Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: September 26, 2006
Spectral Souls is one of the few tactical RPGs currently available for the PSP; it was created by the company that brought you Generations of Chaos, which I personally loved, although it received mixed reviews. This gave me high hopes for this series, and I was anticipating an excellent experience that would rival Nippon Ichi's other tactical RPGs such as Disgaea and Makai Kingdom.
The trailers and screens hyped me up for the game, but when I finally got my first hands-on experience, my emotions gradually changed. With great characters and an awesome storyline, it is just so disappointing that Spectral Souls cannot deliver on its initial promise.
In Spectral Souls, the world is filled with demons, monsters and humans. Due to conflicts, a war broke out 10 years ago between the Netherworld and the humans, with the Netherworld emerging as victors. They were crowned the emperors of the world and enjoyed a lengthy regime over the humans. After years and years of torment, the human armies have built up a resistance movement to take back control from the Netherworld.
You start off as Naiz, a ronin who has been wandering around the world to atone for his past and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sees that the city has been destroyed by the Netherworld forces, and he stops to help someone who is severely wounded. Naiz is unable to save the downed comrade. Reinforcements arrive shortly thereafter and blame him for the destruction of the town. He tried to convince the troops that he did not cause this, but the young recruits refused to believe his word and broke into a tutorial battle, which gives you first-hand experience with all of the commands.
At first glance, the battle system looks like any standard tactical RPG, but it doesn't offer the same flair as others in the genre. Battle components which Spectral Souls has in common with other RPGs are: Move, Skill, Item, Status, and Wait. The sole unique command is Charge, which is essentially the same as Disgaea's team attack, but the requirements to execute it are a lot more complicated, due to the time system.
Disgaea utilized a successful team movement system, where all of your team members moved at once, while Spectral Souls has a system similar to the Final Fantasy series. Each player has to wait his turn to execute a move, so in order to execute a charge attack, at least two of your players are required to have a turn before the enemy unit. Taking this into account, you have to examine the top information bar to see if there is an enemy unit your characters can attack before their turn comes up. If there happens to be one after several of your characters, you should use the charge attack because it scores massive combos and damage, but if this can't be done, just execute the regular combo attack. Unlike other RPGs, this title doesn't allow you to wait for fellow teammates; essentially, it is the "end of turn" button which makes strategic planning practically impossible.
To make matters worse, there is no way to cancel a move once it's been executed. This means you have only one chance to place the characters in the most optimal location and hope that it is indeed the right spot. The horrendous part is accidentally hitting X over the current character's location. When this happens, the character moves to that location, and your entire move is wasted.
A mistake is always costly in battle, but due to the game's attacking system, it's even more so. Mistakes can mean the difference between life and death, but thankfully, the computer rarely executes charge attacks. Hold attacks/normal combos occur when the characters stores up his energy to execute a combo by himself. A longer combo can be achieved if the character has a higher AP value, which is the most important stat in the game. Each attack has a specific AP, and both sides usually extinguish their entire supply whenever possible. After executing and landing these AP-based commands (physical attacks, magical attacks), your character will then gain EP, which is necessary for special attacks. These special attacks do massive damage and should be used wisely, such as during boss battles.
Bosses have a large amount of health and are quite difficult to defeat. The easiest way to beat them is by combining attacks, which can pick away at them quickly and give your characters an extra power boost. Since Spectral Souls does not have a strong strategy factor, HP seems to be the most important element in determining whether or not a character will survive. Under these conditions, victory is achieved by waiting a number of turns or defeating all enemies. The latter is a lot tougher to achieve, especially due to the game's level structure and speed.
In most cases, speed determines whether or not a game is fun, but Spectral Souls takes the term "loading" and gives it a whole new meaning. Just think of the worst loading time on any system, and multiply it by five, and you'll have an idea of just how bad it is. The game loads at every possible action, from basic loading of the level (character placement, level design, cut scenes), but the worst is the remedial stuff, such as text messages, movement of characters, and executing attacks. Without the loading times, the battles should take approximately 10 minutes, but due to the loading and battle system, it takes 45 minutes or more.
Sadly, this big flaw takes the sheen away from Spectral Souls's intuitive story and positive features, such as movement in the world and story progression. The game takes a very different approach and lets you play out the complete story by yourself, which means you can play all three factions involved in the story: Neverland Army, Simba Army, and Rozess Group. Depending on the outcome of the battle, the story will change, leading up to the possibility of multiple endings. Major events, or as the game calls them, "Historical Moments," are where these story-deciding factors get affected.
These historical events will show up on the world map marked differently, but they're not the only open areas. In addition to the battle sequences, the map has regular towns, where the characters can synthesize items such as weapons and armor, join guilds, and purchase things (weapons, potions, magic spells, etc.). Once you are done shopping in these towns, you'll end up back at the world map, which provides information such as where the next event is located, and when it is required to change to another army. Sadly, moving through the world map requires a bit of effort; since it uses the d-pad for movement instead of the analog stick, it takes some time to move from the current point to the next. The battle controls also take some getting used to because instead of using the shoulder buttons to rotate the view, you must use the analog stick.
Even with this unfamiliar control scheme and poor loading times, Spectral Souls offers an exquisite audio soundtrack. The music really struck me and helped me to enjoy the atmosphere; even when the battles were long, these scores always seemed new and refreshing. There are no voiceovers, so there is no need to fuss over a bad dub. Instead, dialog entails the screen being covered in text, which takes forever to load, and it makes it feel like adding voiceovers would have been a better alternative.
The graphics, on the other hand, are not too bad for a PSP title. They give a feel of PS2-level graphics and characters, but they're not striking enough to be considered memorable. To add to the mediocre graphics, the levels aren't very attractive either; they look like quick mock-ups that didn't get fleshed out during the development process.
I really wanted Spectral Souls to be spectacular, since there aren't too many strategy RPG offerings on the PSP, but sadly, it falls short of even being mediocre. Even though it presents some truly superb ideas, the game is destroyed by the incessant load times, which should have been addressed long before its release date. The gameplay is decent, but the load times are so horrendous that it's difficult to recommend Spectral Souls at all.
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