Saturday, August 14, 2010

Spectral Force 3: An Unlikely Contender


On those rare occasions when I actually do finish a game (which usually coincides with the arrival of Halley's comet), I run into a problem. It's difficult for me to find another game to get attached to. You see, when I get into a game, I really get into a game. I get focused on it, I become immersed in the story and invested in the characters (as most of the time, I'm playing an RPG). When the last of the credits rolls and I'm met with the words "The End", I feel empty. How will I be able to replicate the experience that absorbed weeks on end? How will I be able to return to that state of bliss where the hours seemed to just fly by?

..Alright, maybe it's not that dramatic, but I think most of you can relate to the idea when you finish a really good game (or for those of us that actually still read books, finish a good novel), it's difficult to find something else that matches that experience. The better the game, the harder it is to leap right into something else (let's not discuss how long this took me when I finished Persona 4).

Shortly after I finished Sands of Destruction (mediocre in many ways, yet still, fun enough), I went in search of a new game to occupy my time. Like my associates, I have no shortage of games to catch up on across various consoles. Still, it took dabbling in quite a few games before I found one that caught my attention. I played through a few chapters of Final Fantasy 13. I reacquainted myself with Resonance of Fate (or more accurately, I reacquainted myself with its non-intuitive combat system). I tried out Demon's Souls. I had a brief stint with Eternal Sonata. The list goes on, yet none of these games, save Final Fantasy 13, maintained my attention for long. However, a trek through the non-linear Gran Pulse, where everything can kill you, coupled with Vanille asking "What went wrong?" when I lost her Eidolon battle was enough to make me hate the game, life, and Vanille (Here's what went wrong: YOU MOVING IN THE LINE OF FIRE).

The game that did, and has managed to hold my attention, was one of the most unlikely candidates: A long forgotten game in my 360 backlog: Spectral Force 3.

Wait, what? Spectral Force 3? Some Background

When I purchased my 360, I had a significant amount of store credit at Gamestop. In addition, they were running their Buy 2, Get 1 free promotion on used games. Suffice to say, I came home with enough games to last me a few months, with Spectral Force 3 being among them, though as more of an afterthought.

Spectral Force 3 is another entry in the Neverland War Chronicles series published by Idea Factory. While it enjoys a following in Japan, the only domestic releases we've received have been on the PSP (Spectral Souls and Neverland Card Battles) and on the DS (Spectral Force Genesis). Since I was a fan of Spectral Souls (though not its horrendous load times) I figured that it was worth giving Spectral Force 3 a shot. Furthermore, as a niche title, I figured that I would have trouble finding it if I delayed my purchase any longer.

The games share a few commonalities: Most are some vein of SRPG, the stories thrust you in the midst of a war between humans, demons, and other creatures, they have a wide variety of recruitable characters, and most have a semi-non-linear approach, which allows you to play from multiple perspectives.

However, almost all of them have some glaring flaw that prevents them from being mainstream successes. Of all the domestic releases, however, Spectral Force 3 seems to have received the most heat.

Other Perspectives: The Glaring Criticisms

I won't rehash every review of the game here (as you can seek those out on your own), but I will cover some of the major criticisms of the game pointed out by others as I've played:

Poor Plot Development and Character Interaction

Here's a condensed version of the story: You are Begina, the newly appointed leader of the well-known Norius Mercenaries, in the midst of the First Great Neverland War (not to be mistaken with the Neverland of Peter Pan fame), which has consumed the entire known world. Newly appointed, unfortunately, means that no one trusts this rookie commander's ability, and soon after, the once renowned mercenary group is reduced to a paltry few members. Not promising, especially when you're up against guys like this.

Jadou is sort of like Captain Hook. Only instead of inept pirates, he commands an army of demons.

The core of your mercenary group (and the only characters who receive significant development) consists of Begina, the good-hearted but brash leader, Diaz, the shy and scholarly type (also your only dedicated healer most of the game), Cassius, the taciturn voice of reason (who of course, is rarely listened to), Dragan, your womanizing, liquor-loving half-demon, and Eunice, an ex-priestess who ends up tagging along, and is mostly useless after the first few hours. Rounding out your squad is Culcha, a wild child raised by Goblins, who has the annoying tendency to tack "Gobli" at the end of every sentence.

