Now with added spirit-crushing abilities.
A good game soundtrack exudes emotion, letting you know exactly what you’re stepping into. Halo 3? Epic sci-fi. Silent Hill? Retinal shanking horror. Spectral Force 3? Tactical-RPG with J-pop Vikings, or something like that. In ten minutes, I heard power metal, anime themes, and at one point, possibly “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” ala CCR. It’s almost as if the composer grabbed random songs off his iPod, switched a few notes, and called it a day.
The graphics only fare marginally better. The 3D characters look like their static, cut-scene counterparts, but everything appears more suited to a Xbox Live Arcade title. Something is wrong when you can probably use the harsh angles of a supple princess’ face for a protractor. Considering that this is Spectral Force’s first appearance stateside, where Idea Factory’s reputation in the genre induces confused shrugs, the lackluster presentation is a little surprising and very misleading.
Think of SP3 as the “personable” girl your friend keeps trying to hook you up with. She makes a frighteningly tragic first impression, but one week later you’re calling her the best thing that’s ever happened to you. At least, anytime in recent memory.
When it comes to strategy games, my roots are set in the world of Warhammer, where equipment and combative tactics trump environmental decisions. If you ever played Tactics Ogre, you know what I’m talking about. Simply walking from point A to B practically requires a guide. SP3 lets you forget about the terrain and weather so that you can get down to business. The adequately sized maps have a healthy assortment of ledges and rocky fields to navigate, but your main decision is whether to swing your sword in the open or with your back against the wall.
Expanding upon typical choices between magic or mundane attacks, SP3 splits strikes into three degrees of difficulty and Action Point requirements. There are plenty of magical attacks, but the main idea is to set up combos. With a little planning, you can dice an opponent before knocking him over to a teammate. Teammate #2 can then launch the helpless creep into the air, give a few pokes to his belly, and then let Teammate #3 crush him into the ground.
Since you can’t have a JRPG without the loving message of brotherhood, the combos are based on a Friendship Gauge that fills as you work together. You can tap into a little power for an extra blow or save it up for a free turn, all while building points for a devastating, six-person Battle Formation. My one point of contention is that these abilities all stem from Diaz, the lone healer. They disappear if he dies, essentially crippling your team. And when it comes to self-healing, a LARPer with a first-aid kit could do better.
As long as Diaz stays alive, there is hope in even the most dire situations. In one scenario, I scraped through a pack of underlings with only two of six members, including Diaz. I still had to get through a gauntlet of generals though – six of the baddest mofos in the kingdom. Instead of replaying the last 45 minutes to correct my mistakes, I pressed on with visions of 300-style glory. Nearly two hours of strictly coordinated hacking, slashing, and heal-botting later, I delivered the final blow. Now that’s an example of a finely-tuned battle system.
In hindsight, restarting would have been the faster route to victory, but I was sick of replaying the same battle over and over. If you’re one of the thousands who played Xenogears, and saved your game with an underpowered team right before the final boss, get ready for some flashbacks. As the commander of a mercenary squad, you can go out to find work, but it always leads to a single mission that must be undertaken. They can be brutally unforgiving, and you will always be outnumbered and/or ridiculously out-leveled with no hope of retreating to grind for experience. The only consolation is that this is mainly an issue in the early hours of the game.
Progressing past that point is akin to tunneling through the Great Wall with a chisel, but a vast world of opportunity is waiting on the other side. New characters – 40 in all – enter the scene with unique abilities and specialized roles that make the road ahead much easier to navigate. Fencers, Mages, Gunners, and a Bigfoot make up a small portion of the classes out there. Fans of Final Fantasy’s job system will be disappointed to know that you can’t change a character’s class, but you can adjust and readjust their stats between missions and load them up with armor, spells, and accessories lovingly crafted from scratch.
Characters are awarded experience based on individual performance, meaning the strong get stronger while the weak become walking tombstones. Although there is a pool of bonus experience that you can inject into any character, you could easily spend five hours or more trying to get enough for one more level. You can grind for experience at many points, but trying to protect weaker characters while saving the death-blows for them is more trouble than it’s worth. Your best bet is usually to pick up the pre-leveled newcomers, and ditch the dead weight.
For the perfectionists, filling a complete roster is nearly impossible. The world is divided into ten warring kingdoms. The borders shift constantly and your missions directly influence the balance of power. You can play the field like Yojimbo, but sooner or later, you will have to pick a side and bear the responsibility of obliterating entire nations. How many other games put that kind of power in your hands?
It would be easy to pass up SP3 for its more attractive cousins, like Lost Odyssey or Blue Dragon, but I don’t play RPGs for the eye candy. I play for the battles, the control over my characters, and the ability to shape my destiny. Pretty or not, no JRPG on the 360 has the edge on Spectral Force 3 in terms of gameplay. In other words, it has a great personality.