The first Spirit Engine was an acceptable game. It was difficult, with a lot of unbalanced gameplay, and the graphics were on the weaker side (even MS Paint gurus can do better). But then again, it was also freeware made in 2003, and can be understood as a guinea pig to something greater: its sequel.
That’s right. Despite maintaining the same meager staff size (one full-time designer and one music composer), Natomic produced The Spirit Engine 2, a game that is so far removed from its predecessor in terms of quality that it deserves to be paid for. And so it is: The Spirit Engine 2 is not freeware. You can download it, or reserve a CD copy, for a relatively low price (under $20 last I checked). But is it worth paying for? After all, it’s still a 2D, side-scrolling RPG from a one-man developer and a small track record.
[Editor’s Note: The Spirit Engine 2 was released as freeware in 2011.]
I’m here to tell you that, yes, it is worth it. For me, there was no question. This was a fantastic game. And before anyone starts throwing out wild accusations, I’d like to say the following: 1) No, no one is paying me to support this game; 2) No, I’m not friends with the developers; 3) Yes, this game was more entertaining than at least two thirds of the RPGs I played in 2008.
Does that get your attention? I hope so. Now it’s time to learn about what makes this game so great…
With the exception of some QA Testers, and the music composer (Josh Whelchel), this entire game was the work of a man named Mark Pay. Mark wrote the entire scenario and all of the dialogue. Mark singlehandedly did all of the graphics. Mark even did all of the programming to make this fantasy world come to life. Clearly, this guy is a powerhouse of talent and creativity.
Unlike Mark, who took on this game as a solo mission, you as the player will control three characters. Like the first Spirit Engine, you begin the game by selecting your three characters from a pool of nine. The way in which these characters are dispersed is genius. You get to choose one character from each of three rows. These rows are not limited by class, but by general plot; that is, while each character has a specific scenario, there are three “roles” that need to be played to keep continuity in the story. In each of these rows, there is one of each class type. Following the warrior/rogue/mage paradigm, you have knights, hunters, and clerics. You can choose to make your party of three into a balanced group, or all three characters as the same job, or two of one job and one of another. The possibilities are large, but the linear plot does not suffer. Now that’s impressive.
The other thing you decide at the beginning of the game is the difficulty level. Here, again, Mark’s decision-making is genius. There are four difficulty modes: easy, normal, hard, and absurd. That’s nothing too special. But here’s the novel part, something that console RPG makers need to imitate: the “lock” or “unlock” option. When you start your game, you have the choice to either lock in the starting difficulty, or leave it unlocked so you can experiment with difficulty as you progress through the game. I personally locked myself into Easy for my first playthrough, but the game recommends leaving this option unlocked if you’re new to the game. But it turns out that I’m not very good at this semi-real-time battle stuff, so I was happy with my decision.
Instead of the first Spirit Engine’s opening, where the three characters were magically transported to the same spot with no explanation, the heroes of Spirit Engine 2 meet up in a forest by chance. And their encounter is an intense one–the three strangers all find themselves wandering through the forest outside town for different reasons, but they are drawn together when two children are kidnapped by a cult that plans to murder them. You chase after the children to find that one has already been mercilessly slaughtered by the assassin-like cult, but you manage to save the other. The young girl, Isabelle, is then entrusted to the care of the three strangers, who will grow to trust each other whether they want to or not in a quest that starts small and gets more and more epic as each hour of gameplay passes.
Speaking of hours, the game isn’t too incredibly long. On Easy, from beginning to end, the game took me 12 hours to complete. Harder difficulties may require some level-grinding, but the plot arc remains similar each time around. It is definitely worth playing through more than once, so it seems perfect to me that the game only takes about 10 hours to finish. The world and the scope of the game felt much larger, and I was surprised that my total time was so short.
Myth and Morality
One aspect of this game that really drew me in is the attention to detail given to the plot. Mark Pay’s writing is decent, in terms of dialogue, but where this game really shines is in the world itself. In this game, there are two major nations that have fought in the past but are currently holding peace. You start your game in the Lereftain nation, and the soldiers of the country are quick to assume that the Keeper cult operates out of Yaegara, the opposing nation. However, your party is quick to discern that neither country is evil, though war is still likely since relations are fragile. The political intrigue is fantastic, and the plot includes spies, ancient secrets, as well as the aforementioned cult of assassins.
It seems that Mark was trying to subtly put a message out there, but it isn’t a happy one. What we see here is the tragic vision, the requirement of compromise, and the foolhardiness of humanity. I am very quickly reminded of a Shakespearian play when I recall the events of The Spirit Engine 2. Except, unlike Shakespeare, Pay’s medieval fantasy world includes some very imaginative extra-terrestrial creatures that bring a very important slant to the plot. I don’t want to give anything away. Just play the game and learn.
Your characters have a variety of personal worldviews that are reformed and shape to (almost) match one another by the game’s end. There are no easy answers in this world; it’s like a hostage situation further twisted by the possibility that the hostile parties are actually acting in favor of that nebulous term, “the greater good.”
Turtles and Rabbits and Cheetahs, Oh My!
Like its predecessor, The Spirit Engine 2 starts up a real-time battle as soon as you encounter a foe. However, instead of TSE1’s “mana pool” system, TSE2 works on a modified Active Time Battle. You automatically act based on whatever action is selected as soon as you’ve built up enough action time to perform the skill. However, you can also pause, which lets your action gauge build a little more, and when you unpause, you’ll not start from the beginning of the ATB bar, but be somewhere in the middle, meaning you can perform two actions in quick succession. This is very important for many battles, because some enemies will fly off the screen, dig underground, or put up temporary barriers. If you’re careful, you can avoid these pitfalls to fight successfully.
The pace of battle is completely under your control at all times. You can pause the action or set the pace to one of three modes, represented by the animals in the bottom-right of the screen. In my mind, the pace and balance of the battles are nearly perfect. It was one of the best combat experiences I’ve had among PC RPGs. Mark Pay did an excellent job programming this.
As I said in my review of TSE1, my introduction to this series was through its score, written by Josh Whelchel. And while TSE1’s score is excellent, and even though many themes from TSE1 are carried over, there’s no question that this soundtrack dominates compared to its predecessor. The full soundtrack is a four disc set. There is some excellent music in this game, including a vocal performance that is used with a variety of harmonic backgrounds at different points in the game. I believe the young lady is singing in Latin, but I am not sure. One form of this song is entitled “Hymn of Death,” and its placement in the game is absolutely brilliant! The game is great, but it would be utterly lacking in presentation without Whelchel’s beautiful and moving music.
Whelchel also produced the game’s sound effects and was generally in charge of all audio. I doubt that Whelchel would be able to make a game on his own, but I will say that I would enjoy Mark Pay’s games much less if he had chosen a mediocre composer instead of the excellent Josh Whelchel. (Again, no one’s paying me to say this; I just feel very strongly about this game and its music.)
I think it’s great that there are many freeware RPGs out there, but it’s also important to support the indie developers who have put so much time and effort into their project. The span of time from TSE1 to TSE2 was five years, and in that time Mark Pay and Josh Whelchel put in enough work that their effort deserves, at the very least, some meager compensation. They offer a free demo, and I offer you my opinion as a veteran in the RPG industry: this game is tons of fun. Yes, it’s short. Yes, the graphics are dated. But for such a small development staff, and considering how perfectly they managed to balance the action with the plot, I don’t see why you wouldn’t at least want to try the game. Hopefully, TSE2 receives enough support that a third game will come earlier than 2013.