Five years ago, as a younger lad with a small budget and an unending hankering for good games, I would scour the internet searching for quality freeware. Generally my searches ended in failure; though such games existed, they often had no story and little depth. One of the few games that caught my attention, though, was The Spirit Engine. It looked polished (for the time) and had the feel of a late SNES RPG – the perfect combination. Although my interest waned over the course of several hours, and I did not complete it (though I now intend to), it was a refreshing experience for the same reasons for which I will now laud its successor.
On finding out The Spirit Engine 2 even existed several days ago, nostalgia for the original drove me to look into it. That night, I would buy it. The following week, I played it religiously. It managed to win out over any interest in Dragon Quest IV or Mount&Blade – two games whose release I had been eagerly anticipating – and was the only game I played for the entire week (with the exception of half an hour).
TSE2 is filled with signs warning the player not to talk to strangers, because they could be (and often are) filthy terrorist spies. Truly a contemporary lesson.
When I think of “Indie” games, I often think of unpolished, raw ideas – essentially concepts for games that don’t have the depth and scale that a large budget can afford. Even Mount&Blade, an indie game I have praised much in the past (and will likely do so again soon in a review of the final release), does not have more than a sprinkling of flavor to its world. TSE2 completely dispels this idea in my mind; not only is it polished, it is much more so than many of its retail counterparts.
Like its predecessor, TSE2 is an entirely 2-dimensional RPG. Perhaps the most original aspect of its plot is the decision the player is initially faced with: choosing his 3-character party. Not all combinations are possible – in all, 27 may be done but only 6 result in a “balanced” party of gunner, knight, and priest. All characters, however, are interesting in some way. I have played through the game twice, and although the main plot thread does not change, much of the game’s flavor is in characters’ reactions to events – told both via dialogue and journals each character keeps. Choosing one’s party is a fantastic idea, and I would love to see it done more often since it allows the player to choose which sub-plots will be told. Perhaps as a result, I feel a stronger attachment to certain characters than I would expect of a game of TSE2′s length. If choosing the characters weren’t enough, the characters break the age-old RPG requirements; there are in fact no characters younger than 20, and there are three above the age of 40.
The polish in The Spirit Engine 2 is readily apparent minutes after starting the game. Every NPC – no matter how insignificant – has a moderately detailed portrait and a name. Many of these faces are never seen again, but their mere presence gives the world a much richer feel. The dialogue from many of the townspeople is quite entertaining – for example, one shopkeeper early on talks about the grand conspiracies of the government and credits his lead-lined cap and avoidance of tapwater for keeping him free of their wily influences. The plot is well-written, and although it does not completely avoid cliches, neither does it cling to them. It may not be life-changing (I have yet to see such a game), but the story is one of the biggest hooks that kept me playing.
Jaques Zerau cannot be trusted, of course, because his name is French. Yet another contemporary lesson.
Unfortunately, this polish also reveals one of the flaws inherent in the game. Though there is so much effort given to places, towns, people, and so on… there is actually very little “extra” to find. Sidequests are, for better or for worse, a staple of RPGs and are completely missing in this game. Though many sub-events are dependent on character choices, the only rewards for exploration are a few more random battles and some equipment that will be outdated within an hour. Though it has replay value due to character choice, many times the characters make similar decisions (though for different reasons). It says a lot about TSE2 that my main complaint is that there wasn’t enough of it.
Combat in TSE2 is hands-off but requires management. It strikes a balance between pre-programming movesets and shifting character positions and actions to account for the enemy’s attacks. Each character class has a set of moves available to it; these vary from standard attack and recovery moves to some fairly unusual support-type moves. Each class has a well-defined role, but can act as either an attacker or a defender as the situation dictates. As the party levels up, skill points can be used to improve moves – although using these points will solidify a character for certain situations, they do not “overpower” that skill, and a balance is still required on the higher difficulty levels. For those who don’t want to think too hard, Easy is pretty much a breeze; I played most of my first game on Normal, which gives a solid challenge throughout. Regular enemy fights are short, but an unprepared party may be routed quickly. Boss fights feel about the right length (5-10 minutes, with some exceptions) and require plenty of strategy – though it is relatively easy to recover from bad situations.
Thankfully, Rogues are not overpowered in TSE2. Four-leaf clovers, however, are.
Music is another area where TSE2 shines. It features a 3-hour soundtrack – for a game not much more than three times that length – that is incredibly well done given it was made by one composer in his free time. It complements every area of the game, from bombastic themes for military outposts to the sorrowful background music of an abandoned city. I have purchased the soundtrack and listened to it a few times already, and doubt I will be bored of it anytime soon. There is a depth to the music of TSE2 that I would certainly not have expected, and I hope that Josh Whelchel continues to create such great music.
The Spirit Engine 2 has gripped me more than any PC RPG in years. Even if it did this by being linear and JRPG (in the classic, SNES-style sense) in feel, it bucks many a trend that deserves bucking, tells a story which is detailed and more entertaining than many a fantasy novel, and is all-round a great ride. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the primary star of the game – Mark Pay created every non-music aspect of this game. Needless to say he has my admiration for creating not only a great game, but an entertaining story and an incredibly well-balanced battle system. If he can continue making RPGs of such caliber, he will go far in the gaming industry.
TSE2 may be purchased at http://www.thespiritengine.com/ for a reasonable price. It also has a sizable demo I have already used to hook one unsuspecting friend.