Good war narratives aren’t made of just battle action, but also captivating characters and a good complementary side story wrapped around it (just ask James Cameron…). Spectral Force Genesis aims to be precisely that; a good strategy game which is also heavy on character-centered subplots and twists. To achieve this, the creators at Idea Factory mixed elements of classic RTS, RPG, and turn-based games into the package. It’s a good, solid concept for a game. However, there are elements that mar the final product. It’s not that the game is bad; in fact it’s quite entertaining and well worth the 22-24 hours you’ll spend to finish it. But, as you may perceive in the following review, one can’t help but feel a sense of missed chance; of a game that was good enough, but could have easily been great.
Spectral Force Genesis is set in the imaginary continent of Neverland, which had once been united as a republic that included all the races (including humans, elves, goblins, frog people, ariels, and so on). However, recently the republic has fallen on hard times and now the decadent central government only controls a small territory around the capital; Golden. The rest of the land has been parceled out by powerful warlords who vie against each other to expand their territories and ultimately reunite Neverland under their banner. Your objective in the game is to take on the role of one of seven major warlord states and defeat the other 39 rival nations to unify Neverland. In the background there’s a plethora of character centered subplots going on, which may or may not require your intervention to get resolved (more on this later).
The majority of the game is played on a turn-based menu, where you complete a few permitted activities each month. There are five types of months: Tax, Human Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Strategy, and Battle. During Tax months you collect taxes, recruit troops, and conduct trade. On Human Affairs months you appoint duties to your generals, seek out new candidates locally, and fire inept commanders. Foreign Affairs months are used to recruit generals abroad and to establish military alliances. On Strategy months you can invest funds to strengthen the defensive walls or improve the productive infrastructure of your provinces. Finally, the Battle months are used to wage war and loot rival territories.
The idea of having your activities ruled by a strictly prearranged calendar is interesting and plays a big role in giving the game its distinct flavor; however, it also implies that the experience is a ride on rails that diminishes both your freedom and the replay appeal of the game. On the plus side, you can easily plot out your game plan for any given year. On the down side, you often are unable to exploit unexpected opportunities or react to sudden threats because the calendar restricts you.
The control scheme is very accessible and responsive. The game can be operated easily both via the DS buttons and the touch screen (this changes during battle, where you control your units exclusively through the touch screen). An amusing point regarding the control setup is that at the outset of the game one gets herded through an obscure mandatory tutorial that can easily intimidate the new arrival. Just ignore it; it will take only a few minutes of fiddling around to figure how user friendly and simple the controls really are. Perhaps the only criticism here is that there is no direct queue to take you back to the main screen once you delve deep inside a menu.
However, much of the grace the Spectral Force wins with its control scheme is quickly lost by the lack of certain key stats in the menu screens. There are several inexplicable things missing there. For starters, there’s no way to view the stats of another nation’s general unless you first hire him (which is inexplicably unrealistic, do they really want us to believe the leaders of Neverland never demand a resumé or credentials before welcoming a candidate to such vital positions? No wonder that nation broke apart…). Next up is the lack of a barometer on popular opinion, which is obviously important since one of the more frequent war booty prizes is a drug to increase your appeal to the masses (unless, of course, the whole popularity elixir thing is a scam). Finally, there is no way to assess when one of your generals is wavering in his loyalty; you only learn of their traitorous intentions until they take over one of your provinces.
Combat is by far the most interesting aspect of the game. The battle scheme mixes interesting elements of RTS and RPG games. Like most RTS games, Spectral Force units use a paper-rock-scissors scheme of combat, with three army types: staff, sword, & shield. Each category type has an attack/defend bonus against one of the others and a penalty versus the third. Also, as in other RTS games, the armies move freely and in real time through the touch screen and you control them (more like plead with them, since the small animated troops seem to take on a will of their own during battle) via the stylus. However, there are a few RPG elements during combat as well. For instance, when units engage the enemy they accumulate energy that can be used to unleash special magical spells to attack or defend from the enemy. There are three levels of spells, and the more powerful attacks require more accumulated energy than the basic ones to be unleashed. Also, as in many RPG games, the characters can have their abilities improved by using wands and amulets, and often engage in long, wordy conversations prior to engaging in combat.
