An Example of Authorial Control Done Right
Role-Playing Games are pretty arduous work for any group of game developers. Especially if you take into account the demands of fans and passers by, there seems to be a higher level of expectation for an RPG than with most games, and the competition can often have some of the best stories and choices of videogaming.
But within RPGs are several genres, and many of the people camping around one RPG expression don't necessarily talk to the others. The Spirit Engine 2 is in some ways a strange mix of genres I have encountered myself in the past, and on the whole I was immensely satisfied with its execution, especially for a project developed mainly by one man (with one notable exception). But don't let that be interpreted as disparagement; I've seen games botched that were run by a slew of well-meaning developers. What a game like The Spirit Engine 2 shows me, however, is that a strong authorial presence behind a game can make a big difference in the integrity of the content and the ability of a game to follow through on its promises.
What The Spirit Engine 2 promises is an interesting blend of paused and planned real-time tactical combat, combined with an interesting story and and an intriguing party selection system that allows for some replayability despite the game's straightforward narrative. (I never played or even heard about this games prequel, but I didn't need it to enjoy this game. In a private email, Mark Pay said the stories of the two games are unrelated, and he considers the prior game inferior in many respects, so 2 is more a spiritual sequel with a similar engine, I think.)
The Unique Party Selection Mechanic
Character selection begins with a roster of 9 characters to choose from, each with their own back-stories that will come into play later in the game. There are three classes to choose from: knight, priest, and what I'll call gunner (to reduce confusion with D'Artagnan and the like), which fulfill different roles in combat.
The knight is primarily a damage absorber, but is also very good at dealing damage in select ways; the priest has a strong natural ability to take damage from certain types of attacks, can also protect, heal, and boost allies, and effectively damage special types of enemies; the gunner is good at instant damage of varying types, and has a few strong protective abilities. Each character within the same class starts with slightly different skills, and even fully developed with all the skills unlocked they won't have all the same skills; across classes the skills are unique.
What sets apart characters of the same class is what I'd call a disposition. There are three dispositions in the roster, what I'd characterize as gruff and possibly amoral, friendly and maybe naive, and wise. While your party can all be the same class (the game doesn't forbid it, but discourages this idea based on maintaining a good blend of abilities), it must have one of each of the dispositions. This sets up later character interactions, which, no matter your party's composition, promise to play off each other as though this was THE party the game wanted you to have. I've only played through once so far, but the revelations of the characters' back stories seem like they will be different enough to encourage at least two more playthroughs should you want to see how they develop.
The story is one of the main draws. A few of the elements used are familiar to people who have played such games before, and the game manages to be both epic and high-stakes in terms of what will be lost if the heroes fail, while at the same it breaks some genre conventions that might be familiar to players of the old Might and Magic and Wizardry series, while still at other times going in crazy new directions that were a real delight to see. There are times when the storytelling itself could have used more punch, I think, since there were times when I felt that character's speeches went on a bit long and needed more interplay rather than soliloquy, but my irritation when a character gets long-winded pales in comparison to the creativity behind the big revelations, as well as the personal moments for your selected characters as they fight through their personal struggles and support each other as they press onward.
For those who were never really interested in story, there's very little that actually needs to be read. The dialogues help you understand the conflict and the secrets of the world, making the fight meaningful, but there is also a handy skip button if you want to get straight to combat (or have died and need to get past this part to battle the enemy again). The progression of the game is fairly point-to-point, too. Branching paths usually converge by the end of the chapter in time to fight the end boss, although there are some places, if left unexplored, may be permanently left behind (some places reward your willingness to explore with some nice equipment and combat experience, so it may be a good idea to be thorough).
Battle itself is where you'll spend a lot of your time. When exploring a wilderness region you will happen upon one or more enemies. Combat begins and what reminds me of the old Active Time Battle system used in some Final Fantasy games counts up to a player's turn to act. You can pause at any time to select different actions for each of your characters, and between battles you can set up lists of actions that you characters can perform in tandem with each other. This is recommended for certain sequences of actions, but it's not necessary to play (although there's a chance I'm missing some extra subtlety in the combat system, since I was only able to beat the game on Normal difficulty). When the character is ready to go, they act automatically, although you can hold them back if waiting to attack will have some extra benefit (this can often be the case).
While I often prefer games that pause automatically so I can consider moves, I got immense satisfaction from figuring out what would be the best approach and executing it, although sometimes I would make mistakes and botch a coordinated effort. Attacks that happen relatively simultaneously do more damage, as the percentage multiplier for damage on a target goes up with every hit. This holds true for your own troops as well, so you will sometimes shift party order to prevent one character from going down. No character is permanently out of the action, though: as long as at least one of your team is standing, your other characters will eventually revive, making for some tense moments when you're trying to hold out a second or two longer, or trying to eliminate the remaining enemy creature to prevent another from returning to the fight.
