Platforms: PSN (reviewed) | Android
Die hard fans of the Japanese games industry have often had to look from farther shores with tears in their eyes as the news drifts across that the rather obscure JRPG for which they've had a desire won't be reaching these shores any time soon. Hopefully, if Ghostlight are to have anything to do with it, that might well change. They already busying themselves trying to bring Persona 3 over to European shores, but they've kicked off by lobbing us a slice of tactical RPG action in the form of Idea Factory's Spectral Souls.
Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires is five year's old and this re-release, now brought back to the PSP in digital form at a vastly reduced price and shimmying its way onto Android phones, might come as some surprise. The Japanese tactical RPG is also not exactly the most sweepingly popular of genres, but then perhaps that is the point. There's some serious appeal here for anyone who went nuts for the fantastic Final fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions.
Those who did their reading, or happened upon a playable import version, might be somewhat surprised that I'm talking about Spectral Souls in such terms; it hardly delivered an emphatic statement of quality five years back. But the large problem with that release wasn't so much the game itself, but rather that the developers had determined that in order to play it you'd be tortured with endless streams of delays and loading screens. It wasn't so much a game as an exercise in morale sapping.
Early UMD-driven titles had one major thing in common: they all took what seemed like decades to load anything. Thankfully now, in this age of digital distribution, a great deal of those problems have been smoothed out.
Spectral Souls sets you down in a world called Neverland...no, not the one with flying children and Captain Hook. In fact, you can throw childish concerns out of the window right now. Just because it looks all cutesy doesn't mean this is a game geared towards kids. In fact across its substantial plot there are all sort of dark twists and turns and plenty of wartime misery, just like War of the Lions.
The human race has been subjugated by a legion of oppressive demons, although there are still flashes of rebellion here and there, usually crushed with punitive force. There's a veritable plethora of paperwork and towers of treaties to prevent full scale warfare, but tensions have been building for some time and, when an episode of demonic retribution involving burning and sacking several villages comes to light, it ignites the touchpaper of revolution that will become the Seven Years War.
It's actually rather good that you don't have to choose who to side with right at the outset. In fact, you'll jump back and forth between the demonic Imperial Neverland Army and the human Reformed Simba Empire, and also a third faction attempting to act as a peacebroker. You will have to make decisions when it comes to certain Historical events, however, and those choices will have consequences, opening up some missions, varying the storyline and closing of certain future options too.
Anyone who's ever dived headfirst into the addictive swamp of tactical JRPGs will be right at home here, in fact Spectral Souls does a brilliant job of remaining accessible to both fans and newcomers alike. If anything the truly hardcore might come away from the initial few hours a little unsatisfied, the game eschewing the genre's usual obscene difficulty curves for something rather more approachable. If you like your JSRPGs to be vein-poppingly frustrating then this won't be for you, although curious parties who've always been interested yet have never taken the plunge might do well to explore the reduced price and take a chance.
The battle system will be instantly familiar to fans, however: choose your fighters before the battle, check out the win-lose mission directives and then engage in some turn-based cerebral fun. Every single action in the game is considered a skill, with all possible actions, move and attacks, are governed by Action Points, the turns determined by an active time gauge along the top of the screen.
Hold and Charge are the commands that bring a little spice to the battlefield in this game. Hold essentially allows you to defer attacks, storing them up - and you can Hold more than one attack simultaneously, allowing for combined damage effects - for far greater damage. Charge, meanwhile, allows you to do something similar, but across characters. You set up the attacks you want to execute upon a target but defer them until another member of the party lands a blow on the target allowing for attack chains. Being an impatient fellow, I decided to ignore Charge for most of the early stages of the game, but it certainly comes in handy when it comes to dispatching overpowered foes as the attack chains are the only moves that can really do significant damage!
The rage and frustration of five years ago, born out of technical nightmares and infuriating load times, has no place here any longer. Moreover, this is something of a coup for Android users, with Spectral Souls making for by far the largest App ever seen on the system. It's something that I think will only continue to grow - releasing larger games around the £10 mark - and it looks great on an HTC Desire, far better in fact than on PSP. We can only wait to see how many developers follow suit, but for the good of the mobile market (not so much for Sony and Nintendo perhaps, though) I hope it gets pushed further.
On the PSP, though, the game finally finds its feet on European shores in a far better (and cheaper) state than it did half a decade ago. No, it's not a hugely original game, and in a genre this sparse that can either be forgiveable or an atrocity, but I'm inclined to give Spectral Souls the benefit of the doubt.
- Pleasantly accessible tactical JRPG
- Sprawling, diverse and twisting story
- Skill customisation very satisfying indeed
- Perhaps not challenging enough for hardcore fans
- Not much here that we haven't already seen elsewhere
- In spite of toning down the difficulty, will probably still baffle genre newbies.
The Short Version: The arrival of Spectral Souls on European shores is one that will only really appeal to a niche audience, but that's fine. You can forget the scares of five years ago, with the technical worries and load times fixed, Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires reveals itself to be a perfectly solid tactical JRPG and finds a home on the mobile platform that firmly bests any of its console incarnations.