Not quite infinite, but it sure is close.
Infinite Space will go down in history as one of the most complex games worked on by Platinum Games, makers of MadWorld and Bayonetta. Their co-developer, Nude Maker, are most famous for developing the absurdly complex Steel Battalion series. When you understand its lineage, you understand Infinite Space.
Infinite Space is an RPG set in the far future, when man has long since left the Earth and set out to colonize space. Vast nations stretch across countless planets, and galaxies are divided into rival states. It's in this universe that Yuri, a young man who longs to traverse the starlanes, finds himself stuck on his home world since his nation forbids space travel When he finally finds his way out he is thrust into the political turmoil gripping the universe, forced to confront an unknown threat in the form of the Lugovalos Empire.
What I've described above is about the shortest description I can muster for Infinite Space's story. Spanning two galaxies, ten years, a seemingly endless number of secondary (non-player) characters, multiple wars, and one plot-twist after another, the story consistently grows in complexity and interest. Delivered in the form of text boxes layered over animated stills of characters, the story presentation isn't the greatest, but with the seemingly endless character dialogue it is excusable. While I did enjoy the story there was a point - about forty-four hours in - when I was wondering if it was ever going to end.
Of course, what good is a complex story without equally complex gameplay? There are three different modes of play: space travel, fleet management (which really is its own gameplay mode), and ship-to-ship combat. Honestly, even just describing these does not describe all the things you do in Infinite Space, but these are the big ones.
I'm going to start with fleet management, because you can't travel space without a ship (it makes sense to me). When stopped in ports you have the ability to infinitely (there's that word again) configure every conceivable element of your fleet. It's in port that you can find new characters to recruit to your crew, or jobs to make money. Some planets also have stores that sell ship or component designs. Most importantly, it's at port that you build, remodel, and staff your ships. There are multiple classes of ship (cruiser, battleship, carrier, etc.) and a large variability in ship appearance, strengths, and even size (as the game goes on, the scale of the ships increases exponentially).
Once you have a ship you need to outfit it with stat-boosting components, which is done by plugging components into a Tetris-style grid. With hundreds of components available you can tweak and customize your fleet to an extensive degree. But that's not the entirety of fleet customization. With up to four ships in your active fleet, and variable positions, you need to find the proper formulation to optimize your offensive firepower in the various battle scenarios the game throws at you, all while balancing the defensive needs of your warband.
If a seemingly infinite level of ship customization doesn't quite scratch your obsessive compulsive itch, you are also tasked with customizing your fleet roster using the game's huge cast of recruitable characters. Finding the right character to put in every position in the fleet's roster is an exercise in madness. Character A's combat skills might be second to none, so logically he would be great for the "Security Chief" role, however he has a special bonus power that comes into effect when he is assigned the Head Chef role. With a ton of positions and crew, and with each crewmember having their own unique set of stats that affect how they perform in a role, Infinite Space will let you play HR manager as long as you want.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming complexity of the whole "fleet management" affair, it isn't hard to get the hang of. The game steps you through the process, starting you with a single ship and a small number of crew and modules to pick from. As the game's story expands in scope, so do your responsibilities as a commander. There's something gratifying about replacing your first destroyer with a full-fledged battleship. The game encourages experimentation, despite the relative expense of buying a ship, by letting you sell it while still getting all your money back. That might not seem significant, but if you find you dislike a new ship it can be a lifesaver.
So now that we've touched on outfitting a fleet, travelling through space is next on the agenda. Space travel takes place on the star map. The galaxies are divided into regions, and each region is comprised of a series of waypoints and warp gates. The gates connect to other regions. As you travel between the waypoints you might be attacked by pirates, most of whom are just cannon fodder that give you money.
Travel is quick, and can be expedited by holding the shoulder buttons. The only real problem is that it's sometimes very unclear where you need to go. Other characters aren't always good at telling you "Yuri, we need you to head to planet Zarub", and if they do they might not feel the need to tell you what sector Zarub is in. You'd better have a solid memory, because there is no full-universe map available to you. The only map available is the one you use to navigate the sector you're currently in.