What could have been a pretty stale and straightforward system is made much more interesting by the variety of enemies, battlefield conditions, types of damage, and status of individual party members. In every region there is some difference, and some enemy has a new weakness or strength. Player characters will sometimes have moods that add or subtract to their damage or defense depending on the story (anger's my favorite, since it adds to attack), and certain areas will reduce visibility or prevent attacks that need a lot of space to activate. Damage comes in several types, and examining enemies with a mouse-over will tell you their relative protection against those attacks (though some enemies can alter their defenses by changing form or posture).
... and Character Advancement
After a battle you're awarded experience, and if you get enough experience, your entire party levels. You can allot 1 point per level into any of your available skills. The advantage of raising a skill curves downward over time, though, and there is a skill cap based on your current level, so this game actually encourages you to put points into many skills, rather than dumping them into a few. I really like this and it actually is an advantage in combat, because you may be surprised by a new enemy's resistance to your favorite skill set.
It's interesting to note that when progressing in a level, if you're not strong enough, you should just go to a save point, attack the next enemy group, then go back and save, then progress further. Unlike in grind-fest games that I've played, this natural way to progress through a level felt like I was actually getting somewhere. If I happened to die, I would load it with all the experience from my last save. The enemies would be replaced, but I would soon level and be stronger. If the tactics I was using, and the skills I had put points into, were not adequate, there's a buy-back feature that allows you, at the expense of a different pool of points, redistribute skill points, effectively allowing you to rebuild your character from scratch, which I used to my fullest advantage toward the end of the game.
Richness in Content, Some of It Buried
The sheer variety of locations, characters, and enemies, as well as performance enhancing equipment, are a joy to see-- it must have been a ton of work for the game's main designer, Mark Pay. The other major contributor is Josh Whelchel, responsible for some of the best music I've heard in gaming. Many of the songs would force me to pause and just listen, rather than advance the story, they were so good. The amount of work that went into this game, especially since it was basically a two-man enterprise, continued to astonish me.
Some of the effort wound up being a bit painful to me because it felt wasted, especially with the journal entries, which I kept forgetting to read, but which detailed each character's private thoughts about the task at hand. If you don't read them, I'm not sure if there's any way to page back and read what you missed, so if you're interested in that you'd best be careful to check between major story points and tasks. You also get the facial expressions of the current character speaking in the left-hand corner next to their dialogue, but I only noticed mid-way through the game that the expressions of the characters in the main screen ALSO change. I'd felt like I missed out by just reading the text, but it wasn't natural for me to look up at the characters and then down at the text again, so I stuck with the portraits for the most part.
I also was a bit taxed by the combat system at times, which was not optimally layed out. You need to configure ahead of time certain skills, lest they not behave the way you want them to, but my particular nature meant that I'd always forget to do that upon loading up again. Just remember that targeted skills have to be paid particular attention when configuring them to get their full potential. I could have used a bit more of a tutorial than the skim-and-you-miss-it tutorial at the beginning, too. At times I felt as though I wasn't using the combat system optimally, but I played well enough to beat most of the game on Hard, switching down to Normal (and even Easy at one point) because I just wasn't up to the task of defeating a particular challenge or boss.
The satisfaction of successfully combining my heroes' attacks into combinations that would defeat enemies, and the unconventional story and beautiful music, made all of these flaws sort of disappear in hindsight. At times I would be frustrated by combat, but I would just go at it again, trying out new theories in the hopes of winning. Since I didn't lock the difficulty down at the start of the game, I could switch difficulty between battles if it became too much for me, something I only needed to do toward the end.
When the Dust Settles
I'm tempted right now to start a new game, after having beaten the game with Denever, PyanPau, and Ionae. While I don't know how much each of the characters will vary, I know their backstories cannot go to the weird places as Ionae's past, the sentimental places for Denever, or the slightly weird but humble PyanPau's personal quest, but my connection to those characters makes me realize that the story was strong enough that even if others may never play this game with that combination of characters, the game felt like it was made for them. If nothing else it's a testament to the care Mark Pay put into weaving the different character archetypes together.
If any of this sounded at all appealing, I'd suggest you check it out. Mark recently released The Spirit Engine 2 as freeware, but he is still accepting donations on the game's main page. Mark Pay and Josh Whelchel (and the quality control folks) certainly deserve, at the very least, more attention than they got for this game, and I hope that they got enough return on their investment of time and effort that this won't be the last we see of their work. Well done, everyone!