Review: Spectral Force 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Spectral Force 3
Genre: Turn-based Strategy RPG
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 07/29/08


Spectral Force as a franchise isn’t particularly well-known in the US; outside of Spectral Souls on PSP and Chaos Wars on the PS2, the characters in the series and their franchise have largely remained in Japan, where it’s been something of a money maker for Idea Factory. Atlus has seen fit to change that, though, by bringing US gamers Spectral Force 3, the third CORE (IE not counting spinoffs) title in the series. Now, it might seem a bit odd for the third game in a franchise to find its way stateside when the first two games have remained in Japan, largely because it begs the question of how the player is expected to know what’s going on in the series that they might want to know. It also seems a little odd to release Spectral Force 3 a full two years after its Japanese release, when the game is going to obviously look dated in comparison to other, more polished products. Still, with the right localization any game can be accessible to new players, and as fans of the genre know full well, technological proficiency is less important than fun and challenging gameplay, so let’s see if Spectral Force 3 is able to pull it off.

The story of Spectral Force 3 is pretty basic at first; you take on the role of Begina, who is a rookie in the Norious Mercenaries (get it, he’s a Beginner? Oh ho ho ho) who somehow ends up taking charge of the entire outfit when the prior leader shuffles off of the mortal coil, leaving you to basically build the ranks of the mercenary troop and keep things running smoothly. Unlike most RPG plots, where the story is fairly well set in stone, in Spectral Force 3, the plot is more readily centered around your mercenary camp and who you choose to do jobs for; the various kingdoms in the game will spend the vast majority of the game waging war on one another, whether you assist or not, but by taking on various missions in service to the different kingdoms, you can, in effect, help dictate the direction of the war, and essentially determine who wins and loses.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really mean a whole lot, as the story of the game is more concerned with your characters than the warring nations, and as such, most of the plot in the game will be centered more on the folks joining up to your group than anything going on between the kingdoms. This is not to say that the story is bad so much as that it is sparse; you will see various dialogues between characters at different points throughout the game, and the motivations of the various characters will be explained as the game progresses, but for the most part, aside from the initial characters who join the squad, most of the rest of the cast won’t get much face time, and a significant amount of the plot revolves around the five main characters. This is kind of depressing considering Spectral Force has something of a reputation of having large storylines across its games, but it’s not insurmountable. To be honest, the characters are fairly interesting in their own ways, even if they tend to represent the usual stereotypes, and the story isn’t up in your face every five minutes screaming “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME” with expository cutscenes and boring dialogue, making the story work a lot better than it might have otherwise. Sometimes, less is more, and while there seems to be a whole lot more going on in Spectral Force 3 than the story seems to want to commit to, what you’re given isn’t bad.

The same thing can’t be said of the visuals, however; even with the knowledge that Spectral Force 3 is a two year old game, it’s not particularly exciting to look at when you’re playing it. A sprite-based visual style might have alleviated this somewhat, as the artistic style of the game might well have been enough to propel the visuals into reasonable territory, but as the actual gameplay graphics are done entirely in 3D, it must be said that they are, at best, “serviceable”. In a game like Operation Darkness, the low-resolution visuals could be blamed on the wide-open battlefields and the need to have lots of things on-screen at once, but in Spectral Force 3, the battlefields are small and the amount of characters on-screen at a time isn’t particularly massive, and while the game probably couldn’t have been entirely replicated by a last-gen console, it isn’t particularly impressive on the 360, either. The only visual pluses one can note is that the frame rate is consistent across the board and the artistic style isn’t bad, but beyond that, the visuals are passable. Aurally, Spectral Force 3 fares somewhat better; the music is solid, and while it’s basically composed of synthesizer-based tunes, the tunes are spirited enough to be worth listening to. The sound effects are solid, if fairly generic (the same weapon will make the same noise no matter what it attacks, more or less), and they get the job done, if nothing else. There’s also a decent amount of voice acting in the game (mostly for battle cries and many dialogue exposition scenes), and by and large it’s of above-average quality; it’s not the best ever, but it’s by no means bad, and most of the voice actors are quite competent in their roles and do their job well enough to be likable.

Spectral Force 3 works under the initiative-based turn system of gameplay rules, meaning that at the beginning of a battle the turn order is decided based, presumably, on which characters are fastest, and the characters take their turns in that order until the battle ends. When a character’s turn comes up, you can move them around as you see fit within their movement range, have them use their special abilities (if they have any), and have them attack as needed, with all of these actions consuming points in an action meter that shows up on-screen. Basically, you’re given seven action points per character turn (unless certain effects reduce or add to this), and each of your various actions consume a part of that. Moving consumes one point, using various special abilities consumes one point (and power from your SP, AKA magic, bar), and attacking/using regular abilities consumes variable amounts. For combat characters, IE just about everyone in your party, you have three types of attacks: weak, which do little damage but are quite accurate and only consume one movement point, medium, which are of medium damage and accuracy, and consume two points, and hard, which do lots of damage, but are the least accurate and consume three points. You can chain these attacks together against enemies to boost accuracy of attacks, so by using, say, two weak attacks, a medium attack and a hard attack, assuming they all connect, you boost the accuracy of the next attack you use to ensure further attacks will connect. It’s a simple system that’s surprisingly neat and works pretty well, all in all. One character, Diaz, works differently from everyone else, however, in that he cannot attack, but can cast healing and SP boosting effects and cure status ailments without having spells equipped or using SP. However, he cannot heal himself without spells, meaning you’ll have to have him or other casters equipped with healing spells to keep him alive in case he takes some lumps.

