Soldiers of Fortune are usually a B-list affair in video games, hanging around with the likes of western stars, boxers, and poorly written thug types that populate games like Saints Row 2. Yet so many games actually star a mercenary, be it one man or a team. Let’s take a look at some of these games, and see how they compare.
Unless if you were born in Japan or have family in the land of the rising sun, you probably have never heard of the Spectral Force series until a few years ago. Once a exclusive in Japan, the series was able to achieve publishing, thanks to Atlus, for its first U.S release, simply titled Spectral Force 3, for the Xbox-360.
It is somewhat ironic that the introduction to the series is a prequel to the series in Japan and the third title released. What is more troubling is the obvious lack of polish and soul on the product, despite some really clever nuggets of tactical RPG goodness.
You star as Begina, a young mercenary who, in an obvious plot twist, takes over as the head of a diverse, motley group of mercenaries in large, ten kingdom war. Your job is to gain allies to your band of mercenaries, join up with the warring factions at your whim, and help in shaping the outcome of the war that is raging the world known as Neverland. Don’t expect to find Peter Pan here though, despite the anime style Swords and Sorcery setting.
In fact, the game is a really competent Tactical RPG. Besides your title character and his best friend (and possibly lover, because you know those Bishonen relationships in Japan) named Diaz, you can pick and choose up to four more characters to join you on your excursions in battle, with a total of 48 characters to choose from. Here the game takes a hint from Fire Emblem, where each character has a personality and different set of skills, be it a thief, gunner, archer, mage, and so forth. Mixing and matching your units to create a balanced mercenary band on the main map screens is part of the recipe of success.
The other part of that recipe is the tactics on the battlefield. Almost every encounter will have you fighting insurmountable odds, giving new meaning to the word “attrition.” When fighting a horde of ten or twelve enemy soldiers, who range from priests, knights, and even special characters who act as super tough generals, all at once, it is important to make sure you have some sort of support for your team. Unfortunately, the only cleric in the game is Diaz, and when he’s not acting all cute and innocent he is likely unable to heal every single member of your party in one orbit, leading to a lot of deaths and eventual frustration of doing the same level over and over. It is sometimes not even worth it to continue, and instead grind out similar monster hunting missions for experience and supplies.
There are some equalizers that may ensure your survival, however, primarily through the use of teamwork systems and the combo setups. You can set up combos by attacking character with physical attacks or magic spells, have surrounding teammates bash opponents, and finish off enemies with a large combo multiplier. The teamwork system also adds to the strategy, as you can occasionally gain the ability to give a teammate a second turn to move or attack, offering the chance to defeat a tough enemy or escape a dangerous situation. Finally, if you get your multiplier up enough, you gain the ability to perform a special attack that includes all members of your party, dealing massive damage to a single character. This special move is hard to achieve, and will rarely be used, however when it is preformed, it can devastate a general on the opposing side that is wiping the floor with your characters.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do the same missions over and over again in a row, unless if it’s a required story mission. In fact, as a mercenary company, you can choose who you wish to work for, which in turn actually does affect the outcome of the story, at least for a while. Feel like working for one army the entire time, you will see them slowly gain power until the end of the game. How about changing sides each time, fighting former allies after defeating former enemies? You actually get to be a mercenary in this game, because you choose who you fight for. While most of the missions are mirrors of each other, be it monster hunting, attacking specific countries or eliminating a bandit group, the fact that you can mix and match what you do makes up for the redundancy.
The game also has some item and armor systems that often are never used, thanks to the ridiculous amount of gold these services are worth. The balance for powerful upgrades and items is unparalleled to the amount of gold you get for a single mission. Most of the time you just get by with the bare minimum, as it will take a while to augment your characters to even take on harder level missions. But, this also adds to the strategy, letting you favor some characters over others in battle with reserves to change up the style of play when necessary, leaving weaker characters in the dust.
Adding to the games uneven difficulty is the poor production values. The graphics are colorful, but very simplistic. In fact, many reviewers have noted that the game looks like a downloadable title over a disk title, with simple, 3-D backgrounds and characters on a simple, square battlefield. There is no emotion, no fluid animation, not even that much flair for weapon attacks and magical abilities, just generic effects and colors flashing on the screen. The games static pictures look much better, again akin to Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre, giving character portraits in between menu’s and during engagements, and the likenesses during anime-style cut scenes, but that is perhaps the only bright spot.
Even the sound is a mixed bag. The sound effects are rather generic, with generic, looped music in between the levels, during levels, and through cut-scenes. The voice acting is also atrocious, with tons of over-acting and cheesy anime-sillyness all muddled together to form a meager connection to these characters. One way that these tactical games work is the fact that you become attached to the characters. In Spectral Force, the problem is any chance of attachment is diminished by a poor script and horrible dialogue.
And it really is tragic that so much is keeping the game back from being a must have title. Even though it is miles above shovel ware status, Spectral Force 3 is a very simple, straightforward game with a well implemented game engine, hampered by overall poor design. Simply put, the graphics, sound, uneven gameplay and generic, almost non-existent storyline hold back the tactical-RPG elements that make the game good. If anything, Spectral Force 3 is a questionable rental at least, and a cheap, under $20.00 purchase at best. But, like most underdeveloped mercenary brigades, you do get what you pay for, and if you crave a simple tactical game wrapped in a package of mediocrity, then Spectral Force 3 is your soldier of fortune.
Final Score- C