When invading, if you destroy the enemy army, you can either storm the enemy castle or try to negotiate their surrender. The negotiation option isn’t very useful since the computer rarely concedes no matter how hopeless the situation. If you choose to siege, you gets three attempts per invasion to breach the defenses by pitting your forces against the walls. If that fails, then the whole invasion must be repeated on some other month. The castle walls have a defensive value determined by what the defender has spent on reinforcing it. The starting defense value of walls is 7, but it can be pushed up as far as 20 through investment. A curious fact about the defensive walls is that they are much more important than field armies when defending a province. Very often, invading forces that cruise through the defending armies will fail at the walls. Level 20 defenses in particular, can be very resilient. It can require up to three or four invasions to wear them down. However, once the last set of walls falls, the kingdom surrenders and is incorporated into the victor’s empire without much ado. The winner gets to choose whether he wants the defeated generals released, executed, or invited to join the cause.
In order to spice the game up, the creators have added a series of subplots and side stories that unravel as you advance. These ‘stories’ do a good job of fleshing out the personalities of the various generals and make them more appealing. The bad thing is that you appear to have no control of how the stories evolve, nor are you given a clear idea of what is happening most of the time. You just get fragments of narrative here and there, but no context, and very often you are left completely confused by the conversations. Your actions may affect how these stories unfold, but it isn’t really clear how beforehand.
The truth is Spectral Force is extremely rich in strange, unexplained narrative elements that pop up and then never get followed up. In the month to month narrative you see references to events, people, and occurrences that simply don’t appear to lead anywhere in particular. For instance, at one point in my game I started receiving short departing phrases from dozens of unemployed generals for no apparent reason. The whole fad lasted for a few seasons and then it stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving me wondering what had just happened.
Visually the game isn’t particularly remarkable. All the short still-frame mini-clips that appear interspersed throughout the game display an art style highly reminiscent of a Final Fantasy, with metro-sexual looking heroes, voluptuous and sexy females, and sleek looking villains, all dressed up as if they were about to present a dance number for Jabba the Hut. The main work screens are fairly plain, with only small mug-shots of the generals appearing were appropriate. The only part of the game where actual on-screen animations occur is battle, and in these instances the presentation changes dramatically to a very basic cartoony and pixilated visual style.
The sound department is even more limited. The background music is appropriate to set the feel of the game, and is perhaps a decent score all around, but it is used ad-nauseum. The lack of musical variety is a common problem in strategy games and it is perhaps unfair to pick on Spectral Force, but somewhere along the line someone has to acknowledge that in a strategy game, tune variety is as necessary as in any other videogame genre. The game is also amazingly limited in sound effects. Understandably, there are very few opportunities for sound bites in the menu screens, but it is incredible that the same generic flat battle noise of clashing sword
s is used to represent all combat situations. Considering there are so many different kinds of soldiers it’s just unacceptable that the struggle between skeleton and werewolf armies sounds just the same as does an army of insects laying siege to a defensive wall.
All in all, Spectral Force Genesis obtains a mixed report card. The game is hugely successful in hooking the gamer on the world of Neverland. You really end the game wanting to see more and learn more about this land. There are several very interesting plot bits here and there that really seem worthy of a second glance, but herein
lies the problem. You don’t get enough of a view of Neverland and its many interesting characters and stories. For crying out loud, one of the kingdoms is supposed to be ruled by powerful never-aging children! But then, when you go there and invade, the nation fights back just like the ariels did up in the north, or the frog people by the coastline, or the elves to the south, and that is just sad. The game is mildly challenging and quite fun if you like strategy games and you probably won’t mind revisiting the franchise in the future after playing this title. Nevertheless, one can only hope that the future deliveries (the franchise already has several installments out in Japan) better exploit its huge potential.