to the SRW series that many have come to know and enjoy, this is not a bad thing at all.  Though graphically unimpressive in some areas, and extraordinarily linear, the engaging battle system, the amusing character, hilarious dialogue all produce an experience that tries something new with the series, and surprisingly manages to do a good job at it.

As a point of clarification, this game actually disappeared from my backlog back in 2010, and shortly before I began writing for this blog.  However, given the month's theme (and another reason to be discussed later), I thought it was only fitting to write about such a great game. If your interest is piqued, read on:  Even if you're not (heck, especially if you're not) a robot fan.


As I mentioned in the introduction, I nearly avoided this game altogether.  Although the idea seemed vaguely interesting, I was hardly interested:  I wasn't sure how an RPG based on SRW would pan out (particularly after hearing such mixed things about MS Saga).  On top of this, SRW games, starting with Alpha 2, have been rather pleased with adding a 'bounce' factor, which is just what it sounds like:  The female characters have a little bounce when they appear in their cutscenes.  Fanboys over the internet (and in Japan) went wild, I'm sure, but all I could do is roll my eyes.  It didn't help things when I saw this as one of the promotional character art pieces:

No, this is not promo art for a new Dead or Alive game.
My friend G-Mike, by contrast, was quite excited about the game when it was announced stateside:  Not for the bounce factor, but because generally, Mike is a better guy than I am when it comes to trying new things in a genre he loves.  Whereas I was willing to at least delay purchasing the game, Mike purchased it immediately.  He told me how great it was.  I nodded, and then promptly forgot about it.  After all, I didn't own a DS at the time (though I was sure I was going to purchase one after another price drop).

Fast forward to some months later, when I saw it at a Gamestop, and shortly after my acquisition of a Nintendo DS.  Now, I'd passed this game up before, but it was dawning on me that this would be one of those times where if I didn't get the game now, getting ahold of it might be a problem later, and I'd regret it:  So I plunked down the money to purchase Endless Frontier along with Blue Dragon Plus, as part of my "justify owning a DS" campaign.

I won't even go into the trouble I had to go through to get ahold of this game.
But even after acquiring it, I had set it aside from some time.  I perused the instruction manual, sure (which, for an instruction manual, believe it or not, had me motivated to play it with how it was written), but actually getting around to playing it was something I kept putting of.  Once I did, however, it disappeared from my backlog quite quickly.  As of now, my copy of Endless Frontier sits in the possession of The Enabler, who has put it in her backlog.  We believe in continuing the cycle.

Kind of like this.
But enough of how I came to acquire and finish the game:  Let's get to the meat of the game.


It is the portal, known as the "Crossgate" that binds so many worlds, so close and yet so unimaginably far, together. So many worlds, so many people, so many times -- mingled so closely together.  This is the Endless Frontier

These two sentences, an abridged version of the prologue, aptly describe the setting and background of the game.  Endless Frontier takes place on a series of parallel worlds bound by interdimensional portals known as Crossgates.  These worlds vary in terms of technology levels, climate, and even species, making for quite a diverse universe.  When you first begin the game, it's not readily apparent how things got this way, but it seems to be long enough ago where people just assume it's always been that way.

The game puts you in the role of Haken Browning:  Bounty Hunter and captain of his own ship, as well as the (adopted) son of a famous bounty hunter, John Moses.  Haken is a bit of a lecher and self-styled ladies man, with a witty streak as well:

Haken's long-term companion, Aschen Brodel, is a battle android found alongside him as a baby years ago.  Aschen's personality is split:  When her "limiter" is off, she becomes a hyperactive, exuberant being (which most of the characters call her "fun mode").  Most of the time though, she's rather deadpan:

They're joined by Kaguya Nanbu, the busty young woman pictured above, a princess from a neighboring world.  If you found yourself stereotyping herself as all bust and little brains, well, you're mostly right.  Fortunately, you're not the only person who notices it.  Many--hell, ALL of the characters in the game (including her own dad!) poke fun at this quite a bit:

This is rather tame compared to what people say later.
You're also joined by Princess Suzuka, an oni from the Shiki-Oni tribe, and also from the same world of Kaguya.  She's one of my favorite characters if only because she serves as a foil to Aschen and Haken's antics at times.  Unfortunately, since she's a rather modestly busted girl in a Japanese game, she has to endure the opposite of Kaguya:

Rounding out the cast are people from other games:  Reiji Arisu and Xiaomu from Namco X Capcom, as well as KOS-MOS from Xenosaga.  Given the theme of parallel worlds, their presence can be explained.  While KOS-MOS didn't really do much for me in terms of story (though she's an excellent battle addition), Reiji and Xiaomu are positively hilarious:  Xiaomu has the same silliness in personality that lets her fit in with the rest of the cast.  Reiji, by contrast, is probably the only sane man in the entire cast.  I'm sure you can imagine the hilarious results this leads to.

I really can't say enough about the dialogue in this game.  Sure, there's innuendo, though it's nowhere near the level of something like Ar Tonelico.  Rather, it's like everyone in the cast, both friend and foe alike, realize that they're tropes.  They embrace it.  And of course, they regularly poke fun at it.  They're also not above being asses to each other.  A lot.

