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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Obscusion B-Side: Spectral vs. Generation: Blades of Chaos Strike with Force to Claim the Kingdom

I know that Idea Factory doesn't exactly have the most positive reception in the gaming world as a whole, though it's not seemingly anywhere near as harsh as it was a decade ago, but I will always have a soft spot for the company. Sadly, the Idea Factory that exists now doesn't quite endear itself to me like it used to, and that's because it essentially killed off the thing that got me interested in the company in the first place: IF Neverland. This brand existed from 1996-2009 across 35 games, during which it was pretty much the main breadwinner for Idea Factory, and one of the major appeals it had was a heavily interlinked timeline filled with characters that would debut in one game & then return for other games, either going from main to secondary, secondary to main, or simply getting their own spin-off titles. While IF Neverland games tended to be tactical or strategy RPGs, the franchise did venture into other genres, like traditional RPG (Spectral Blade), dungeon crawler (Spectral Tower), monster raising (Monster Complete World), real-time strategy (Field of Chaos), MMO (Kingdom of Chaos), card battler (Cardinal Arc: Konton no Fuusatsu/Neverland Card Battles), & hack-&-slash (Bakuen Kakusei Neverland Senki Zero/Realm of the Dead)... So why not also a 2D fighting game?


Traditionally, Idea Factory developed its own games for IF Neverland, though it did team with Taiwan's XPEC Entertainment for three games (Black Stone: Magic & Steel/Ex-Chaser, Spectral Force Chronicle, & Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage), but I guess making a fighting game was just beyond its staff's skills, so for this genre the company teamed with Taiwan's International Games System. By this time, IGS had found some slight notoriety with the PolyGame Master, a Neo Geo-esque arcade system that earned some fans via the beat-em-up series Knights of Valour & the (now) hyper-cult-classic fighting game Martial Masters. The result of this Idea Factory/IGS team-up is 2005's Spectral vs. Generation for the PGM, making it the only arcade game to come from Idea Factory; it saw distribution by AMI, which also distributed Cave's shooters during the 00s. Unlike most other PGM games, though, SvG did see home ports onto the PlayStation 2 & PSP in 2006, both of which actually saw English release in Europe by Midas Interactive Entertainment in 2007, even though Europe had yet to receive any IF Neverland games at all at that point; first God Bless Dancouga, now this. Considering how iconic the works of Capcom & SNK were by this point, let alone newer companies like Arc System Works making their marks, let's see what IGS was able to do with Idea Factory's cast of fantasy war generals.

As the title indicates, Spectral vs. Generation is a crossover between characters who made their debuts in either one of the old Spectral games (specifically 1997's Spectral Force & 1999's Spectral Blade) or the first three Generation of Chaos games from 2001-2003, plus one character from 2000's Suna no Embrace & Kingdom of Chaos; no one from the Spectral Souls games, however. That being said, there isn't really any specific plot to SvG, instead having each "general" simply follow their most basic of goals, alongside extremely simplistic endings, so let's just get the cast out of the way:


Hiro, the "Explosive Child" of Overland Janus who wishes to revive her father
Jadou, the "Dark Nobleman" & de facto son of Janus who wishes to rule all of Neverland
Orochimaru, the "Flying Dragon of the Far East" who wishes to preserve order
Mayura, the "Ice Witch" who wishes to shed her demonic heritage & become human
Krayce, the "Swordmaster" who wishes to destroy all demonic swords in Neverland
Roze, the "Dark Empress" who wants to punish humanity for its persecution of demons
Erile, the "Knight from the North" who wishes to end Neverland's constant chaos
Wells, the "Wind of the Battlefield" on recon from the Old Continent who wants a challenge
Ryuken, the "Holy Fist Hamaou" from Racoln who wishes to restore peace to Neverland
Earth, the "Holy God of the Mind's Eye" who shall decide the fate of Neverland itself

