It took me a little while to realize I wasn't really enjoying Spectral Force Genesis on the Nintendo DS. Developed by Idea Factory, who have worked on a few other Spectral Force titles, and published by Ignition Entertainment, the game is touted as a strategy RPG hybrid, but there's little of either element here. Of course, I'm also not sure what category I'd lump it into; it seems to play like a low-key version of a typical war-based board game, but even that's a bit of a stretch.
When the game begins, you're presented with a map that's populated by dozens of individual countries. These countries are represented by their own flags, so you can select one of them with the touch-screen to pick your starting group. Depending on the selected group, the game will either be a cakewalk or a bit of a challenge, but the lack of an up-front tutorial leaves you in the dark as you try to figure this out during your first playthrough. If you want a tutorial prior to playing, it's hidden in the Options menu at the start screen, but that's not going to be a great help either. Spectral Force Genesis is best learned through trial and error, but it's really the only way to learn how to play: Select a country, jump in, and tough it out through the explanations to figure out what's going on. From the outset, one of the bigger issues I had was that most of your options, which are text-based icons, are abbreviated. I had to click on them and view a short tutorial to know what half of them meant, and I found this to be pretty annoying.
Once you've selected your country, you'll get a smattering of a story line. Each country has a specific tale to tell, but there's also an overarching plot that remains the same for every country. This is really the only highlight of the game; if you care enough about seeing the story for each country, there's a lot of content in Spectral Force Genesis. With that said, I played through four campaigns and didn't remember much more from each, aside from the character names and a few locations, so nothing really stuck with me. The individual plots are pretty weak and seem dependent on some working knowledge of the world, which you never really get. The big, overarching plot is so vague and oddly spaced out that you'll stop caring before it ever gets started. It doesn't help that the dialogue is pretty sparse, and a lot of the characters bear striking resemblances to one another, so it's pretty easy to get mixed up about who are the bad guys and good guys. During my first playthrough, I had a difficult enough time figuring out whether or not I was playing as the good guys.
After you get the cut scene dialogue out of the way, it's time to start playing Spectral Force Genesis. Well, sort of. See, Spectral Force Genesis doesn't really let you play much. Most of the time, you just tap a couple of options for your nation's monthly routine. Most of these options consist of things like collecting taxes, picking a general to search out other generals, or manipulating one of three resources that you can buy and sell to generate some income for your nation. Aside from that, you can pour money into wall building, improving the overall status of each nation you control, and finally, you can get into a fight or two.
You don't have control over a majority of these options. For taxes, you tap the tax button, and you magically get some more money. For building walls, you repeatedly tap the build option, taking a small amount of money out of your treasury each time and exhausting the option to use each general selected for that month. If you want a general to seek out help by recruiting other generals, then you only get a list of your current generals and their charisma statistic, which is supposed to determine how effective their search will be. Tap one of them, and he'll initiate a search, which seems like a really random occurrence that works half the time. It also doesn't seem to make a difference if your charisma is high or not; most of my generals with a charisma level of 10 had no more luck than a general with charisma level of five. They player doesn't really get to interact with the game here, and it all seems to boil down to luck or some hidden algorithm.
Combat is about the only thing in Spectral Force Genesis where the player has any real involvement in what happens, and even then, it's a pretty limited affair. When the month comes around that lets you battle, which seems to be once every quarter or so, each nation gets one opportunity to fight against another. There are also a number of options when it comes to who you can fight, so it'll be a good idea to do some sabotaging prior to the battle month to make your experience a little easier. This can be done by convincing opposing generals to join your army, thereby weakening their forces prior to the conflict. When you choose an opposing nation to fight against, pay close attention to its overall defense stat, which determines how strong it is. The higher this stat, the harder it'll be to take over the country, regardless of whether or not you defeat their generals on the battlefield.
Once you've selected your enemy nation, it's time to get to the actual fight. You can select three generals from your side, as long as you've allocated troops to them. Each general has a specific ability, whether it's attack, defense or magic. In battle, this plays out a bit like rock-paper-scissors. Attack beats magic, magic beats defense, and defense beats attack. Once you've selected your three fighters, you go to the actual battleground. The top screen of the DS represents the fight via 2-D sprite animations. It's a pretty basic display, showing enemy armies clashing against each other, with little soldiers bounding off the screen when they're killed. The bottom screen is where you'll have some control over the action; you'll map out little icons to attack other icons, and then zoom in on these icons to pull off special moves. While this sounds involved, it's really not. The battles are so quick that you have little time to bother with strategy, and really, you barely need to. It also doesn't help that the movement of your troops isn't very precise or timely; they don't respond quickly enough for you to set up anything. The end result is that you're better off hitting the auto-attack option and letting it play out like every other aspect of Spectral Force Genesis — which is to say that you just let the computer do it.
The AI pretty much plays the game itself, which sucks all the fun out of it, and that's the biggest issue that I have with Spectral Force Genesis. When you start, the title seems to be really, ridiculously deep, but you quickly realize that you're unable to control so much of it. So much of the game is left up to chance that it's akin to rolling the dice in a board game; while you can make some basic options and selections, there's little strategy involved in the overall experience. Spectral Force Genesis is a really disappointing game overall, and while I found myself oddly enthralled with clicking through menus, the end result is that I spent a lot of time not really doing anything at all. Anyone who's considering picking up this title should avoid it, as it's really not worth your time.
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