Spirits E3 2005 First Look

We take a first look at the N-Gage's mysterious new card-battling game at E3.

This just in from the Good Decision-Making Department: Nokia's designing more games that actually make sense for the N-Gage platform. The N-Gage is no longer a single console-like device. It's now a distributed mobile games network that will soon reach across many types of Nokia devices, including those that aren't designed like gamepads. Spirits, which is being developed by Sweden-based Jadestone, is a game that's perfectly suited to this brave new world.

Spirits aims to tap into the immensely addictive qualities of collectible card games, like Magic: the Gathering, to combine them with with the massively multiplayer online capabilities of the N-Gage. It's pretty clear that simply sticking a collectible card game, wholesale, into a video game doesn't make for a great experience--and waves of mediocre Magic games have proven it--so Spirits is built upon a fairly complex backstory to provide the gameplay with some context.

According to the Spirits saga, the earth has always been populated by living elemental beings that provide the true forces behind environmental phenomena. Only a small number of humans throughout the course of history have had the power to interact with the spirits. These people, called "vivids," were the shamans, wizards, and druids of the old days, and the most powerful could actually bend the spirits to their wills to perform amazing feats of magic. The number of vivids gradually decreased throughout the modern era, until spirit control became a lost art at the beginning of the 20th century. However, in the 1940s, some large country's defense establishment (hmmmm...) initiated a research project to investigate spirit control's military applications. The scientist in charge of this project used experimental drugs on children to heighten their spiritual sensitivity. However, the treatment had the unfortunate side effect of unbalancing some of them mentally.

Eventually, renegade vivids escaped the project to join a doomsday cult called The Cut, an organization dedicated to cleansing the world of humanity by using the power of the spirits. It seems the chief scientist of that same government program developed a special application out of remorse for his actions. This lets nonvivids tap into the spirit world from their N-Gages, thus joining the resistance.

That's where you come in. As soon as you load up Spirits, you'll go online and start fighting against The Cut. The entire game will play out on N-Gage Arena, much like Pocket Kingdom does today. There are four basic gameplay elements in Spirits: collecting spirit cards, completing missions, dueling other players, and optimizing your "team" of spirits to keep it in fighting shape. To get new spirit cards, you'll have to participate in a little minigame, called a "hunt," where you actually catch spirits as they float around. We didn't see this part of the game, but it sounded kind of like those arcade machines where you move a grabber arm around with a joystick as you try to snag a stuffed animal. The spirits swirl around your cursor, which you have to painstakingly move toward the edge of the screen. The farther you get from the center, the rarer the spirits are...and the paler they become.

All spirits are split into four categories by element. According to the game's producer, there will be many of these spirit cards. In fact, there will be so many of them that it'll be basically impossible to collect them all. You can scroll through your collection, which is organized by element, and highlight each card to get a better look at a spirit's stats. We saw close-ups of Zephyr, a wind spirit, and Pyran, a fire demon. The character art has sort of an airbrushed look against a dark background, which looks impressive overall. You'll be able to trade cards and fight duels, online, over cards to augment your collection. Also, a "ritual" command will let you sacrifice a spirit card to gain a special power, called a "light." The producer couldn't provide any further details on this aspect of the game during our interview, but he did tell us that many of these maintenance tasks would be accessible over the Internet, too.

Of course, the dueling sequences are where the rubber hits the road in any collectible card game, so we were glad to get a look at the dueling mechanic in Spirits. First, you assemble a team of six spirits that will comprise your troops. Your team and your opponent's team are then placed on either end of a small isometric game board. Combat seemed to be really simple, at least at this point in development, so you select an attacking spirit, and then you choose an enemy spirit to target. The two collide, and damage is assigned. The gameplay's turn-based, but both players make their decisions simultaneously, which adds a little more guesswork to the mix.

Spirits is at least eight months away from prime time, but the ideas, graphics, and infrastructure are already in place. Jadestone has a lot of gameplay decisions left to make, as well as details to finish...particularly on the online side, we suspect. However, we like what we've seen so far. We'll be sure to follow this game carefully in the coming months, and we'll try to obtain a hands-on preview before too long.

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