Aside from the ability to chain together combination attacks, you’re also given the ability to perform teamwork attacks, either through Assists or Teamwork. As you fight through the various battles, a Friend Gauge in the bottom left of the screen fills by performing various attacks/special moves/Diaz’s Alert action (Alerts basically jack the character’s stats briefly, with Diaz’s adding to his SP and the Friend Gauge, while Begina’s give him more power to his first Hard strike, and so on), which can be used either for Assists and Teamwork when needed. Assists allow other characters who are in range of the enemy you’re attacking to deliver a strike of their own for additional damage, and if multiple characters are in range, they can all join in, so long as you have the available Friend Gauge points to spend (Assists cost one bar per use). Teamwork, however, forgoes the whole “assist” option and simply gives another character an instant turn, right then, for the cost of two FG bars, making it more costly, but far more useful in the right circumstances. Using these two tactics also builds up a Rage Meter (represented by a dragon holding glowing orbs in the bottom left corner), which can be built up to four levels, but only appears when you have six party members in play. Once at least one level of the Rage Meter is filled, you can unleash a Battle Formation on an enemy; as you might expect, this is an all-out assault on the chosen foe, dealing ludicrous amounts of damage as all six team members focus their assault on your chosen victim. Again, however, this only comes into play if you’ve been using the Friend Gauge and if you’ve kept all six party members alive, meaning you’ll have to play smart to use your squad to its fullest effect. You also have the Morale gauge to watch, which fluctuates in battle based on how well you’re performing; while it doesn’t have a direct affect on battle, various items in your possession can impart statistical bonuses for high or low morale, meaning that performing at your best (or worst, depending on the item) is imperative to some beneficial effects.

Outside of combat mechanics, Spectral Force 3 also features the normal mission accepting and equipment acquiring elements of most normal strategy games, though how it goes about implementing them is fairly interesting. For one, you’re not so much tied to any one nation (you ARE mercenaries, after all), so you can simply opt, in situations where no pressing mission is presented, to “Find Work”; through this, you can take on various odd jobs assigned to you by the different military factions around the land, which might range from clearing out locations of monsters to smiting rebelling factions to destroying other nations or whatever, depending on your Mercenary Rank (basically, how successful you are at your job, more or less) and experience levels, with harder jobs paying more money and featuring harder battles. You can also take on various Missions, which are often set up as storyline advancement battles that allow you options to forge new alliances or learn new tactics or whatever, with plot advancement also coming along for the ride. You’re also offered the option to acquire new gear for your troops, either by leveling up their weaponry or by forging new armor, accessories, skills and seals with the blacksmith. Each character is offered one armor slot, two accessory slots, and three seal and skill slots, with each offering different benefits and effects (armor being your default defense against attacks, accessories being items that can boost statistics or offer enhancements, seals being abilities you can use in battle on the equipped character to boost their performance, and skills being spells). Each item has a CP rating associated to it, and each character has a CP limit they can hold, meaning you’ll have to equip gear intelligently based on the character, IE do you go with high CP armor and small items or low CP armor and lots of accessories and skills or whatever, with the benefits showing in battle performance and the strategies you can formulate as a result. Forging and upgrading all of these items and weapon upgrades requires both cash and raw materials, which you can acquire from battles, meaning there’s more of a purpose to battles than simply leveling up as needed. Also, you’re awarded bonus EXP which can be dumped into your various and sundry warriors while in town, allowing you to level them up as needed prior to battles and such, and with each level up and acquisition of new talent, you can spend their various points however you like across their various stats to make them stronger or more resistant to magic or attacks or whatever you think works best. Also, between the option of aiding various nations, recruiting characters, and the option of a New Game Plus which allows you to carry over items, experience points, and cash (as well as recruit extra characters), there’s plenty of reason to spend a large amount of time with the game beyond the forty to fifty hours needed to complete the game.

On the other hand, Spectral Force 3 also bears a few significant flaws that may or may not ruin the experience for you, depending on how tolerant you are of these issues. The biggest issue is the fact that, while the core gameplay is solid and enjoyable, the game asks you to spend a not insignificant amount of time farming and grinding to make progress, which can wear even the most devoted player out on the systems of the game. In simple terms, farming is the act of acquiring money and raw materials in order to make items and such, and grinding is, well, plugging away at battles to level up. Basically, it works like this: if you commit to a standard six-person squad that you never intend to change, EVER, throughout the course of the game, this means you will only be farming and grinding for those six characters, which is vaguely tolerable to a point (though not fantastic; when you stop and realize that building a suit of armor for one character might require two battles, and you’ll have to do this for six characters, well, twelve battles to equip your party, not taking into account the random nature of item acquisition, can feel like an eternity). However, when you stop and realize that there are over forty recruitable characters in the game, each with their own strengths and drawbacks that make them worth having, and each of them will require some type of gear or another, well, this turns a fairly tolerable farming and grinding excursion into a chore of epic proportions. Some folks might like that, and if you happen to find a group of characters that you like you can ignore the rest, certainly, but it feels like this could have been streamlined a bit.

