It's pretty clear that Spectral Force 3 is trying to be the 360's answer to those snarky portable systems getting all the cool strategy RPGs, like Final Fantasy Tactics A2 for DS and Wild Arms XF on PSP. It's one of a couple new 360 SRPGs being imported from Japan by Atlus, and despite it getting a competent translation, Spectral Force still needs a few balancing tweaks to the combat. It's not that the game gets way too hard or easy - the steady, challenging difficulty is one of the game's greatest strengths, but the character classes could be better-rounded.
The story is a pretty standard stock for RPGs: A young boy with swords finds himself suddenly leading a band of mercenaries in a land being torn apart by war. Then an evil demonic power reveals itself - nothing new there. The game's best moments are often between the required story-advancing missions.
As the leader of your group, you select which of the ten warring factions to fight for. They're all trying to kill each other, so if you repeatedly hire yourself out to smash the Undead Kingdom, you'll eventually unlock a final mission to destroy them for good. Conversely, if you want to be a jerk about it, you can eradicate the Chivalrous Knights of Epsiloia. We only wish there was more information about who we were fighting for. At least The Chivalrous Knights and Undead are obviously good and evil. We didn't have a shred of information about The Nameless Army or Meimai Knights before we attacked them. It turns out calling them The Nameless Army of Pretty Nice Guys would have been a good start.
Strutting through the land destroying Meimai Knights and Undead, you'll soon meet people who join up with your band of hired warriors. Although your group starts small, you can recruit up to 40 team members. The number sounds impressive, but isn't very practical. You can only use six for any battle, and the characters you don't use don't gain experience, so they're quickly outclassed by your active roster and aren't helpful for the increasingly difficult battles.
Each fight usually takes between 15 and 30 minutes, and the battlefield is mapped into a standard strategy game grid. It would take longer, but the attacks are efficiently mapped to different controller buttons depending on whether you're moving or attacking, so there is almost no scrolling through lists and menus during fights. Characters are given a set number of Action Points to exchange for movement and attacks during their turn, but some characters are clearly better at using them than others. The up-close and personal Gladiators, Spearmen and other melee fighters are simply stronger than the other classes. Spellcasting and support classes have tactical ranged attacks, but lack raw damage-dealing potential. Witches and Wizards are designed to take advantage of elemental weaknesses of enemies, but even blasting a frosty Yeti with a fireball usually does less damage than a standard Gladiatorial sword-smacking.
Still, Spectral Force doesn't just want you to get a group of fighters and just tell them to keep hitting until the demonic Force all die - though hardened gamers will probably think the tactics are watered down. The strategy is less about using varied character types with specialized abilities - although there are a handful - and more about surrounding foes and using team-up attacks effectively.
As characters do damage they fill up a Friendship Gauge, which can be spent to call on support attacks from nearby characters and sometimes even a full-team attack or two. Using your Friendship Gauge will make or break most fights. There are still pages of obscure statistics if you'd like to look through them, but they just don't have as much of an effect on fights as Friendship does.
Between fights, you'll equip your group with the best equipment your blacksmith has to offer, shaping what skills and strengths they have. A couple of the characters are worth keeping around for their unique and powerful abilities alone, like your healer friend Diaz, who can harness a powerful Earth Guardian spell when he stands on special tiles. Most characters, however, aren't that different from others that share their job type, and gain abilities based on what they're wearing.
The menu for the blacksmith requires you to scroll through all the equipment you've unlocked to see what's new, but it isn't until late in the game all the scrolling becomes an annoyance. The biggest problem is that equipment can only be forged after you've found the materials to create it. The materials seem to appear randomly on the battlefield, and with no way to predict or search our specific items, you might want a new set of shiny bone armor and have to settle for a lackluster shell shield.
With 40 characters, 150 missions and (eventually) a sprawling list of items, Spectral Force 3 is huge. Unfortunately, a large portion of the content doesn't ever feel like it has a concrete purpose for being in the game. Collecting each character is fun, but not as fulfilling when you realize that you'll be leaving almost all of them by the wayside. After you destroy a couple factions, you'll start to notice that many of the missions are very similar - maybe the Undead and Chivalrous Knights aren't that different after all.
But buried underneath the sometimes slopped-on content is fairly competent strategy game. It's challenging enough for serious gamers, but forgiving enough that you can go ahead a use your favorite Sorceress even if a goblin Warrior would be stronger. For gamers who want to pretend that their two favorite Spearmen really are special even if it wouldn't make a difference if they traded equipment, we can definitely recommend Spectral Force 3.
Jul 30, 2008