Spectral Force 3 - Staff Review  

A Specter with a Strong Core and a Weak Surface
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

Xbox 360
60-80 Hours
+ Solid, enjoyable battle system.
+ Open unit growth and skill choices
+ Dozens of unique, recruitable characters
- Recycled levels and enemies
- Music and voice acting have painful moments
- Plot development is butchered and ignored
Click here for scoring definitions 

   In the not too distant past, the demonic ruler of Neverland was slain by a group of brave, but not particularly forward-thinking, humans. The Overlord's daughter soon took control of her dead father's army, attacked a nearby kingdom, and thus caused the land to abruptly split into ten factions, each ravenously vying to destroy everyone else and rule the world. Begina, a mercenary band's green captain whose name sounds unfortunately close to "beginner," follows the money and his heart from battle to battle during the Great Neverland War, silently cutting down people for a paycheck one moment and then showing kindness and maturity in conversations the next. Lacking the constraints of a faction, his mercenaries support whoever they please, and it just so happens that anyone Begina aligns with cannot lose, hence allowing him to eventually select which faction wins the war. Published in Japan two years before it reached the western part of the world, Spectral Force 3 promised to be a high-definition strategy RPG featuring a nonlinear plotline as a soldier for hire. While the battle system has a solid core and the visuals are indeed HD, the story is more aborted and absent than nonlinear, often presenting itself as a heartless list of similar mission options rather than a choice between interesting characters and nations.

    Mega Man is a nonlinear game. Each Robot Master sits in its themed stage while the player attacks them one by one via menu selection. Disappointingly, Spectral Force 3's attempt at open-endedness is not so different. After the introduction stages, the player is presented with a large number of missions and the freedom to choose whichever one he wants. The problem is that missions are the same regardless of whom the player chooses to support; getting paid by the elves to hunt birdmen leads to the same exact stage as getting paid by the Underworld Army to hunt birdmen. No one speaks to Begina. The only difference between the two requests is the name of who commissioned it at the bottom of the description. What does matter, though, is who the player chooses to attack.

   Faction members only converse with Begina when his mercenary band attacks them. Regardless of who hired Begina for the job, the "attack another faction" stages are identical for each nation being battled, and if the same faction is fought more than once over the course of the 60+ hour game, then the player will be treated to the same stage featuring the same generals, enemies, and skeletal script. After some time has passed, missions to destroy factions become available. These are the most interesting, unique, and difficult stages in the game, taking place in the faction's individual stronghold and including slightly more dialogue. Eventually, with the player's assistance, one nation will rule the entire world, but again there is no acknowledgement, much less a faction-specific reward, related to which people ultimately rule Neverland. The player receives no cutscene, and none of the victorious generals so much as give their thanks. In terms of gameplay, the only effect of the Great Neverland War is which characters become recruitable.

Another... riveting... line of dialogue... Another... riveting... line of dialogue...

   Many of the optional, faction-neutral missions give the player the opportunity to recruit people into the mercenary band. Destroyed factions play a key role here; by smashing a nation's capital, one leaves that people's generals and leaders out of a job. This leads to an ironic aspect of the game's implementation of faction choosing: in order to recruit a faction's leaders, the player must kill that faction. If the player has a liking for cats and allows the cat-people to rule the world, he can expect not to have a single cat-person in his army. Want ninjas in the mercenary group as soon as possible? Then annihilate their precious base when the faction destroying missions become available. One would think that assisting a nation would convince some of its warriors to tag along with Begina, but the exact opposite is true. Fallen leaders appear to have no memory of the player crushing them earlier in the game, and many have a strangely strong desire to become mercenaries. The dozens of characters who join Begina are all unique, and it is a pity that the dialogue is too meager to make any of them interesting. Although party members and enemies often speak to each other the first time they meet in battle, these conversations are short, abstract, and rarely make any sense. Since this is the only place where NPCs' personalities are revealed, the localization team dropped the ball by writing grammatically awkward, ellipsis-filled lines for these situations. The player will understand that the two characters know each other, but little else.

Teamwork attacks add a blurry, monochrome effect. Teamwork attacks add a blurry, monochrome effect.

   Despite the surface gameplay, story, and translation issues, at the game's heart is a polished, strategy RPG battle system. Spectral Force 3 uses the overly copied, though proven and solid, Final Fantasy Tactics formula as a base, appending its own combo attack system on top of it. Combat takes place on a grid where the player controls up to six characters. When a character's turn starts, he gets a number of action points to use on moving, attacking with his weapon, and special attacks. Weapon attacks can be weak, medium, or strong, and the probability of an attack landing successfully is displayed for the player. Stronger attacks have a lower success rate than weaker attacks, and these percentages increase when the targeted enemy has already been hit this turn, similar to Chrono Cross. This is all rather standard fare, but Spectral Force 3 adds a new touch via the Friendship and Rage Gauges.