Another issue comes down to the fact that certain elements of the game simply don’t work as well as you might hope or work in odd ways. For example, every job you can take, of either variety, is marked with both a job level and a financial reward, but the game is particularly bad about explaining what this MEANS. Let’s take two jobs, for instance, both around, let’s say level three: one involves clearing out a random field of monsters, the other involves eradicating a specific race of bad guys. Okay, so both are rank three, which means they should be of equivalent difficulty, yes? But in reality, this is not so; the former mission amounts to killing seven worthless monsters in a field, while the latter amounts to fighting something like fifteen humanoid monsters who are rather powerful, and one of these monsters is a “boss” monster and has significantly higher stats than anyone in our party. Can we verify the difficulty by financial payout? Nope; the easier mission offers more cash reward AND offers the option to collect more items for use in forging new weaponry and gear. Okay, so this, then, begs two questions: first, why, aside from leveling up, would anyone BOTHER to take the latter mission, and second, why is being able to identify a mission’s relative difficulty so much of a pain? Another wonderfully asinine problem comes up when new enemies are introduced into a battle. See, everyone takes their turn relative to one another, but “reinforcements”, as they more or less are, take their turns sometime around when they first pop in, and THEN take their turns again at the time their initiative score would allow for them to do so normally, which often means that reinforcement troops will take two turns before many of your troops receive one. In simple terms: anyone near where reinforcement troops spawn in is instantly dead, barring a miracle. This happened more than a few times, from my experience, and while it’s certainly not game breaking on its own, it can end up forcing you to replay a mission a second time, which would probably have been averted if the enemies simply took their turns when they are SUPPOSED to at all times. Also, along the same lines, the game feigns difficulty a lot more often than it really should; instead of sticking you up against higher-level enemies or enemies with more challenging skill sets to overcome, most of the time you’ll find yourself facing enemies whose levels match your own, yet their health levels and damage output will be significantly higher than yours, or you’ll be facing wave after wave of reinforcements, enemies will suddenly get a second wind and magically replenish their health and SP bars “just because”, or what have you. This isn’t so much of a problem as much as it just feels like the challenge in the experience is artificial and hollow, but the game would have been better off showcasing a more natural challenge than simply presenting scenarios where the variables of battle change on a minute to minute basis and require retry after retry to accomplish.

The biggest problem, though, is that Spectral Force 3 just doesn’t feel like it’s worth sixty dollars. Playing through the game and changing which army to support in battle doesn’t really change the experience of the game, and even beyond the primitive visuals and minimalist storyline, the game itself just doesn’t justify the cost. Battlefields are small, battles are short and do not offer in-battle saves (possibly because they are rather short), character variety is superficial and generally amounts to X person who can fight at range or Y person who can fight at range, for example, and you can pretty much stick with the first six characters you get from the beginning of the game to the end, never vary from this roster, and do fairly fine for yourself. There are also odd technical issues where the game stops to load before initiating attacks or conversations at times that, while it doesn’t HURT anything, doesn’t do the game any favors either.

The bottom line is this: Spectral Force 3 is a good, fun turn-based strategy game that will appease fans of the genre, but won’t do anything to convert nay-sayers and won’t justify its asking price to the casual fan. Hardcore fans will love the large character roster, deep battle mechanics, and hours upon hours of play, and frankly, casual fans might well derive much enjoyment from these things as well. The problems, rather, come not from the play mechanics, but from everything else; the story, while solid, is meager and provides a voice to very few characters, the visuals are primitive, the environments are small, the challenge is awkward on multiple levels, the experience is rife with grinding and farming, and things like choice and variety often seem artificial. In the end, were the game less expensive, it would be a lot easier to recommend, but as a sixty dollar release, Spectral Force 3 doesn’t really pay off on the asking price in any sort of meaningful way. At a reduced price this might be worth a look, but as a full-priced offering, it’s not really enough of a game to be worth the cost.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: DECENT.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Spectral Force 3 is a strategy game that will really only do a good job of selling itself to turn based strategy fans or casual fans of the genre who happen to find it at a reduced price. The combat mechanics are neat, the presentation is decent, the game is simple to play while offering decent depth for those willing to dive into the experience, and there’s plenty to do with it to make the experience worthwhile, time-wise at least. However, the story is often lacking in most respects (which is often a necessity with a lot of characters, but even so), the visuals are dated, many of the game mechanics are laid out in ways that are either not well explained or simply lazy, and the illusion of variety and choice are simply that: an illusion. Were the game lower in price, it might be easier to forgive the product its flaws because of a more economical price point, but as a full-priced Xbox 360 release, Spectral Force 3 simply doesn’t do enough to make the game worth the asking price.