Inside Pulse 12

Review: Spectral Force Genesis (Nintendo DS)


Spectral Force Genesis
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Release Date: 3/16/2010

I have a good friend who wrote for us back when we were Not A True Ending named Ryan Smith. Ryan is so into Japanese culture that one could confuse him with Peter Payne. He watches all sorts of anime, collects all sorts of manga, and plays all manner of games that come from overseas, either via import or when they’re localized. In short, he’s a real-deal otaku. So when I found out that I would be receiving Spectral Force Genesis (SFG for short), he got excited. He’s a big fan of the Spectral series, a series which I – who also plays a lot of Japanese games, ran a fansite based on a Japanese game series, and can read it well enough to fumble through imports – had never heard of before Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage. I figured, either I’m a bad fan or he’s onto something, and considering his obscure tastes have pointed me towards numerous games over the years, it’s probably the latter. I started to get excited.

Enter, as usual, The Notorious M.A.S., who described the game to me thusly: “it looks like a moe version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms“. This confused me. On the one hand, I love ROTK in all forms. On the other, I hate pretenders, and I ESPECIALLY hate “moe”, which can best be described as an over emphasis on cute anime characters who bring nothing else to the table other than looking cute. Since American otaku are generally retarded, they single-handedly made “moe” crap like K-On! popular, so now it’s the big thing in anime, which means it’s infesting Japanese games as well, as games such as Mana Khemia and Record of Agarest War could confuse people at first glance that wonder if they’re buying a game or a hentai DVD. What’s stunning about that is that Agarest War has no sex in it; there’s more sex in the trailer than in the actual game, and the trailer is a minute and a half long.

It was with that that I viewed my case of SFG with trepidation, eager to check out the strategy gameplay yet ready to be disappointed. Would my stellar BS detector turn out to be correct again?

Story

The main story is that three Gods have held together the world of Neverland for centuries, but man’s ambitions have led them into warring with each other. That’s just a placeholder for what is ostensibly forty smaller stories thrown into a blender. Neverland is broken up into forty different fiefs, each with its own lord, with each lord having his, her or its own story. Furthermore, each game starts off with characters under each person, as well as ronin that don’t have a lord, each one having their own story as well. There’s a lot of story to SFG.

If that sounds intriguing, you made the same mistake I did: gave way too much credit to Idea Factory’s story writing and Ignition’s localization. Not one story makes any kind of sense. Every story starts out as a standard, generic anime story, and degenerates from there into a mess of poor storytelling, non-existent characterization, and awful translation. When I say “awful translation”, I mean sentences and statements that are apropos of nothing in the conversation that is happening. It feels like the script was drawn up by playing a game of Mad Libs with drunk and angry Japanese people. There are little blurbs for every character as well, which are readable during gameplay if you have them on your side, but they make no sense either. They literally took generic character ideas, added a line or two of text to them, and put them in the game apropos of nothing. Even characters that do have a story to them don’t have it explained poorly. For example, I had Callman and Taro in my army at one time. Taro’s character blurb is “Has the greatest potential in the Four. Liked by Alissa”, whereas Callman’s is “One of the Four, was promised all the books he could read. There are so many questions I could – and did – ask: who the hell are “the Four” (capitalization is SIC), what does that mean, why is it important, and why does Taro have the “greatest potential”, yet suck as a character?

I mentioned characterization before as an issue. I didn’t really go into how bad it was. Let’s take Cygnus Line, the lord of one of the strongest countries in the game. Cygnus lost his political position, and he was smarting because of it, so he sold his soul to some devil-like being, who deformed his appearance. In the opening, Cygnus is viewed as a power-hungry lord desperate for revenge and prestige at any cost. So why, in later shots, is he shown to be alternatively a somewhat sympathetic character, and even more cuckoo than previously thought? It’s not even a matter of there being more to meet the eyes, like a better written story. It’s a case of the writers throwing stereotypes at the wall, hoping some of them stick. Those stereotypes often don’t even jibe with a character’s actual stats. For example, “Raz Raz” is described thusly: “Girl from Golden. Smart but inflexibly logical”. Her intelligence rating? Two out of ten.

There are also battle sequences when certain factions go to war, but we’re never told in the beginning who everyone’s antagonist is. I just happened to find out that my characters had issues when I happened to invade that fief. In the case of Cygnus, the people he had beef with were well to the south of his original fief; I would think there would be more territorial issues. Also, rest assured that the story aspects in these are every bit as useless and poorly written as the rest of the game.

