"It’s all but impossible to talk about Spectral Souls without coming back to those load times. They affect the experience that much and you’re never far from their next appearance. So insidious are they that any joy you might have felt is sucked out of your very soul."
The primary load screen in Spectral Souls is pure black, except for some lettering on the lower right corner. The letters there are white, rimmed by a dark blue the color of a lake in the moonlight. Very sleek. If you look at them long enough, you’ll notice little flashes of light dancing across their top, as if reflecting light from fairies dancing over the glass-like surface of a pond. At first, I thought there was a bit of green, but really it was just the flicker playing tricks on my eyes.
Sometimes the load screen isn’t black, like when you’re in a battle and your character has just made a move. As you wait for the enemy to act and the game pauses for several seconds while the words ‘disc access’ flicker anew in the lower right corner, you won’t have to stare at the lifeless black canvas. Instead, you can admire the three-dimensional battlefield. Weatherworn lines give each building character. A cluster of leaves turns a tree from a static part of the environment into one more sign that you’re battling through a real world, through streets in a town where people live and die. That doesn’t disappear, so you’re never quite pulled out of the illusion that you’re truly at the center of an amazing world.
Except amazing worlds don’t have the words ‘disc access’ hanging all over the place, and Spectral Souls does. Whether you have to put up with the black screen or not, they dog your tracks at every turn. Every time you engage in conversation, there’s a lag between word bubbles while the UMD loads the intense graphics necessary to display simple text. Each time you slash an enemy and end your turn, there’s a wait first for the active timer to determine who gets to go next, then while the game decides what attack your rival will use and loads the animation.
This is after you sit through the 20 seconds or so that preface each battle, mind you. It’s after you’ve waited that long and more to reach the damn title screen, while ethereal text floats through the air and thanks you for playing a game from Idea Factory.
It’s all but impossible to talk about Spectral Souls without coming back to those load times. They affect the experience that much and you’re never far from their next appearance. So insidious are they that any joy you might have felt is sucked out of your very soul. You shouldn’t have to put up with a pause after every battle animation, the irritating passage of time when you choose to access a new menu or check what distance your characters can move (something you do just about every turn, what with this being a strategy RPG). What were you waiting for all those seconds the battlefield took to load, if not for the promise of a fight uninterrupted by constant reminders that you’re merely playing a game?
I don’t know, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone really does. Certainly the developers don’t, or they wouldn’t have created a project with such a crippling flaw. The people over at NIS America seem to be just as stymied as anyone else. They’ve as much as admitted that the load times are horrible, and asked for our patience because the release we got is improved over the original product.
It’s easy enough to admire their intentions, but Spectral Souls is a game and at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if you’re really ready to spend $40 on interactive entertainment where you literally spend more time on load menus than you do engaged in thrilling combat. Good intentions can only take a game so far, and then you get to play whatever’s left. So, what might that be?
Whatever it is, at least it has nice graphics. Battlefields really do look quite good. They’re not visual stunners, but I admire the level of detail. Even when you’re just standing around talking, there are nice little touches like flames dancing in the dim lighting cast by a cloudy sky. Likewise, the sprites are every bit as detailed and expressive as you would expect from the publisher of games such as Atelier Iris and Disgaea. Truly, they are, and they’re accompanied by artwork that lets you get to know each star character all the better. Whenever something is actually happening on screen, there’s no doubt you’re playing a game some talented and creative folks enjoyed making.
The sound is similarly polished, from the rock-infused title track you hear after that first 30-second load screen to the stirring chords that lend each battle a sense of urgency and grandeur. There’s no voice acting, sure, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it means each bit of dialogue takes only two seconds to load instead of five.
I could go on describing the positive traits, of course, until I sound like something out of an infomercial. There’s a fascinating storyline. Multiple endings are available depending on how you play, and you’ll meet all sorts of fascinating characters that add to the experience in precisely the manner you would expect. Combat is rich with options like charge attacks and combo moves, so you really need to plan carefully if you want to remain victorious throughout your lengthy adventure. There was so much potential here that it’s heartbreaking. This game could have been--should have been--fantastic.
The load times ruin all of that, though, like paper cuts ruin the latest issue of your favorite magazine. Every time you start to care, there’s a pause. Each time a battle starts to get exciting, there’s an exasperating delay. When a fight begins, when it ends and everywhere in between, you’re staring at the words ‘disc access’ and growing less fond of it every time you see it. Somewhere, there’s the media that can hold this game and the system to run it, but the UMD and the PSP are just plain insufficient. Thus, the score I would have liked to designate to Spectral Souls is cut cleanly in half by load times that take out half the fun. It’s simple math.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 26, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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