Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires [2006] ANALYSIS

Platform: PSP

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%, 20+ Hours

Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires is a port/remake of a PlayStation 2 game. I will not go into the lineage of this extensive franchise. Idea Factory has published or developed gobs of games interchangeably using a combination of “Spectral,” “Force,” and “Souls.” Some are new, some are ports, and some are sequels. I suppose when something works you stick with it, although how well this particular entry works is up for debate.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced strategy RPG gameplay experience, Spectral Souls is not the game for you. You will get a hipster opening movie featuring a song from the band “Dogschool.” It played out very much like a music video with all kinds of jump cuts and pans. It may have looked nice to some, but it did not make much sense for the game.

We went into this game with expectations neither high nor low. However we did envision something above average as we were exposed to good art and a polished initial presentation. But the more we played the more we came to the conclusion that this game was a tragic miss. The slow, monotonous progress and gameplay took its toll as well, as we struggled to maintain interest.

The game features fine 2D sprites on a 3D rotatable background. Though it appeared to be technically sound, its flaws could not hide. We went in not sure what to think. We came out with definitive knowledge that this game is flawed.

The Good:

  • Charge It: The charge and hold option integrated into the attack system added flexibility and fun combinations. It was interesting to use, and not just about damage points. It made me want to see what the related “mix” system would do.
  • Legend of the Phoenix: if you are going to copy a system for reviving fallen characters, the classic Final Fantasy Tactics system that uses Phoenix Downs to raise fallen characters within three turns is the one to copy. It is, in our opinion, the best and most exciting character retrieval system. It adds intensity, because you need to keep characters alive. Immortal characters, or ones that return after the battle, really suck out the desire to play well. This system also adds strategy as you struggle to get to a fallen character within three turns.

    “Yeah, I’m fine. I always lay down in the street this way. It’s very relaxing.”

  • Sounds Good: The sound effects were technically well done and interesting to listen to. There was a flame one we found particularly good.
  • Action on Point: The action point system was transparent and sensible. That may sound easy to say, and rather dull “good.” However, a good action point system does not just happen. Credit given where credit is due. This does not mean that the system was crucial, though. It wasn’t.
  • Following Orders: Modern incarnations of the strategy RPG genre have benefited from visual depictions of turn order ( believe me, that wasn’t the case In many of the GBA and PlayStation era games). Spectral Souls offered an easy straight order system with thumbnails as an option alongside, and a well done, dynamic linear display along the top.

    The artwork was mostly high quality. These were pretty good and fun. But some later will be high quality misses.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • “Huh? Charge What?” We mentioned in the “good” section that we liked the holding charge system. It was good enough to be given its own bullet point. But, however interesting that mechanic for team play and self charging, it was not well explained in an easily understandable manner. Don’t let a good mechanic slip away with poor explanation.
  • Nice Parts, Questionably Assembled: It is an accomplishment to have richly textured environments. However, the execution of that richness was not up to the quality of the textures. Is it a bomb? A rock? Why is it covered with a grass texture? It just seemed to us poor application.

    Is this a scene from a Neo Geo game? Super Nintendo? Playstation 1? Uh… no, sadly not.

  • “I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter:” While the action point system made sense, there was an element buried within that forced you to attack up to the action point limit. It was okay perhaps in theory, but application was distorting, and this element lead to some frustration. There were times where a character just sat there and was hit four times in one turn.
  • More is Less: Double the storylines! Twice the characters! …Half the investment and caring….

    Good art? Maybe. Poor design. Yes. Ugly even. A reject from the punk movement. A girl with no color sense. Another who made a dress out of her mother’s curtains. And finally, a women who did not have enough material for her whole outfit.

  • For the Discriminating Mage: Those accustomed to the genre know that area of affect magic attacks often dole out damage with equal opportunity. In Spectral Souls, such attacks discriminate between friend and foe and thus require less tactical planning and skill to set up. Easier is not necessarily better in a strategy RPG.
  • Let’s Make Some Magic: Synthesis systems can be a lot of fun in games. Something that you think of as your unique creation adds ownership to the play experience. In the case of Spectral Souls magic combos, it was too hit or miss. Sometimes awesome, and other times ZZZZzzzz…..

    Uh, it really wasn’t.

The Bad:

Form your own opinion. It’s a game that inspires this kind of cosplay. Apparently many females found resonance with it.

  • One Hit, One Kill?  Unless you are a special forces sniper or uber powerful and facing off against a n00b, one hit kills are not game enhancers. The Special Attack system needed some adjustment. It may sound great, but it gets old.
  • SHUT UP! Spectral Souls is plagued by a dry, obtuse, dull, torpidly delivered story. There is screen after screen of slow text. They describe things we have no interest in and about which we have absolutely no caring. It is hard to “advance” a story which grows more obtuse and uninteresting by the session.

