Platinum Games has pretty much made a name for itself with action games, but early in their history, they decided to make something a bit out of their wheelhouse. They chose to team up with Nude Maker and Hifumi Kono, who's worked on franchises like Clock Tower and Steel Battalion, along with the visual novel series Mikagura Shojo Tanteidan. With such a bizarrely diverse pool of experiences under his belt, Hifumi took direction and created a very strange RPG that can't really be properly compared to any other game out there. Infinite Space is a title from the Nintendo DS' days of experimentation, alongside such mechanic creating oddities like The World Ends With You, and it plays like no other title in the system's library, or anything in most every other genre. The narrative is very familiar, though, from the use of familiar visual novel tropes to a plot directly inspired by the work of sci-fi greats.
Infinite Space follows a youth named Yuri, living in a backwaters section of the Small Magnetic Cloud called Ropesk. He dreams of going to space, against the wishes of his sector's founder, and hires a launcher named Nia to help him get started on his way to becoming a Zero-G Dog and exploring the galaxy. After eventually breaking free of his home galaxy, Yuri ends up involved in a series of political squabbles, daring rescues, and personal missions of revenge, all while also looking into the history of mysterious cubes called Epitaphs that may shape the future of the SMC. About halfway through, though, Yuri's entire life is thrown for a loop as the Small Magnetic Cloud finally makes contact with the Large Magnetic Cloud, and the mysteries of the universe become even more important.
The narrative of this game is like a cross between a good anime space opera and a bizarre and almost out of place thematic parallel to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, a story about a humanity gifted incredible evolution at the cost of its culture and soul. Divided into two parts, the first part explores themes of war, racism, nationalism, and freedom, putting Yuri into a mess of different political situations and wars, including multiple moments where you have to become directly involved in a war itself to try and put an end to it faster. Every nation in the game has real world influences, including Germany, Italy, the Roman Empire, and even African nations. It's surprisingly well handled, showing these conflicts mainly rising from economic needs, fear, or unearned pride. The second half of the game continues these themes, but also takes much more time exploring larger concepts of what it means to be human and what one is willing to sacrifice for that. Morality is shaded much grayer than first appearances would suggest, friends become enemies, and Yuri ends up becoming a major player fighting solely for freedom to explore the outer reaches, and hardening himself to do so. It's all very well handled, if a tad cheesy at moments.
The game has a sense of humor too, with a lot of comedic breaks between story beats, like Nia getting Yuri and friend Ian to cross dress after getting ridiculously drunk, Yuri's sister Kira putting far too much onion in everyone's food, or just general roughhousing that ends with someone having a phaser pointed at their head. Where things don't quite work is a few characters in the first half are a bit too comedic or pathetic in rather serious story sections, like the cowardly Cadmus. He's a major villain at the time, killing a good friend of Yuri's and ruling his sector like a tyrant, but he has all the personality and depth of a bad light novel villain. These sorts of characters don't really fit with the game, even alongside a few other sillier supporting cast. Late game has two twin idol characters who feel like they came from a much different game, and even they feel more in place than this guy. Tone whiplash is otherwise avoided, as the game knows when to stick to a dramatic tone as the heavy stuff is going down.
The game also ends very abruptly too. The high concept sci-fi stuff is mostly ignored through much of the game, and when it finally gets proper exploration, it completely overrides all other plots and leads into a climax that feels like it was supposed to occur several hours later. Major developments are tossed aside, and many hugely important antagonists and long built subplots are hastily wrapped up so everyone can deal with the new story unfolding around them. This is annoying because the most engaging elements are the political conflicts and how Yuri and crew interact with them. The last minute switch in focus doesn't feel earned, even if the final segment of the game reaches into Gurren Lagann levels of amazingly stupid yet blood pumping cheese. This doesn't ruin the game's story, mind you, it's just a tad jarring.
The game also has trouble balancing such a huge cast. After awhile, once major supporting players will just stop having dialogue, though it is understandable due to just how many characters you can recruit in this game. Infinite Space has a lot of focus on building a crew, so there's almost always an opportunity to bring someone new onto your staff to help manage your fleet and improve its performance or cost effectiveness, including putting on cafeteria workers and medical personnel to keep the crew functional, to accountants to prevent costs from spiraling out of control. It's a great little mechanic in the game, but a lot of narrative arcs wrap up pretty quickly in the second half with little other dialogue to find after. Usually, the game is too busy switching focus to newer staff members or your core people. It's another element that makes the game feel unfinished, even though it's already so massive. Makes one wonder just how many ideas thy had for this that never made it in.
You can also feel the visual novel influence not only from dialogue segments and the additional CG images, but also in branching paths. The game's ending is more or less the same, but certain characters have radically different fates depending on choices you make, including one character that will end up becoming a late game enemy if you don't manage to recruit them properly. Death is always around the corner for most of the cast, and the game really forces your hand and punishes players trying to be non-violent when given the chance. A major running theme is the harshness of reality, so many of the best choices you can make rely on punishing those who have committed unforgivable acts. Not everyone can be redeemed. What keeps this from being too nihilistic is that many characters can be turned to your team, you just need to spot the ones with noble qualities.