One big happy family.
A large part of this credit goes to Atlus for a superb translation.  It's what kept me playing the game when, like any RPG, the battles eventually become tedious.  The linear plot didn't bother me quite as much because sure, while I would have liked some more exploration and sidequests, it was also worth trekking to the next dungeon if only to see what hilarious lines the characters would say next.

Of course, I had to fill the time between plot with battles, so let's talk about the gameplay next.


Combat in this game (at least at the time it came out) is surprisingly unique.  To understand it further though, let's look at a picture from it:

Your combat squad is divided into front row, and, once you exceed more than 4 party members, back row attackers as well.  The first 4 members of your party work as your vanguard, while your reserve members serve as assist attackers (think Strikers, if you've played the King of Fighters, or the Assists, if you've been playing the newest entry of the Dissidia series).

Each character has a series of attacks that they can choose from and string together in a longer combo (vaguely similar to games like Xenogears, or Legend of Legaia), with each attack taking a certain percentage from the command ("COM") gauge.  I'm sure you know how it goes:  More powerful attacks take more from the gauge, while weaker attacks take a lower percentage, thus can be executed more.  Do enough attacks and the Frontier gauge fills up, allowing you to release a devastating attack.

That's a very bare bones description of the combat system, so here's a bit of it in action to paint the picture much clearer

As you can see, racking up combos is the name of the game.  You can add to the combo count by having an assist character come in, or entering a command (just the directional pad to the right) to call in the next attacker on the list to continue the combos.  It's insane fun, but also not -mindless- fun.  You do need some understanding of the characters to figure out what combination of moves will string together the best (KOS-MOS, for example, took some getting used to, since certain combinations meant longer delays).

Combos are not just important for feeling good, though.  Higher combos mean higher damage.  Furthermore, it takes a certain number of hits to get past an enemy's shield (where you're not only doing less damaging, but unable to really juggle them).  Being able to combo becomes even more important when later on, bosses (and further down the line, even regular enemies) get a countermeasure called "Forced Evasion".  Simply put, if you start a combo string that juggles and enemy, and you lapse in it at any point, forced evasion activates and nullifies any further damage you would do, thus ending your turn.

Aside from the difference in character attacks, though, you do have some means to aid you in combat:  The Seishin commands from the mainstream SRW games make their return, providing you with a host of defensive and offensive buffs to aid you in combat.  You can purchase items from the shop to aid you in combat such as healing, debuffing the enemies, or a host of other effects.  Trust me, you'll need them:  This game has quite the difficulty spike in battle later on if you don't know what you're doing.  On top of that, it loves to throw boss fights at you in groups of 3, in quick succession after each other.

Although I will admit:  Later on, Haken gets access to an attack that, while heavy on SP consumption, makes many of the later boss fights much more bearable as long as you have a healthy supply of items and the right buffs.  So I didn't have too much trouble with the game by the end, which was just fine by me:  I was playing more to see what other funny things would happen in the story.

SRW or Not?
I alluded earlier to this game having some tie in with the main series.  At first, it just appears to be a series of nods in homage to the series.  For example, Haken and Kaguya's respective surnames are "Browning" and "Nanbu", the same surnames as Kyosuke and Excellen from the main series.  The robots that you get later on as support attackers are downscaled versions of the Gespenst (well known SRW original mech), the Alt Eisen (Kyosuke's mech) and the Weissritter (Excellen's mech).

While there are a horde of references and nods to the main series, it actually turns out to be more than fanservice:  This game does have a tie in with the main series, though that doesn't become readily apparent until the closing chapters of the game.  As a fan of the series, however, I could appreciate this quite a bit.  Don't worry if you don't know anything about SRW, however:  For fans like me, it's an 'ah-ha!' moment when we realize it.  The uninitiated will likely miss these references, but the game stands alone by itself enough that it won't deter your overall enjoyment of the game.

Admittedly, though, you'll need to have played Xenosaga III to get the deal behind KOS-MOS and her rival

Closing Thoughts

Frankly, Endless Frontier won't win any awards for RPG of the year.  Much like any other SRW game, it serves a very niche market, especially in the U.S.  However, with the absence of most of the mechs that make these games what they are, Endless Frontier manages to stand out on its own.  Bluntly speaking, you won't find many games with dialogue as great as you find here.  It's well written, the characters clearly don't take themselves seriously, and while there are dramatic and touching moments, the cast is quick to make sure that things get back to normal quickly.  Heck, even Haken, who receives one of the biggest shocks in the story, seems to take it in stride, rather than going through the Heroic Blue Screen of Death.

So that "other reason" I mentioned earlier in the post?

Games like Endless Frontier need attention.  The game was apparently successful enough in Japan to elicit a sequel, which already seems like a huge improvement over the first game.  However, we have yet to see a localization here, and while Atlus has expressed some interest in a translation, there has been no word of a greenlight.  The more press this game receives (however old it is), the better.

Licensing any SRW game is a tricky deal, since as mentioned in my post about Super Robot Wars: MX, they're often licensing nightmares.  Endless Frontier is one of the few games in the series we've been fortunate enough to receive.  If you haven't already snagged this game up on DS, try to secure a copy now.  Even if you aren't an SRW fan, and even if you're not normally into mechs, their presence is low enough that you should be able to enjoy the game for its witty dialogue and fun combat system.  Really, it's quite an accessible gem.

Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.  Or, if it's in your backlog, make sure it gets prompt removal.

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