Game review: The Spirit Engine 2

  • Title: The Spirit Engine 2
  • Developer: Mark Pay
  • Platforms: Windows
  • Price: Free

Indie RPG developer Mark Pay released The Spirit Engine as freeware back in November 2003, then spent four and a half years laboriously crafting a sequel.

Those four and a half years paid off. The Spirit Engine 2 is one of the most-reviewed (and most favorably reviewed) indie RPGs out there right now. And for good reason: it’s a superb game.

To begin with, I want to point out that TSE:2 is extremely linear. The game is side-scrolling, with your party able only to move backwards and forwards along a set path, automatically fighting any enemies they touch along the way. You do not have dialog choices. Your only real exploration options occur by selecting different areas on the world map, and even these are frequently quite limited. This will probably bother some people.

TSE:2 more than makes up for its linearity, however, by telling a compelling story with great characters and wonderful dialog in an interesting setting, coupled with a unique real-time combat system that demands both strategy and good timing.

When you start a game of TSE:2, you are given the choice of 9 characters with which to create a 3-person party. You can only select one character from each of three rows, meaning that there are twenty-seven possible party combinations for you to use in playing through the game. Each character belongs to one of three classes: Knight, Musketeer, and Priest. (You don’t have to choose one of each, but it’s probably a good idea.)

For my playthrough, I chose Kaltos, Charlotte, and Enshadu. I can’t speak for the other combinations, but the dialog among these three characters was marvelously entertaining and well-written. Kaltos, I will say, easily makes it onto my list of all-time favorite RPG characters for his role as a hapless, cynical–yet somehow endearing–scoundrel.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but suffice it to say that TSE:2 contains more than its share of political intrigue (and, dare I say it, social commentary.)

TSE:2’s combat system is in real time, and can frequently become quite hectic and intense. Each character has a battle gauge that is constantly refilling. Once a character’s gauge reaches 100%, he or she attacks using whatever ability he or she has selected. Your attacks typically hit whichever enemy is first in line, and likewise, most enemy attacks hit whichever character you have up front in your own party. In most battles, you’ll find yourself feverishly swapping your party order around to distribute enemy attacks evenly among your characters.

Timing is important. For example, characters performing melee attacks have to actually run up to their target to attack. If an enemy runs up to perform a melee attack at the same time as one of your characters does, the characters will hit each other instead of hitting their intended targets. To name another example, bosses oftentimes become immune to damage at certain times, so you’ll have to tell your characters to hold their attacks, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Check out this video of an early boss fight to see the combat system in action:

While its unique combat system houses a lot of TSE:2’s appeal, it also contributes to one of its weaknesses: namely, some of the bosses later in the game are a bit unbalanced. Some bosses recover health in such large amounts–and use their recovery abilities so frequently when brought low on health–that it is nearly impossible to defeat them without leveling up your party first. (I played through without doing any optional battles, just to see if I could make it through without grinding. I couldn’t.) Most battles are perfectly do-able with a little strategizing, however, even if you haven’t done any grinding.

As should be apparent from the above video, TSE:2 has some very nice 2D sprite graphics with frame-by-frame animations. The visuals have charm, and while not too flashy, they convey a lot of character. My only criticism of the graphics would be that their somewhat cartoony appearance doesn’t always mesh terribly well with the dark world that TSE:2 takes place in.

The music in TSE:2 deserves special mention. Josh Whelchel, known for his work scoring other indie games and for organizing Songs for the Cure each year, took full advantage of TSE:2’s long development time to create a remarkably rich soundtrack with (count ’em!) 101 different tracks. That’s a mind-bogglingly large amount of good music for any game to have, much less an indie game.

The Verdict: 4/5. While slightly marred by its heavy linearity and some issues with balancing in certain boss battles, TSE:2 is a must-have game.

Special note: One month ago, indie RPG developer Mark Pay converted The Spirit Engine 2 to freeware, citing low sales. That’s a crying shame. If you want to thank Mark Pay for his generosity, you have the option to donate some money to him via Paypal on the TSE:2 web page.

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  • alastair says:

    I don’t think it was an issue of balancing actually, all boss fights can be defeated with a good strategy – you were probably just using a bad set of skills. However having said that, I think the issue is actually the fact that virtually every enemy/boss respawns/heals itself. While it does mean that battles are more strategic than the first game, because of the range of skills you need to pick , it also brings quite a bit of dissatisfaction when you kill an enemy only for it to come alive again or heal itself.

  • ChevyRay says:

    Can anybody recommend a “How to play” tutorial or video series for me? I can’t seem to get a grip on battling; I open up my menu to be bombarded with lists of skillchains and things, and I don’t know what they really mean or how to choose one setup over another, it’s completely hindered me from progressing.

    I’d like to play further though, as the game looks like it gets really interesting later on.

  • alastair says:

    Just have a look at the manual, it annotates a few screenshots I think. If you start a new game you’ll find it easier to learn – it teaches you as you play.

  • ninjutsu63 says:

    Nice review. I just tried this out a couple days ago, and had a lot of fun. Really loved the music.

    One little thing: aren’t there 27 total character combinations? (you said 9) (unless you were referring to only knight-musketeer=priest combinations?)

  • Lailoken says:

    Great review. This is definitely one of my very favorite CRPGs. I bought it immediately after finishing the demo the day it came out. Also, I beat without grinding. I did every optional I came across though,

    ChevyRay:4 tips for doing well in this game
    -To get through resistance combine skills of the same damage type to form one really strong attack (Knight with charge or empowder plus a concussive attack)
    -timing is everything
    -don’t be afraid to use skills that you haven’t developed at all. Every skill in the game is useful with no development
    -Don’t treat any of the characters as one trick ponies. Everybody can tank, support and dps.

  • Egemen says:

    could you tell me other games similar to this? RPG sidescrolling game?


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