Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spectral Force 3 - Review

Last time I talked about a niche genre (hunting games) that isn't really my cup of tea. Today I'll review a title from a niche genre that I love - tactics games. I've been working through Spectral Force 3 (twice!) for the last few weeks. The short review is that I liked it quite a bit. That in itself might surprise some because the game got absolutely terrible reviews. Most of the big game sites panned it. I'm not 100% sure why, though I suspect it has a lot to do with reviewers not really loving this particular style of game.

In a tactics game, you deploy troops from your army onto an isometric map and then attempt to use them strategically to defeat your opponents or accomplish some objective. It's all turn based, meaning that victory is decided not by skill with the controller but by making wise decisions on the battlefield. My favorite aspect of these games is that between battles you can upgrade your troops and outfit them for specific purposes. In many ways, you win or lose the battle before you ever step onto the field.

However, I concede that this style of game is not for everyone. If you want fast paced action, you will not find it in tactics games, and definitely not in Spectral Force 3. It's a slow paced game that rewards careful movement around the map. It's imperative to keep your troops grouped together so you can engage small groups of enemies with your full force rather than getting scattered around the board. Losing even a single character from a battle can often spell defeat, either immediately due to failing a battle condition or later in the map if you need one of their special abilities.

SF3 actually has quite a bit going for it compared to many tactics games. There's a huge variety of enemy types, including a massive roster of enemy bosses, most with their own voice work and special attacks. As the game progresses, you can recruit many of those bosses into your own army for use in subsequent battles. Many tactics games make the mistake of having new characters join at severely reduced levels compared to your other troops, creating very little incentive to use any of the new people. In SF3, newly recruited characters are usually ABOVE your level and bring new abilities to the table, so I constantly found myself weighing new additions against old favorites.

The game is also appropriately difficult, with easy battles to start and tougher enemies as you progress. The computer will gang up on characters to eliminate them from a fight, and will happily target your healers and mages if you leave them exposed. Correctly positioning your troops on the battlefield is a critical aspect of the game and is just as important as doing damage to the enemy.

SF3 does have some deficiencies that need to be mentioned, unfortunately. The main story arc needs some work, for one. You control a group of mercenaries during a major war that has engulfed the entire continent. There are around 10 factions on the map, and you can work for any of them as they each attempt to conquer the others and take control of the land. This aspect works pretty well, but there's a side thread about chasing down destructive demons that are terrorizing innocent people. It's supposed to be the main story arc of the game, but it comes in fits and spurts, seemingly at random times, which keeps it from gaining any real momentum as the game progresses. It's also often unclear what you need to do to advance the story, as the game has a hidden meter tracking the number of side quests you've completed and won't let you progress until you've filled it. I'd have preferred to see the meter so I could track my progress rather than wondering why I have to play the same few missions over and over.

Graphically, SF3 is adequate for a tactics game. It's visuals aren't terribly impressive, but the environments are sufficiently varied and there are some nicely animated cutscenes when characters use their signature attacks. Voice work is pretty well done, which is a plus, although some of the sounds seem odd (swords don't really sound like swords for example).

However, the biggest negative is a major issue for me - the game is buggy. There's a bug with the audio track that can cause the game to crash if you try to advance cutscenes too quickly (and they can be quite slow). It only cropped up three times for me in two playthroughs of the game (twice on the same map), but battles in this game can last upwards of half an hour and it's VERY annoying to have the game crash after successfully completing a map. If I was handing out scores here, that would be a big point deduction, particularly since adequate play-testing would have easily caught that bug.

Of course, the ultimate question is: Do I recommend SF3? If you're a fan of tactics games, it's the best one on the 360 that I've played yet, and has a lot of interesting features that are unique to the genre. So for tactics fans, yes I definitely recommend Spectral Force 3. If you've tried games like this in the past and not cared for them, then SF3 will definitely not change your mind.

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