It's in the aforementioned battles where you find the meat of the gameplay. There are two types of combat: ship-to-ship and melee. Ship-to-ship battles are deceptively simple affairs. You have a Command Gauge that fills up automatically, based on the "control" stats of your ships and crewmembers in the controller positions. It is subdivided into three sections: Green, Yellow, and Red. When the gauge is in the green all you can do is set your fleet's course to either forward, reverse, or hold position. This does not use any of your Command Gauge. When the gauge is in the yellow you can execute a "Normal" fire (all of your weapons in range of the enemy fire one round), "Dodge" (all enemy barrage and "special" attacks will miss you until your next action, normal fire is unaffected), launch fighters (assuming you have a carrier), or activate your anti-aircraft guns. All of these actions deplete one-third of your Command Gauge. Finally, when your Command Gauge is in the red you can fire a "Barrage" (three rounds of "Normal" fire) or if you're close enough board the enemy ship and try to resolve the battle via "Melee" combat (which is nothing more than an annoying form of rock-paper-scissors). This uses two-thirds of your Command Gauge.
Early on it feels like the only important thing is to bring the most firepower you can muster to the battle, evade as much of your enemy firepower as you can, and let a shot rip when they present an opening. However, it took one repeated beating from a boss for me to realize that there is much more to this game's combat in terms of strategy. Having the right mix of ships to let you adopt specific strategies for each foe is what really matters. While the end result of this approach is much better than simply bringing the biggest stick to the fight, the problem is that the game never feels the need to tell you this, or even demonstrate it to you until you're put in an effectively unwinnable situation. Once I understood how combat really worked, I found myself more able to make adjustments on the fly, and the fleet I ended up with had four ships that each offered something unique to the formation.
Complexity aside, Infinite Space is also supremely difficult. At the start of the game an experienced space-farer tells Yuri that "space is unforgiving." The game has no problem making you fully aware of this fact from the very start. Many boss battles make you feel like you're one mistimed shoot/evade combination from disaster. The game literally lays traps for you, including things like a pirate base that leads to instant death if you explore its corridors, and sectors of space patrolled by an anti-fleet weapon that will vaporize your ship if you cross into its invisible firing radius. Save often, because you're going to be loading your saves a lot.
Graphically, Infinite Space is clearly the work of a team of obsessed individuals. The sheer amount of game content that required art - be it characters, planets, or ships - is staggering. The 3D ship models in battle are detailed and the view of your bridge, complete with display screens that show a second view of the battle, and an outside view that shows your shots ripping past, are impressive. The only problem is that as the ships scale up the game's camera does not move out. By the end of the game my largest ship could only fit its bridge in frame, and the planet-destroying enemy couldn't even manage to squeeze that into frame.
In terms of audio, Infinite Space isn't quite as polished. The music sounds a bit low-fidelity when compared to much of the DS lineup. Fittingly, the music is overwhelmingly militaristic, and mostly uninspired (with the exception of a single J-Pop song that serves as the soundtrack for a late-game boss fight that literally came as such a shock that I physically recoiled). However, there is some variety in weapon sounds, and the game features some limited (but unimpressive) voice work.
The game controls entirely with the stylus. In battle you're presented with a control console on the bottom screen. In port you tap through menus. When building ships you click and drag modules into place, and when navigating you tap out the route you want to travel. It works, it's relatively intuitive, and it makes good use of the touchscreen.
Infinite Space is a complicated game. It's long (40+ hours), it's difficult, and playing is a constant learning process. It's a hell of a ride if you can stomach all of its quirks, but I'm just not sure how many people will be willing, or able, to. If you're feeling curious it's probably worth a try, because odds are there won't be another game like it for a while. If you're excited at the prospect of naming the lead accountant for a death-dealing war-fleet, then this game is handcrafted for you, personally.