Even innocuous comments during gameplay are poorly done. When the month starts, one of your characters will say something random. It doesn’t take long to figure out that every character has a generic personality attached to them. You have your arrogant type, your cutesy type, your self-conscious female type, your “tsundere” type, everything – including the lords that the game tries to personalize in story bits – is so generic. The things people say when doing tasks are also dependent on their given personality trait, and some of them are absolutely asinine. When changing my envoy during a domestic phase once, my character’s entirely helpful comment was “CHAAAAAAAAAAAAANGE! CHANGE CHAAAANGE!”. That person was my strategist, and I was so blinkered that I made someone else my strategist, just so I didn’t have to read that crap anymore.

Forty stories, and the ones I saw all were terrible. Furthermore, you have to beat the game with each group to get their stories, and worst of all, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll see everything. Considering each country can take literally sixty to eighty hours to beat, that’s an awful lot of work for not much payoff, with annoying characters nagging at you the whole way.

Story Rating: Dreadful

Graphics

Spectral Force Genesis starts off with a very nicely put together introduction. I was impressed, maybe overly so. Once you’re done with the introduction, there’s not much else to look at. There are some still shots when going through story elements, usually just recycled head shots of the characters involved. Most of your time is going to be spent staring at the map, and at character avatars that are so small and smudgy that it’s hard to tell who you’re looking at, and often, what gender the person is. I still don’t know if a lot of characters are men or women.

In battle, the two screens are used for showing what’s happening in battle; the top screen shows the battle in Dragon Force-like pixelvision, and the bottom allows you to control your people, which shows nothing more than a shield. The battle graphics up top are decent, but extremely pixelated, and the camera moves around too much for anything to come out of it. When the only positive is that battles are so schizophrenic that you won’t have time to pay attention, that’s a problem. There’s also spell effects when someone casts something, but these are infuriatingly lazy; all they are is a bright light with some visual effects thrown on for every single spell. There is literally nothing separating a crummy, low-level spell and a spell that kicks your doors in, unless you learn to become discerning about specifics. “Oooh, this one’s green!”

I’m using the word “lazy” a lot so far, and we’re only two sections in. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

Graphics Rating: Bad

Sound

There are a few music pieces that play during gameplay, but only a few. The good news is that they are inoffensive. The bad news is that you will hear these menu pieces a lot. Even the latest Romance of the Three Kingdoms games give more music than this. I’m not saying this is crucial to the game’s execution; it’s a strategy game, so it’s not. But I’m saying to give us more than two or three things to listen to for the entirety of the game.

Sound effects are OK, but like everything else, there’s really nothing to them. Just another example of the laziness that went into programming this game.

Sound: Poor

Control and Gameplay

I’ve compared SFG to ROTK a lot so far, but I think that a very heavy influence for SFG is Dragon Force, in both style and presentation. However, Spectral Force Genesis wishes it could be as good as either of those two games on its best day.

Everything is SFG is done in months; every month is a different task that you can do. Right off the bat, this is a problem. The game assumes that whoever is playing it is a drooling moron, so it has to break up each and every thing you can do in the game into bite-sized pieces, lest people be confused by managing their troops AND investing in their economy at the same time. This actually causes logistical problems, because every month except January is random; you could have two straight months of foreign affairs, where you have nothing to do, but desperately need a tax month so you can get troops back, or a month where you can invest in your economy and build up your walls again. If you’re in this boat, hey, sucks to be you. It’s essentially ROTK for Dummies, and I hate any game that takes the control away from me. What would be the reason for this arbitrary nonsense? How does this fit into the game world? Is this something controlled by the “Gods” that control Neverland? It makes no sense.

Arbitrary limits on what you can do and what you can have are all over the game. You can only have 20 generals, who each can only have 400 soldiers to their unit, and your entire country – no matter how many fiefs you have – can only have 9,999 soldiers, which is fun because a max setup – 20 generals with 400 soldiers each – equals 8,000 troops, leaving you with 1,999 in reserve. There is no reason for a developer to impose limits like this other than “because I feel like it”.

As for the generals, they all have statistics based on battle power, intelligence, the usual things you’d expect in a game like this, but someone forgot to make them mean something. I knew something was up when I was able to pry away “Sara” from her lord, despite her having a loyalty rating of 10/10. I knew there was something wrong when I took someone with a power rating of 10 onto the battlefield, had a field advantage AND a class advantage, and still barely beat my opponent. I knew the system was completely borked once I saw that investing in my economy with someone with an intelligence rating of two netted me a greater result than doing it with someone that had a ten. While having higher stats gives you a *chance* at better results, anyone with a pulse can get something done in this game. That’s just as well, because the interface is so bad that most of the times you would want to see someone’s stats – like when you’re recruiting them, or about to lead them to war – you can’t.

