The Spirit Engine is a side-scrolling RPG complete with shops, towns, turn-based combat, and just about everything you'd expect from an RPG... except a good story, side-quests, and everything you'd expect from an RPG.
I'm having a hard time writing such a bad review because I actually enjoyed The Spirit Engine to a pretty good degree. But it's one of those games that seems great until you step back and realize how little you really care about playing it.
The Spirit Engine starts out with you selecting a three character party from a possible nine characters, though each is restricted to what position in the party they belong, so you have 27 possible combinations as opposed to the 81 you may have expected. You'll see what I mean when you play it.
What characters you pick seem to have a slight impact on the dialogue throughout the game, however, it seems like each position in the party shares the same general attitude. For instance, I had a cowboy as team leader the first time, and he seemed like a very arrogant and mean little fella. So I restarted the game just to see what would happen if I had picked a mage for the leader. No surprise, he had slightly different dialogue, but he was angry too!
It's cool to see the intro cut-scenes change depending on the party you choose, as each character has their own 30 second cut-scene depicting their life before they're "zapped" away to a far away land. Yeah, you read that right, the story revolves around the three characters you choose being magically teleported to one spot and told they're the last hope of the world, etc...
The story of The Spirit Engine is about as interesting as watching paint dry. It's entirely cliche other than the fact that you're being guided by a mysterious "Spirit" that floats around the party and otherwise plays no significant role. Yeah, the Spirit helps spur on the "quest", but it's more of a literary decoration than anything else.
Ok, so who cares about story? Let's get to the combat! I'll admit that The Spirit Engine boasts a pretty unique combat system. Characters are lined up against enemies and automatically take turns attacking. Some attacks target the second or third man in line, while some attack all of them, but for the most part, the lead man takes all of the damage. It sounds weird, until I mention that you can cycle out the man in front with a click of a button. This creates a unique strategy where you can anticipate the next attack and quickly cycle in someone with enough HP to survive it. It's hard to picture what I'm talking about, so you can glance at Screenshot 3 to get a better idea.
OK, so the battle system seems cool, but how do you control what attacks your characters use? This is The Spirit Engine's downfall. You have to predefine attack "cycles" which consist of three attacks chosen by you. You can have up to three different cycles to choose from and can switch which one each character uses with a quick click of the mouse during battle.
The issue though, is that when you switch cycles, it resets the current "attack". So imagine you have one cycle with Heal, Attack, Heal, and another with Heal, Magic, Heal. If your player has just finished casting Heal and is about to Attack and you decide you want to hit with Magic, you may switch to the cycle with the Magic attack, but now he's going to Heal again before casting it! I'm not trying to confuse you, but this really is the most annoying aspect of the combat system.
I don't want this review to drag on forever, but I must also point out how absolutely linear this game is. There are VERY few side-quests that last longer than a minute and all of them can be accomplished simply by following the main story, as there really aren't any forks in the road. Also, the enemies spawn in the same spots of the map every single time. The enemy combination may alter slightly, but it's virtually identical each time you travel somewhere more than once. The graphics are very pretty, though the animations are crap, and the music gets really annoying really fast.
I'm sure hardcore RPG fans may absolutely love The Spirit Engine, heck, I still sort of enjoyed it, but any sort of critical analysis will reveal how plain it really is.