Given such a ghostly title, you'd expect squads of shimmering spirits and imposing armies of the undead to loom ominously over Spectral Force 3. It's true that this strategic role-playing game features fluttering birdmen, bony grave escapees, and magic-wielding vampires--not to mention purring catwomen, ninjas, and matronly goblins hungry for an afternoon snack. But rather than go hog wild with this campy crowd, developer Idea Factory has created an immediately forgettable experience. Spectral Force 3 plays decently enough--as it should, given that it cribs from decades-old games that have already perfected and reperfected the turn-based formula. But for a game featuring a sasquatch militia, it has no personality, and the practically nonexistent story and weak character development will disappoint even the most stalwart genre enthusiasts.
This lack of character means that the game relies purely on its gameplay for entertainment value, and it partially succeeds, thanks to battles that last just the right length, and an eclectic assortment of units you can recruit to your posse of ragtag mercenaries. As you progress through the game, you will add more and more characters to your list of available party members. In turn, you gain some strategic flexibility, thanks to an assortment of gladiators and gunners you can mess around with on the battlefields. The constants are main character Begina and the cowardly healer Diaz, and several missions require you to protect one or both of these party members to achieve victory. In fact, you'll spend a lot of time protecting Diaz in most scenarios, not just because he is your main healer, but because he can utilize magic squares on the gameplay grid called geomancy lines. When he stands in these squares, the party receives a particular enhancement (say, a hit point boost after every turn), and Diaz can unleash a helpful area attack.
Regardless of the mission objectives, most battles play out in more or less the same way. You plant your selected party on the gameplay grid and take turns moving about and bashing on your AI-controlled enemies. Granted, there are some variants on the usual recipe. By landing successful standard attacks (of which there are light, medium, and heavy variants), you fill the friend gauge. As this gauge fills, you can then string attacks together in one of two ways. With an assist attack, you can land additional blows using nearby party members; with the teamwork command, you can grant an entire additional turn to another character. These mechanics aren't groundbreaking, but they're the key to surviving the hardest missions, some of which can feel incredibly difficult. That isn't to say that Spectral Force 3 is, overall, a punishing game. However, in the midst of the easier tasks, you will encounter some difficult story missions that may have you reexamining your strategies and equipping your characters in a variety of ways.
There are other considerations as well, such as Diaz's healing ability, which is freely usable without depleting any kind of mana gauge. On the other hand, he cannot heal himself with his standard spell, so you need to equip him and other characters accordingly. There are no potions in Spectral Force 3, so you'll rely on a number of equipped items to enhance your party's built-in skills. These run the gamut from additional spells to stat buffs, though you must first create and equip the necessary items to use these abilities. This means a visit to a smith (easily done via the game menus), who will then form the items you find on the battlefield into the necessary object.
Unfortunately, there's no real context for any of this gameplay. The setup sounds like a neat idea: Your group of hirelings seeks work for any of a number of warring factions, which in turn affects the tide of the gameworld's political direction. In practice, this just means you take on any given mission for the faction of your choice while taking on story and recruitment missions. It all feels very random, and there's nothing to draw you into the struggle. Your own mercenary squad will squabble and sass, and there some nice tidbits of dialogue, but there is no standout character, no compelling drama, no unpredictable surprise. Without a real story to pull you through, Spectral Force 3 becomes a series of stand-alone battles in which choice is an illusion and you must create your own sense of forward progress.
Like the gameplay, the visual and sound presentation is simply old. Not only will you probably mute the awful, monotonous MIDI score, but you'll be surprised at just how bad the sound effects are. There is a limited selection of lifeless thumps and swishes, and some of the effects don't even match the accompanying attack. Why would a sword against flesh sound like a club pounding an empty bucket? Spells sound unspectacular as well, which is at least consistent with their visuals, which lack drama and pizzazz. Spectral Force 3 does not look like a current-generation game. Animations are limited, environments are utilitarian, and the overall impression is that of a PlayStation 2 title with a slight high-definition boost. The aging technology powering the game could have been mitigated by an outstanding art design, but like its story and character progression, the game's style is depressingly generic.
There's also a sense of overall sloppiness, from text that spills over the sides of its background, to misspellings, to bee noises that were obviously created by a guy going "bzzz" into a microphone. These things might not bother you if you're a diehard SRPG fan looking for a fix, but Spectral Force 3 projects no sparkle or enthusiasm, and doesn't offer anything to get excited about.