All it takes is one event to change your life. That's what you're about to discover in The Spirit Engine 2, a recently-made-free RPG presented in a side-scrolling format. One dark night, you stumble across a prone figure in the middle of the road, and choosing to do "the right thing" could mean more than you think. With nine chapters, nine distinct party members to choose from, and a complex battle system, The Spirit Engine 2 will carry you across a strange and dangerous world. When cults with frightening agendas, violent beasts, and shady characters start roaming the land, the smart thing to do would be to stay indoors. But then, who says you have to do the smart thing? The game is more of an evolution than a direct sequel to the original Spirit Engine, and you don't need to have played the first to pick this one up.
The game can be played either with keyboard and hotkeys or with the mouse, and a lengthy in-game tutorial serves to acquaint you with the finer aspects of Spirit Engine-ry. You'll start out by selecting your three party members; ideally, you'll want to take along a mercenary, a knight, and a healer, and you'll have several options for each class. Read the biographies for each character and pick whoever you like best, since for the most part all characters in a given class will share the same abilities.
While battles are still turn-based, they play out automatically; all you need to do is select an action for each of your characters from a list, and they'll perform it until you choose another. In between battles, you'll soon find yourself travelling with a full party, and each of them is only to happy to share their thoughts on the situation. You can read what they think in their personal journals from the party menu, or you can click on their flashing character portrait when they have something to say. Seen a conversation before or simply impatient to get to the next encounter? Then hit the "Skip" button during dialogue and fast forward through it.
Analysis: I've always believed that linearity isn't a bad thing; in fact, in a setting where you want to tell a specific story as cleanly as possible, it's the best choice. Some players are going to be put off by how the game railroads them through the plot with limited interactivity. The game is well written, if a little stiff in places, and tells a story that feels suitably epic, with a diverse cast to provide depth. The downside is that for the most part, that depth is only an illusion after a certain point. You'll start to notice that regardless of your party members, most conversations are virtually identical, just phrased slightly differently from character to character. This isn't a bad thing, but it is a little disappointing since any replays wind up feeling a bit stale and lacking the mystery of the first playthrough.
It seems like the crippling blow for a lot of indie RPGs is the inclusion of turn-based combat. In an effort to get out from under that label and appeal to a broad audience, The Spirit Engine 2 winds up tripping itself up a bit. The side-scrolling set-up of the game would have been perfectly suited to a real-time combat system such as the one found in the Tales series. What we get instead is at once overcomplicated and a little boring; there's a tangled wealth of customisation available for tactics, but you won't ever really need any of it since you can just set two characters to battle, one to heal, and wander off for a while until you inevitably win. It's especially tedious since even on the highest speed setting fights can drag on due to regenerating enemies. Of course, your party automatically regenerate when they fall too, but it still turns what would be a quick encounter into a drawn out ordeal.
But whatever issues you may take with the game's mechanics, you can't fault its quality. It's a stunner with its rich colours, lush backgrounds, and expressive characters. Visiting each new locale is a joy, and the diversity serves to make the world feel larger and more realistic. Well, as realistic as a world with magically regenerating feathered carnivorous plants can be, anyway. And populating that world is a cast of genuinely interesting characters in a plot that, while slow to start, clearly has a lot of love and thought in its crafting. It's unfortunate that you don't really get a chance to explore it as deeply as you might like, since everything happens on a strict schedule with none of the typical "wander through a town and talk to unimportant characters" fare you might expect from an RPG.
While the game may take a while to sink its claws into you, its a stunningly professional product from a very small development team. Despite a few hiccups in its design, the end result is a big, beautiful adventure that any RPG fan should check out.
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