    YES, PLEASE!

  • Bad Bullets: Not worth more than a sentence to mention:
    • It was a struggle to find the next story battle!
    • Some VFX brought the game (slow to begin with) to a crawl.
    • Numbers were of the Disgaea inspired ultra-high school. More zeroes does NOT equal more fun.
    • Moves cannot be undone even before an action is determined. Hey, thanks for nothing designers!

      Uhh… a heart? Really?

  • Goofy, Phoned-In Enemies: This is not Pokemon Gold, Silver, Sapphire or Crystal. In a game like that you might expect an enemy like “Oddish,” which is pretty much a little walking onion. Or a fish like “Magicarp.” Such lame enemies look even more lame when placed in a wartorn, military-esque, sword & magic “adventure.”

    Gotta Catch ‘Em All! “I choose you crabby-chu!”

  • Programmed for Dumbness: The enemy AI was just bad. It watched ridiculously or fed enemies one by one into the maw of your units. It seemed to force overly conservative tactics, where you kept units grouped and laboriously edged them forward. It was dull play in an already time-consuming game.
  • Cut Scenes That Should Have Been Cut: This game featured the dullest cut scenes EVAR. (And that is saying something.) They were without animation or anything else that might inspire interest. They were technically sloggy too, sometimes needing excessive load and seek times. There were scenes where nothing happened at all.

    I don’t know about him, but I’m rooting for this game to end.

  • Bad Bullets: Because apparently, one set was not enough:
    • Red usually means bad. Not in this game when it came to destinations. Standard conventions anyone?
    • Battle music? You need more than one good track. Are you trying to annoy?
    • Keeping up with weapons upgrades was so much more work than fun. So easy to stop altogether. Design miss.
    • Enemies do not show their weapons until they move. Hey, thanks for NOT making weapons match-ups matter.

    How do you hide this weapon?

  • Static (Environmental) Shock: There is no technical reason for such un-fluid, static and boring environments. Nothing changes, breaks, configures differently. Remember the Shining Force III train? We do. Additionally, environmental objects that blocked the camera view did not fade. There is no longer reason for that and it should not be tolerated.

    Oh the action… The excitement… the…. yawn…

  • Not so Crafty: The item crafting system was unclear and not easy to use. We should have been given some clarifying visuals and some easy, early successes. This is especially true if you want the player to use something that is unnecessary.
  • A Hill Too Far: Area of effect magic did not hit units at any significant elevation change. Apparently the elevation change was not significant enough to us. This turned out to be more frustrating than tactical.

    Good art, ridiculous design. Looks like the middle school overflow crowd from some sort of fighting maids convention.

Too Big for a Bullet Point: Accessing Boredom & Frustration

Disc access delays can be made better or worse with clever design. This is probably not news to you or to the developer, but none-the-less it was an issue magnified by poor design choices. Doing ANYTHING caused a delay.

  • Selecting a menu.
  • Going to the worldmap.
  • Causing VFX to happen.
  • Going to the Shop.
  • Selecting something WITHIN the shop.
  • Adding new destinations to the worldmap.
  • Bringing up anything to do with turn order.
  • Zooming the camera.
  • “Would you like to access the disc?” *delay – accessing disc – delay*

    Please, for the sake of sanity, pick the direct route. Do it for the children!

What about loading text? Yes, even that amazingly difficult task for a computer (made in 1939) took time. It was exaggerated by meaningless, empty, unnecessary dialogue. Writing short pithy dialogue for games is an art. One obviously not learned here. Responses were tremendously sluggish. Load portrait, delay, load line, delay… ad infinitum. All that time for bloated, pointless lines like, “Yes sir.” “Me too.” “Sure.” Etc.

Final Thoughts:

There was a large cast of characters in Spectral Souls. Too large in our opinion. Partially because the characters were spread across two factions. You were never quite sure who you were rooting for, and sadly, why. When they introduced a THIRD faction, and it was over. No thanks. What is our mission? What are we playing for?

There were gaming systems that must have cost many development hours that added little to the game. The augment system and even the combo attacks along with the weapons upgrades. Wasted effort in our opinion for our game experience.

The game also had the unfortunate habit of lapsing into a common disease for Japanese RPGs and SRPGs: Breaking into philosophizing passages. Be it the cost of war, corruption, the nature of evil, the nature of man, the nature of nature be corrupted, King George’s tea tax, etc., etc.

Spectral Souls could have been made by a robot programmed with fun mechanics but lacking the ability to implement them in a fun fashion and with heart–or to understand delays and patience. The last especially sapped our desire to play a game which uncannily inspired zero passion. Apathy is a sad commentary on any game. This one could have been more accurately called: Spectral Time Sink.

Ugh… I think this game was more girly than I remember…

________________________________________________________________________________