Even worse are the times when the ratings change. That’s right; the game decides, at random spots, to change the ratings of your generals. I found this out when going to someone who has a high intelligence rating, and going “this rating should be higher”. Sure enough, everyone’s ratings were essentially re-rolled. It happens at such random times that I have to consider it a glitch; there’s nothing in the instruction booklet or the game’s atrocious tutorials that states that my characters’ stats are going to change overnight whenever the game feels like it.

Not only is everything broken up into mandatory, bite-sized chunks, but there is no adjustment when acquiring land. In a real game like ROTK, you have to weigh whether or not you have enough soldiers to take AND hold a fief, as you have to spread your resources. Here, there’s nothing to spread; if you were to split Neverland in half and take the middle fiefs, you could be attacked on two separate sides, and use the same troops and generals to fend off both attacks and then attack a third army in a different spot with the same army. Furthermore, your army’s status rating – combined for all of your fiefs – is what determines how many soldiers you get back during tax months. There’s apparently no population to draw troops from; they all just show up, and are ready to fight (there’s no training necessary). For a strategy game, the actual strategy portion is virtually non-existent.

Battling is an exercise in frustration no mater which side you’re on. In the beginning of a battle, you’re allowed to pick three generals to take into battle. Because of how the game is set up, you’re not allowed to check your generals’ statistical ratings, or even add soldiers to people that need it; like Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want… or at least the one you set up in tax months. This means two things: one, if you haven’t had a tax month, and are low on ready generals, it means you’re not going to stand a chance, or could end up defending a siege right off the bat because you have no generals able to go out. You could have a thousand soldiers ready to fight, but if they’re not assigned to a general, they’ll sit on their thumbs while the enemy takes your castle. Thanks, SFG; thanks to your assumption that I’m retarded and can’t manage troop levels unless specifically told to, now I can’t defend myself. Ironically, the one thing you can see is if you have a terrain advantage, depending on what soldier type your generals have (example: ghosts have an advantage in the mountains), though I’ve found it to be useless. The only really key statistic is whether the general is an attacking, defending or magic type. These three types lend themselves to a rock/paper/scissors weapon triangle (attack > magic > defense > attack). I guess if you’re going to copy everything in your game from better games, might as well copy your main battle mechanic from Fire Emblem.

When the battle actually starts, you move your army to where you want them to be with the stylus; the quicker the line is drawn, the quicker the army moves. This is the only well thought out idea in the entire game, but even THAT can’t be done right. The speed that you draw only sometimes corresponds to the speed the army goes, and there are times – usually when small movements are required – when the army you’re commanding will either barely move, or flat-out ignore your command. This is a big problem because the one determining factor in battles is the ability for armies to team up on smaller numbers. I had instances where one of my people was stuck in by all three opposition generals, and they were ripping him to shreds. I wanted a defensive unit to wrap around and go after the attackers, but all of my commands were ignored. It wasn’t until my unit was gone that it decided to finally move, at which point THEY were triple-teamed. Needless to say, I lost that battle, mostly because my armies ignored my commands. This is all made worse by the fact that battles move VERY quickly; they’re usually done within sixty to ninety seconds, so one mistake either way is fatal. During this time, you have to use skills. While an army is attacking or being attacked, they build up skill points, which they can use for spells, levels one through three. This is yet another good idea in theory that gets screwed up along the way by poor design choices. The game tells you that someone’s ready on the top screen, but everything’s moving so fast that it’s impossible to pay attention, so instead, it’s encouraged to switch back and forth between units while battling to see who’s ready to use a skill, while hoping the flow doesn’t get broken up by the enemy using one of their skills (which not only stops battle dead, but doesn’t let you check on the status of your units). Worst of all, the levels don’t correspond to the power of the skill. I had one person with the same spell in level 1 as level 3, and there was no difference in power. It’s like quality assurance all decided to go on vacation at the same time, and the developer decided to release the game instead of waiting.

Once main battle is done, if the invading force has won, it’s time for siege warfare. This is stunningly simple: if you’re attacking, you can attack the walls, retreat, or persuade the enemy into becoming a vassal state, meaning they’re autonomous, you don’t own them, they can break away at any time, and take damage if you’re attacked. In other words, it’s functionally useless, so there’s no point in making someone a vassal state. On defense, you can either repel the attack (i.e., sit around and hope your walls are strong enough to repel the attack) or surrender, which gives your army the chance of continuing the game as a vassal state and allows you to rebuild your army for when you break away. After three tries, the attacking side loses by default. At least a game like ROTK gives us options to take out highly fortified walls. As it stands, this part of the game is broken. I had a 1,200 person army (the max) against a fief with literally no soldiers (the… um, minimum), but because their walls were fully fortified, I lost the battle because my full army couldn’t even take off half of their wall power. Again: THEY HAD NO SOLDIERS. I could have theoretically walked in the front door without so much as a “who’s there?”, and I lost the battle because of this stupid, arbitrary nonsense.