The game doesn't skimp on presentation either. The musical cues are all fitting space adventure stuff, from involved battle themes to upbeat relaxation pieces on planets and when managing your crew and fleet. Regular Grasshopper collaborators Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda do great work making electronic and orchestral themes, finding a great style that works for the game's adventurous tone. The art team is nothing to scoff at either, with mech designer legend Kazutaka Miyatake of Macross fame doing ship work, along with newer blood Junji Okubo, who's work you may recognize from The Irregular at Magical High School, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and the dark comedy fantasy anime Overlord. The two make some incredible looking ships and buildings that really make the world feel alive, but the character design work of Sawaki Takeyasu is what really shines. You may remember him from the bizarre cult classic El Shaddai. His use of contrasting colors, dynamic angles, and wide range of body types really helps give the game a weird futuristic feel it would otherwise lack, as you can see him channeling multiple eras of sci-fi fashion, from the ray gun gothic, to cheaply made Star Trek outfits, and especially plug suit sensibilities made popular by Neon Genesis Evangelion.
With all that talk of narrative and presentation, you'd think that means the game proper is bare bones, but you would be completely wrong. Infinite Space's gameplay is strange, unlike anything else out there and stapled with a steep learning curve, almost to a fault. The customization parts are easy enough. Ship modification is handled with blocks placed on grids, and you earn new blueprints for parts as you complete quests or find shops. Characters also level up depending on what you have them staffed as, allowing your crew to gain specifications. They also have additional abilities, both passive and active. Passive abilities improve performance in certain fields, while active ones can be used in battle by having them take second chair or similar positions. This aspect of the game can keep you busy for hours, trying to make the best possible set-up, but where you'll start facing challenges is with battle.
You can move around each sector via star lines, and go to other sectors with void gates. As you travel around on star lines, however, you'll find yourself attacked by pirates or enemy ships. From there, you can try avoiding the battle, or engage for experience, fame, and cash. As you win battles and advance in the story, you gain fame among the galaxy and more and more characters will more likely join your crew the higher your fame is. Battles are played out in real time on a long straight map, as you can move forward and backward to get your ship in the best position. The little graph on the top of the top screen is the most important part, showing not only positions but also the range you can fire at. Accuracy lowers if a ship is too far away or two close, so maintaining on that accuracy line is important. From there, you have many different options played out in a rock-paper-scissors system. You can use normal attacks for solid damage, you can use a barrage attack that does massive damage but can be missed by dodging, or you can dodge to avoid barrages, though this will also increase the damage normal attacks do. You can also use the screen to know what guns the enemy has that can hit you from your current position, watch your action gauge and plan accordingly, and pick a ship in a fleet to target. Sometimes, attacking the flagship first for a quick victory is the best option, but it's usually a well guarded ship.
As the game goes along, you also earn special attacks you can use in battle, along with fighters and anti-air guns to combat enemy fighters. These small little fighter ships are stored in certain types of ships and can halt an enemy until they manage to destroy the little buggers, which can really help out when you want to go in close for a melee boarding raid. Melee battle is a purely randomized rock-paper-scissors thing, with slash, shoot, and leader as three possible commands, with each having an advantage and weakness to the other. Shoot also punishes those who try to retreat. It's difficult at first, but after some time building crew size and security personnel stats (and thanks to some buggy AI), melee fights are the best way to end random battles quickly. This may be why many major battles don't allow melee fights, knowing this would end things too quickly.
The difficulty curve is a mess at game start and the beginning of act two, though. You're faced against far superior ships in these segments, and your medical staff is also weak, leading to crew fatigue and lowered performance. Just getting to the next planet to rest at is a challenge. Until you up your numbers and make upgrades, you're at a huge disadvantage. This makes the game difficult to get into early on, not to mention how hard melee fights are early on with a weak crew. The game also has a few bosses that completely change the rules of combat, forcing you to make massive fleet changes at times to deal with them. It's also wise not to save in one save slot, because if you do, there are a few moments where you can lock into an unwinnable situation. Then you have non-standard game overs, thanks to the visual novel elements at play. Making certain decisions leads to a sudden bad end, so you should never play this game thinking you have everything under control, because the game likes to occasionally set you into moments where the normal way of things will leave you dead.
Despite these obnoxious elements, Infinite Space is truly something special, one of the finest RPGs on the DS. There hasn't been a game like it before, and it made subtle waves upon release. Some didn't know what to make of it, while others applauded the experimental battle system and ambitious story. While not a massive hit, the game did well for a niche title and remains as that one weird entry on Platinum's otherwise explosive, slashy resume. It's costly, going for forty to sixty bucks online, but it's something that should be in every DS fan's collection.
Just a word about purchasing used copies: entries in the database stay unlocked and cannot be deleted. You get small bonuses for unlocking these (extra fame points), so this means that they will not obtained on subsequent playthroughs. It's a really minor aspect of the game, and viewing the database is completely optional anyway (for those who don't want to get spoiled) but this has caused an increase in demand for new copies of the game, with a freshly blank database.