You know what makes me laugh? When an independent developer, with no budget, is able to release a freeware RPG that is more playable and enjoyable than some high-profile RPG. Nowhere does this happen more commonly than on the PC, where freeware thrives and indie developers are itching to turn their dreams into reality. One such example is Mark Pay’s project “The Spirit Engine.”
Now, by Mark’s own admission, creating this game was something of a guinea pig experiment, hence why it’s offered as a free title. Its sequel offers significant improvements, so interested gamers might want to skip this title and head straight for The Spirit Engine 2. However, playing through this game makes for a good case study, and it’s also a fun, if unrefined, experience all its own.
After choosing your three characters (from a selection of nine, each with their own background story and unique dialogue), you’re treated to a prologue sequence where some sort of mysterious corporation is working in a mine shaft to recover some precious “material” … which turns out to be a hideous monster. After some enigmatic dialogue, you then get some “opening sequences” for the three characters you chose. In each scenario, the character is in their hometown, interacting with some friend or foe, in some key moment of their lives, when suddenly a beam of light shines over them and they’re snatched up into the sky! When each of the three characters reappear, they meet…each other. And of course, they’re all shocked. They’re also in the presence of a glowing fairy who refuses to speak, but seems to be leading them on. Thus begins “The Spirit Engine.”
The best thing about this game’s plot is definitely the script. Well-written, mostly-error-free dialogue helps to breathe life into the playable and nonplayable characters. The villains are wacky, the villagers are genuine (though sometimes shady), and there’s plenty of text to read if you care to go through it all. Otherwise, though the plot of TSE saves its big surprise for the end, it’s not as big a reveal as I expected it to be. The game’s plot arc is also fairly short, and you’re basically going through a series of “save the day” mini-missions until the end.
All movement, be it exploration or combat, takes place on a 2D side-scrolling field. For a game that looks like it was designed in MS Paint, it is quite detailed. The environments generally aren’t “looped,” and the character sprites are good, with minimal palette-swapping on NPCs and monsters. Battle animations, however, are subpar, even for an indie freeware title.
Also, the game is built using fairly primitive tools. Some of the menus use Windows-classic-style radio buttons and dropdown menus with a white background, as though you’re in a utility program instead of in a game. This detracts from the feel of the strange fantasy world and puts you back into an “oh, I’m working in Windows” mentality. Another problem is that you can’t change the size of the window. The image is about 500 pixels wide, and that’s all the more detail you’re going to get.
The Spirit Engine is a simple, rudimentary RPG with combat mechanics similar to Final Fantasy XII and a character growth system akin to most Western RPGs. Battles take place in non-town environments, and you can see the monsters on the field. Once you approach them, the battle automatically starts. Your characters will fight automatically using one of three skill chains: attack, defend, or restore. Within each skill chain, you can set up to three abilities for your character to repeat over and over. Mages can put up physical/magic shields to block hits as a defensive, or cast spells. Riflemen can heal themselves for defense, or they can do some mighty destructive stuff with a gun in hand. The third class, the “priest” class, also wields a gun but does better with defense/restorative skills. As the battle rages on, you can click on attack, defend, or restore icons for each of your three characters to change their actions. You can even go into the menu (which pauses the game) and adjust the skill chains as you see fit. Every action your characters take cost 1 or more points from a mana pool. When that pool reaches zero, characters must use “restore” (which takes a turn) to regain mana points. Priests also learn an ability to help restore mana, and you can get equipment that conserves, increases, or auto-restores mana for your characters. There are no consumable items in The Spirit Engine.
Character growth is fairly straightforward. Every time you gain a level, you get a point to assign to a certain trait or skill. You can boost your HP, your mana pool, your basic physical/magical attacks, and each of your advanced skills (each character has about 6 of these; they are unlocked as you level up). Alongside the one point you get to assign, all basic stats are increased with each level. Also, as you progress in the game, the shops in town offer more powerful equipment, though equipment is usually priced quite high.
The problem? A lack of balance. There is only one path to victory in this game, and it’s level-grinding. Every significant event I ran into during the game, and sometimes even just entering a new area with harder monsters, forced me to turn back and level-grind for as long as one hour before I could progress. With the variations in character class, skills, and equipment, one would think the nature of the game would allow for you to progress through these areas by customizing your character instead of just level-grinding. Indeed, this is what Mark pay had intended, since different foes are weak to different types of attack (physical, magic, or energy). Using these strategies is important, but ultimately, you cannot beat this game without doing a lot of repetitious fighting.
My least favorite thing about The Spirit Engine is the forced use of the mouse. I love hotkeys, and I’d prefer to use the keyboard 100% of the time while playing. While you can use the keyboard, the interface is designed such that mouse-based play is the only effective way to go, particularly in combat. I did not appreciate this facet of the game.
Josh Whelchel is one of the best things to happen to indie VGM in a long, long time. His score for The Spirit Engine is simply fantastic. Whelchel intentionally goes for a retro, synth-filled soundscape to match the dated graphics and traditional gameplay. However, from track to track, you are left wondering whether Whelchel’s primary influence is a Japanese composer (such as Uematsu) or a Western composer (such as Soule). This blending of east and west VGM styles is all a part of what makes his soundtrack so great. Truth be told, it was the soundtrack that first got me interested in the game, and it’s still my favorite aspect of the game.
As I said at the beginning of the review, you’re probably better off purchasing The Spirit Engine 2. But if you want a free game, one that gives you a basic feel for what you’ll experience in the much-improved sequel, you have nothing to lose (other than time and a bit of hard drive space). I enjoyed playing through the game, but its remaining so unrefined hurts it on an objective level. Fans of independent developers will almost definitely enjoying messing around with this game, but “mainstream” gamers may not see what’s so special about it. The sequel, however, might just win over even the most eye-candy-addicted Square Enix nut of an RPG Fan.