The gameplay of SFG is a mix of decent and terrible ideas, all of which turned out horribly, horribly wrong.

Gameplay Rating: Very Bad

Replayability

Shockingly, a game this bad has a lot of replay value for those that want to work – and I mean, WORK – for it. There are forty different nations to take control of, with forty different stories, as well as different biographical details of every character in the game, different locations to unlock, battle stories to unlock… there is a WORLD of things to unlock for people that like to unlock things.

However, my rating here is going to be lower than the previous paragraph would lead someone to believe because it takes such a ridiculous amount of work to unlock everything that anyone with a semblance of sanity is going to give up before they come close. Let’s suppose someone likes this game; they like the way it’s broken up, or they’re new to strategy games of this type and want to learn on something before going onto ROTK or Nobunaga’s Ambition. It still takes over sixty hours – comfortably – to beat the game once. To unlock everything, you have to beat it forty times. Using sixty hours as the BARE minimum, sixty hours times forty scenarios equals two thousand and forty hours. I wrote that out for emphasis, and will now resort to caps: TWO THOUSAND AND FORTY HOURS TO ACHIEVE 100% COMPLETION, BARE MINIMUM. Playing continuously, without stopping to sleep, that means 100 straight days of playing this game.

That’s not dedication. That’s insanity. It got to the point where, after I took a large portion of land, one of my generals took Newgard and made it his own country. At first, I was elated. “Awesome! Followers can leave you! A nice little bit of betrayal!”. Then I realized that the two battle months I would have to take getting my land back was two months I wouldn’t be able to use to beat my armies into the other, more powerful countries to wear them down. In short, it cost me another couple hours of gameplay. I learned to hate this character quickly.

It’s a bad sign when something good about your game ends up becoming a negative due to other factors.

Replayability Rating: Below Average

Balance

In one way, this game is perfectly balanced. After awhile, everyone on the map, including you, will have 9,999 troops, 200 status per fief, and 20 wall HP. What’s more balanced than a total, deadlocked stalemate?

That ignores the fact that the reason everything is so stalemated is because it requires months and months of torrential abuse in order to take out someone later in the game. After awhile, the creme rises to the top and the only countries that are left usually have multiple fiefs and all have 20 wall HP. As mentioned, once you take out someone’s soldiers, then you have to take out the castle; this is impossible even under optimal conditions, and you can only attack once a month. We’ll assume there’s three battle months per year on average. You have to wear them down, wear them down again, and continue to do so because they build their walls back up for the most part during investment months. Meanwhile, you’re also fending off attacks in your own end. This means it can take a full year to take one fief, sometimes two. There’s no balance to this, just a shortsighted method of game development.

Even domestic development is screwed up. There’s a stock market-like financial system, but since you gain goods every tax month, it usually just means you can sell whatever you have no matter what the price is. Eventually, you’ll max your money out regardless of price. Also, the only truly important stat in the game is the status statistic; that’s what determines how many soldiers you get during tax months. With this stat alone, you’ll start blowing out smaller countries until the game decides to play the waiting game with you about half way in.

Thankfully, it’s possible to save the game before doing anything. Want to go into a battle? Save beforehand so you can reload instantly. Want to try recruiting someone? Save first. This breaks the balance of the game, but this is one area where I’m almost thankful for it. When a game requires as long as this one does to get everything out of it, I’m thankful for anything that saves me time.

The only real balance to the game is that it’s so poorly designed that a few elements happen to cancel out.

Balance Rating: Awful

Originality

There is not one original idea to be had here; everything is either stolen outright from Koei’s strategy games, or stolen from Dragon Force. Even the game’s presentation is heavy on today’s anime standard dujour: angsty males and moeblob females. It’s cliche night at the theatre!

There’s so little original here that I can’t even think of anything else to say. I can’t believe I’ve blown 4,000 words on this game already. Don’t say I never give an A+ effort.

Originality Rating: Worthless

Addictiveness

Spectral Force Genesis is so vapid, so simple, and such a time drain that I can’t believe anyone would play this for more than five hours unless they were paid to do so. I played this game for an estimated seventy (70!) hours, and STILL didn’t beat it; by the time I finally put the game down to squeeze out a review for it, I was ready to ritually sacrifice my DS. Not only is the gameplay terrible, none of the stories are written in a way that makes people want to continue playing in order to see what happens next. In fact, as I was reading the story bits I was able to see – and in seventy hours, there weren’t many – I found myself either laughing at how bad they were, or wanting to skip past them. I couldn’t WAIT to put this game down.