   As the player dishes out pain on the opposing units, the Friendship Gauge slowly fills. Visually broken into blocks of one hundred FG points, it allows characters on the battlefield to attack enemies out of turn. Once a combo is initiated, any friendly unit within range of the enemy being attacked can contribute with an Assist. An Assist is a single, strong attack that cannot miss and consumes one block of the Friendship Gauge. For two FG blocks, Teamwork can be used to allow another character to take an extra turn immediately. Assists are useful for finishing off a nearly dead enemy or manipulating its position by knocking him down or back. Teamwork allows the player to link characters' turns in order to build up a large combo or off opponents before they can act. In turn, utilizing the Friendship Gauge increases the Rage Gauge. Once the Rage Gauge breaks a low threshold, any character in the party can drain it to unleash a powerful Battle Formation attack using all six party members.

   While the battle system itself is well balanced, the interface is unnecessarily convoluted. The inputs on the controller have different functions depending on such things as whether or not the active character has moved and what the cursor is highlighting. The problem is that the same face button executes completely different commands in each situation, thus making the interface unintuitive. For example, the A button may end the character's turn, attack an enemy, or confirm movement, depending upon the situation. Sometimes the Y button backs out of an option, other times the B button does. Sometimes the Y button executes a turn-ending Alert skill, other times it executes a strong attack that does not end the character's turn. It's a mess. There is a permanent on-screen display showing each button's current function, but interacting with the game never feels natural. Checking out a unit's status or the turn order can take several button presses. At the start of a unit's turn, the cursor automatically highlights a nearby foe in an attempt to be helpful, and the player must back out of the selection if he wishes to execute a different action.

Want his boss in your army? Ruin his home. Want his boss in your army? Ruin his home.

   The graphics engine during combat is high-definition, but otherwise not noteworthy. While certainly more detailed than anything the PS2 can produce, the appearance is far from what a high end 360 game is capable of generating. To be fair, though, this is typical for the tactical RPG subgenre. The number of 3D tactics games to come out of Japan can be counted on one hand, so the fact that Spectral Force 3 is in 3D and at an HD resolution puts its visuals head and shoulders above everything else in the subgenre. To critique the graphics anyway, the polygon count on the 3D character models is pathetic. In the normal battle view, jaggedy edges stick out of characters all over the place. The game only has a couple dozen battlefields which are reused over and over by the various missions. A few of the more impressive ones are only seen once, but the standard forest map, desert map, plains map, et cetera, will be seen several times over the course of the game. On the plus side, each unique character has a huge, high definition 2D portrait displayed in menus and during conversations. Sadly, when anyone opens his mouth to speak, it is hit or miss on whether the voice acting will be tolerable or abominable. Like most RPGs which give voice acting to dozens of characters, some of it is acceptable, most of it is barely passable, and a few characters are downright unbearable. The background music has an analogous status. Some of it is catchy, but most of it is irritating, and the short music loop has a noticeable dead spot at the end of every piece before it restarts at the beginning.

   Spectral Force 3 is at its best when the player is enjoying the battle system, using his wits to guide a vastly outnumbered army through hordes of rather intelligent opponents. The additions made to the standard JRPG tactics system are implemented well, providing enough challenge to keep the player attentive, and enough tools to make victory achievable. There is no permadeath, but there are repercussions when a character hits 0 HP and retreats. Battle Formations, the most damaging ability in the game, can only be executed when all six friendly units are still in the battle. Furthermore, the healer, Diaz, is required to utilize the Friendship Gauge. When he falls, all of the player's advantages over the AI are lost. Aside from the total lack of a plot, missing faction interactions, and paper thin character development, the game is held back by a striking lack of variety. Battlefields are recycled, but so are enemies, bosses, and their tactics. Every map features opponents who attack in timed waves. Often, defeating the first wave builds up FG points, the second wave allows the player to accumulate RG points, and with these maxed, the player can let loose an enormous, devastating combo to finish off the third wave and the boss in short order. This is repeated battle after battle for the entire game. The only change in gameplay comes from new recruits and the unusual freedom of choosing their stat growth, equipment, and skills. A fan of tactics RPGs should pick this up as it is enjoyable, if slightly too long for the bare and repetitious content. A pickier RPGamer with other systems can obtain recent, better options elsewhere such as Jeanne D'Arc and Final Fantasy Tactics on the PSP, Advance Wars and Drone Tactics on the DS, and Fire Emblem on the Wii.

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