Somewhere along the way (about 10 or so hours in) you run into a little boy with mystical powers that enable him (unwillingly) to command the power of two demi-god like fiends, who are wrecking havoc around the world. For some reason or another, you chase after him.

Don't worry. It only makes marginally more sense in the game.

In addition to the dirty half-dozen, you can recruit up to 40 additional characters. Unfortunately, very few of these receive any form of significant character development. Everyone else is given a few lines of dialogue when you recruit them, and occasionally when they fight an enemy general. Unfortunately, this often comes out of left field in some cases:

Oh please, I bet he says that to all the ladies.

And in other cases, makes absolutely no sense at all:

..Wait, what?

Sometimes, a good plot in a bad game or great character development can keep you playing. While Spectral Force 3 has an interesting premise (and if you're played Spectral Souls, you know there's the potential for a deep story), you get a flurry of development in the first few hours, then nothing, then another stint of development. Seriously, even mascot characters in other games have more development than the cast of this game.

You want this dog?

A significant part of this problem lies in the flow of the game.

It's Non-linear! Only Not.

A blurb on the back of the box boasts "Over 150 Missions! Your choice of missions will irrevocably change the course of the Neverland War!". While this sounds awesome and like it will have the potential for many story paths, your 'choice' of missions means very little. While playing, I had the option of fighting on the behalf of about 10 different kingdoms (you do control a mercenary band, after all). What I quickly discovered, however, is that many of the missions overlap and use identical maps.

Here's an example: We'll take three kingdoms from the game -- Flauster, The Nameless Army, and The New Overlord Army. Each of these kingdoms will have a mission entitled "Attack the Underworld Army". No matter which kingdom you do it with, the mission is exactly the same. There's no difference, except maybe a slight change in gold received. This is truly unfortunate, as there could have been the potential for things such as having the generals from your respective employers show up and assist you, or so forth.

What's even worse is that after doing a certain number of missions (it's never clear), the game eventually thrusts you into a storyline battle, which locks you out of doing any other missions (thus no chance to level up or upgrade equipment), and typically pits you up against characters like Jadou (pictured above) or the two demi-god guys. This lack of clarity, however, is not only limited to the missions.

Unclear Game Mechanics

It's already annoying enough to never know when you'll be thrown into a story battle, but there are also other points of uncertainty. At the end of every battle, you receive a battle ranking (C being the lowest in my experience, S being the highest). While the game presents the categories you're rated on, it's still somewhat unclear as to the weight each category (Enemies Defeated, Allies Retreated, Damage Dealt, Max Combo Hit, Number of Turns, etc.). Early on, getting anything over a B was next to impossible for me. As I gained access to new elements in the battle system (the friendship gauge and battle formations) and multi-hit attacks, getting an A became more frequent. The "S" still remains out of my grasp: Considering that I'm racking up 200+ hit combos and 20k+ damage in some stages without anyone retreating, this is understandably annoying. It's certainly a mystery that would baffle the greatest of minds without a FAQ or message board:

Elementary my ass.

Furthermore, your mercenary rank, which is needed to recruit better characters, has an unclear method of increasing. Presumably after performing well enough (getting A and S ranks) on missions it goes up, but there's no clear indicator of how this is weighted. Periodically, you'll get a memssage saying "Your Rank is now ". Brilliant.

Too much of a mediocre thing

While you have the potential to recruit a large roster of characters, many of them are rather useless, and discerning the useful ones can require a bit of guesswork (for example: I based my guess on the fact that the guy had a dragon tattoo and katana. Score. Too bad the other katana guy sucked). Added to this problem is the fact that you are forced to use Begina and Diaz in every stage -- thus with a maximum of 6 characters, you really only have 4 slots to play around with. One saving grace here, however, was that you rarely have an underleveled character join you: Most of the people you recruit are either at, or most of the time, above your levels.