Addictiveness Rating: Dreadful

Appeal Factor

While SFG is a niche game, it hits its niche hard: anime fans and SRPG fans. I saw this game and got really excited about it, figuring it could be something I enjoyed tremendously. I can definitely see other people – like Ryan – falling hard for it upon seeing it on a shelf at Gamestop, especially now that the price has dropped to $20 (down from $30). Like me, they’ll see the back of the box and get excited. Then they will play the game. Then they will cry.

Not many people will be interested in this game, but the ones that are will likely pick it up sight-unseen. I hurt for these people.

Appeal Factor Rating: Below Average

Miscellaneous

It’s easy to tell by now that I hate this game. I hate it because it’s programmed poorly, I hate it because it’s presented poorly, I hate it because it asks for a ridiculous amount of dedication to get anything out of it, taking its’ fans for granted in the process, and I just hate it being in my DS in general.

What’s worse is that when this game released, it was a $30 game. The market wasn’t fooled, and everyone quickly brought the prices back down; it’s $20 at Gamestop, and $22 at Amazon as of this writing. I don’t even know why they tried charging $30 for this. Were they thinking that people who would like this kind of game would buy it no matter what?

The price drop means one thing for me: I won’t get the return I was hoping for when I trade it in. Even that goes poorly for me.

Miscellaneous Rating: Very Bad

The Scores
Story: Dreadful
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Very Bad
Replayability: Below Average
Balance: Awful
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Dreadful
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Very Bad
FINAL SCORE: VERY BAD GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

When I try to defend games made in Japan nowadays, and how they’re not all in a downhill spiral, Spectral Force Genesis is one of those games that people can hold up as a counterpoint. It’s lazy, uninspired, brings nothing to the table yet takes a lot off of it, plays terribly, and asks for a massive time sink with virtually no discernible reward. I don’t even feel bad for spending five thousand words kicking the crap out of it. Idea Factory made a lazy game, and Ignition Entertainment was just as lazy in localizing it. They get what they earn.

I can’t recommend this game for anyone, at any price, regardless of their genre affiliations. Not even Ryan Smith.

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  • Ryan Smith

    (No sense using my handle, since I have been named here.) I think you have predicted my reaction exactly, since these game play mechanics – including the frustration, the random stat changes, and the inability to fully control anything – sound almost identical to the Generation Of Chaos games by the same company. Which I, being a masochist of the first order, enjoy. For $20, I may still have to get this, since I am the one fan Idea Factory has in the States, but I will agree with your assessment: If a game like Generation Of Chaos was not your cup of tea, then this will not be, either. (And I will let you know if I can beat it, but … might be a tall order.)

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  • Oh, dude, you can definitely beat it. I could beat it (I’m close). But… why? That’s the question. Why would anyone spend sixty to eighty hours on this when they can spend that time playing much, much better games?

  • Ryan Smith

    Same reason to climb Mt. Everest: Because it is there. Bought the game today, in fact, because my curiosity got the best of me. Shame on me, perhaps, but $20 for a new Idea Factory game still seems like a good deal to me. That, and I am enjoying the game, so … maybe I am a masochist after all?

  • I’d like to know what the hell you see in that game that I didn’t. Maybe you’ll see what’s up when the tables are levelled and you can’t get anywhere.

  • Rocko

    I bought it on a whim for AUD$25 and almost regretted it after the first hour of playing the game. However after successfully winning with one nation and getting it’s “true ending,” I’d have to say the saving grace of this game is that you can play it in small bursts of 15-30min a piece and not really lose much enjoyment doing so. There’s no doubt that it’s a grind to play it and you’ve got to have an addictive personality or a love for the masochist way to stick with it, but once you understand how it all works, it’s marginally better than playing Barbie’s Dream Date. At least you can see little minions kill things. :P

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  • lol

    chris, you suck dick, ’nuff said.

  • MJ_Merlin

    Bought this game cause it looked similar to the PC hit Crusader Kings (II) by Paradox. While it is fairly shallow in ares like you mentioned, I think you are much to critical of the game. it is designed to be very Risk-like. I bought it as an impulse buy, was disappointed at the fact it was not all it claimed to be on the back of the case, but it is also not as god awful as you and other critics make it out to be. I think it is a decent grand strategy title for an older generation hand held, but at the end of the day it will leave you wanting a bit more. If you have any suggestions on similar (better) DS games I’d love to hear it as I am a strategy game nut.