As the saying goes, war never changes, but this is only partly true of the Front Mission series, which puts players in control of a group of wanzer pilots as they try to outmanoeuvre the opposing side. The first game in the series has seen a whole host of remakes and releases, with the latest, Front Mission 1st: Remake, landing on Nintendo Switch. It brings all the drama and fantastic storytelling that have become the hallmarks of the series along with a modern look and sound for current audiences.
The plot of Front Mission 1st: Remake follows the conflict between two coalitions of nations. The OCU, which represents nations in the South Asian, South East Asian, and Australian regions, and the USN, which represents the North and South American continents, are locked in an ongoing cold war. Each wants control of Huffman Island and has sent their wanzer forces to shift the balance of power on the island in their favour.
The original SNES release of Front Mission back in 1995 allowed players to play as OCU captain Royd as he tries to track down the man who killed his fiancée during a mission known as the Larcus Incident. In 2003, the game was rereleased as Front Mission 1st, offering a chance for players to play through a campaign from the USN point of view. Both of these campaigns, with their interwoven-yet-separate stories and intriguing plot twists, are available here.
Front Mission 1st: Remake succeeds when it lets the characters and drama take centre stage. It takes a while for the plot to ramp up, particularly in the OCU campaign, but when it does it is difficult to tear yourself away from the story. There are all the betrayals and friendships that you’d expect from a war story, set in a world that is distinct from our own yet eerily similar at times. Fans of these stories will find plenty of juicy moments to sink their teeth into, though the fact that the plot is delivered with a collection of talking heads and text boxes makes the game feel more dated than the upgraded visuals would suggest.
Between scenes of dialogue are the missions that must be completed for players to advance the plot. Wanzers — the highly customisable mechs that are at the heart of the conflict in the Front Mission series — can move around the map and must contend with different terrain while trying to get into position to attack incoming enemies. They can use a variety of weapons, either held in their hands or mounted on their shoulders, to damage their enemies and protect themselves. Outfitting your squad with the right mix of close-range and long-range attacks as well as the right combination of items and special abilities is the key to getting your squad out alive.
As much fun as the plot of Front Mission 1st: Remake is, much of that joy gets sucked out of the actual combat portions of the game. Particularly in early levels, both players and their enemies are frighteningly inaccurate with their weapons, resulting less in epic battles and more in awkward slap-fighting against each other. Even when you manage to position yourself brilliantly, you will find your units unable to strike the killing blow in conflicts that drag on and on.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that characters have separate health bars for the body, right and left arms, and legs. Depleting the body’s health will destroy the wanzer, taking out the right or left arm will disable the weapon held in that hand, and destroying the legs will slow down their movement. This could be an interesting concept, except most weapons target a random body part, so there are times when a foe will limp on with a single hit point in their body while the player’s pilot will inexplicably target currently their undamaged legs. The overreliance on chance is more frustrating than anything else and slows down what should be simple conflicts.
While story missions take up the bulk of the gameplay, players can also dip into the Arena to earn some extra cash by betting on the outcome of their fights. There is the opportunity to grind for cash to buy much-needed equipment and weapons, but this aspect isn’t any more fun or engaging than the main campaign. It removes the movement aspect of the combat, relying almost entirely on being better equipped than the enemy to win and hoping that the random dice rolls don’t bring you crashing down.
This is particularly annoying because the graphical upgrade here is substantial. Vehicles look impressive, with small details like working windshield wipers bringing them to life despite their stylised look. The attention to detail is especially obvious when it played on docked mode, when many of the details pop beautifully off the screen. Wanzers move fluidly and feel like they should be powerful war machines, yet they miss so often that we couldn’t help but wonder if they weren’t still in the testing phase. All the visual improvements in the world couldn’t salvage what became an unfortunate slog.
You can play through the game without the graphical upgrades, but you’ll also miss out on the many of the quality of life improvements that the newest version offers. The original soundtrack, which already pushed the SNES soundcard to its limit, has been updated for modern consoles, while the ability to rotate the camera around the battlefield is the most welcome improvement to the gameplay portions. The only thing that is missing would be updating character portraits to make them more dynamic and vibrant.
Front Mission 1st: Remake is best enjoyed as a great war story with the occasional combat mission to play through. The heavily randomised mechanics aren’t improved by the impressively upgraded graphics and soundtrack. If you're desperate for a mech game to play, we suggest lowering the difficulty so you can move through the two campaigns without feeling hampered by the gameplay.
Unless you’re a die-hard fan of the original or the TRPG genre in general, you’re probably safe to give this one a miss or just lower the difficulty of the combat to enjoy the story. Despite the strengths of the setting and the characters, the gameplay becomes more frustrating than fun and won’t keep most players engaged past the first few hours. It’s a shame because there is a brilliance to telling the same story from two opposing points of view, but that gets buried beneath poorly implemented mechanics. Unfortunately, modern visuals and sound can't salvage gameplay here that feels too random to be satisfying.