Let's recap, shall we? A lacking story, a faux non-linear path, unclear game mechanics, low character interaction. If you've read this far, you're probably wondering the following:

How in the HELL did this game manage to beat out FF13, RoF, and Eternal Sonata for my attention? How did it get ahead of seemingly superior games in the backlog?

My Surprising Experience

In short, here's the answer: It's fun.

The criticisms make it clear that the game is not without its flaws. However, if you manage to look beyond these, you'll find that the gameplay is quite enjoyable. While there are plenty of conventional JSRPG conventions, the addition of things like the AP system (think the action bar in Xenogears), assists, teamwork, and battle formations take it beyond 'move character, select attack or magic'. When you add in the fact that many characters have variations on the standard attacks (for example, some characters will have lift, knockback or elemental affinities associated with their default attacks), then you have a more in depth strategy experience.

However, what really kept me going was the fact that the game can be challenging. Any SRPG gamer worth their salt knows how character like Orlandu can decimate an entire map. If you've ever played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, then you know that after a certain point in the game, it's easier to forego strategy and simply let Ike destroy an entire stage on his own.

You'll get no sympathy from him.

Spectral Force 3 does not allow for this. While you can trick the enemy AI with some simple tactics on some stages, if you decide that it's hero time and try to send in a one many army, then you won't be like Ike. You'll be more like Murphy in the first Robocop movie.

More like it's an hero time.

The combination of the unique battle system, as well as actually having to think through some battles makes for an enjoyable experience. It truly is a shame that so many of the maps are rehashed. The game could have benefited for a more diverse offering here, sadly.

Earlier, I did note the poor plot and character development. This too is a shame, because while there are those bits of dialogue that make absolutely no sense, there are other times where the interaction between characters leaves you wanting more. Dragan and Cassius have amusing banter with each other -- heck, Dragan alone is pretty hilarious in his interactions with everyone. When you look at the smaller conversations between characters, you see the potential for development: Sadly, however, it's never realized.

To further add insult to injury, the instruction manual (you know, that thing you used to read when your parents drove you back from the store) actually does a good job of giving you some background on each of the kingdoms, as well as their major generals. While this sets the stage for some great development, the game never follows up on it.

Concluding Thoughts

To date, I've logged roughly 25-30 hours in Spectral Force 3 (this isn't counting the time I left my system idle). I've reached a point in the game where my characters have access to the strongest attacks, I've recruited a healthy number of not-so-useless characters, and I can consistently get A-ranks on missions. The plot also seems to be picking up, though still at a snails pace, and between numerous 'Find Work" missions.

David noted in his introductory post that our purpose isn't specifically to provide a review for a game. Think of this more as my own musings as I play through, paired with an attempt to give a different perspective. I can see why people abhor this game. At the same time, it did require me to take a second stab at it before I uncovered its worth. Personally, it's been an enjoyable experience for me, though your own mileage may vary.

Suffice to say, however, I am firmly entrenched in this game. I'm still trying to max out my rank, as well as achieve that ever-elusive S-Rank (even knowing how to do it now, it's easier said than done). Hopefully in the next few weeks, I'll be able to move this game from the backlog shelf to the finished pile.


ali d said...

"Furthermore, as a niche title, I figured that I would have trouble finding it if I delayed my purchase any longer."

I've seen David buy so many video games that he's never played for this reason... I don't personally understand it. I just must not run the same collector's mindset. Also, I'm cheap.

David Pratt said...

If you don't buy them NOW they might not be there LATER. Or because it's a niche title, it might become rare and hard to find, thus jacking up the price. I lost track of how many times I passed by Lunar 2: Eternal Blue at GameStop for $30, now it goes for around $100.

Ayn said...

Yeah, it's not so much a collector's thing as it is knowing that certain games will be a huge pain to find later. Companies, especially those with smaller budgets, produce games in very limited quality. This was one of those titles.

Plus, when you add to the fact that it was basically free (Buy 2 get 1 free, this was #3), I figured why not? So even if you're cheap, that's a very good deal.

(I was too lazy to sign in)