The final boss is Holy God Earth, which is Earth when he doesn't hold anything back, as indicated by him removing the cloth over his eyes. In terms of hidden characters, there are "Awakened Into Demonic Form Hiro" & "Demonic Beast Jadou" which are the siblings of Janus when their demonic powers take over completely, and they do have slightly different move sets than their normal forms; their names during battle are blandly simplified into Hiro 2 & Jadou 2. "Hiro 2" is selected via the legendary Konami Code (replacing the "A, B" part with just the Start button) after highlighting Hiro on the character select screen, while "Jadou 2" uses a variant of the Konami Code after highlighting Jadou. That technically totals to 12 characters (13 if you count Holy God Earth, but he's not meant to be playable), which is more than fair for a game like this. Still, IF Neverland has a metric ton of characters that could have been included (Little Snow, Greezer, Chiffon, Wave, Gaizan, Ankrowyer, Simba, etc.), and it would have at least been cool to see Spectral Souls characters like Akira Rokudo/Naiz or Mue, if only so that all three major wars in the franchise (First Neverland, Second Neverland, & Seven Years) could have seen representation.


SvG uses a four-button layout, with three levels of "attacks" (Light/A, Medium/B, & Heavy/C) & a Kick/D, and these attacks can be chained together in a chain combo-esque format called Free Series Attack, i.e. you go up in strength, with Kick chaining from Light & into any strength, so a potential chain could be A->D->A->B->C, for example. You can then combo basic button press into special moves, & every character has certain specials which can "Chaos Cancel" into super moves, which use up one level on the super meter (except for the strongest one, which uses all three levels). Along with stuff like dashing, backstepping, high-jumping, & throws (which is this game calls "Wrestling"), this is rather basic fighter gameplay at this point, but it definitely moves fast & fierce. Movement follows this fast-paced model, with players able to both dash & backstep while on the ground or in the air, which allows for some nice movement options.

Still, what makes a fighting game now is the variety of special features & abilities the player can utilize, & SvG has fair its share of them. A+B allow for Chaos Breaking, which is a counter that anyone can do at any time to catch & interrupt an enemy attack, leaving them open for a moment, and this can be done while standing, ducking, or jumping. While blocking, a player can use one level by pressing C+D for a Guard Attack, which lets you break through your opponent's onslaught. Pressing B+C while standing or ducking performs the "Sword Series Attack", which is essentially the Dust from Guilty Gear, knocking the opponent into the air & letting you follow them up with an air combo. Similar to the Chaos Cancel, every character has certain basic attacks & specials that can be followed up with A+B+C for a Time Freeze (literally, "Seal of Time" in Japanese, after GoCIII's subtitle), which uses a level of meter to slow down your opponent's falling animation so that you can plan out a follow-up better. Finally, when you get down to 1/3 health & have at least one level, you can press B+C+D to activate "Fierce Flaming Awakening", which activates like a Burst from Guilty Gear, followed by giving you better attack, defense, & infinite meter for a period of time; it does recharge, but most fights won't last much longer afterwards.


To quickly address one quick bit, however, there is a nearly 11-year old video on YouTube showing a variety of infinites, a.k.a. tricks & combos that can take out an enemy's entire health bar, some of which use the Time Freeze & timing a rapid amount of low attacks, usually kicks, to infinitely catch the opponent, alongside other methods. More than likely, theses were all done on the original PGM version released in arcades, because I'm reviewing this via the PSP version & I couldn't do the Time Freeze trick like it was shown. I tried with Wells, who can just do rapid low kicks, & though I only managed to start it a couple of times, mainly because it requires frame-exact timing, the game always knocked my opponent away after the combo reached 10 hits. Other stuff like Jadou's fireball loop was also altered by having Jadou move forward slightly every time he does the special, so eventually the loop gets ruined when he gets too close; Mayura's charging special was also given more dead time before you could attack again. Regardless, these infinites honestly would take too long to really do completely, though, because SvG has some really harsh damage scaling, i.e. attacks do less damage the longer a combo goes on for. Even looking at the video, you can see that damage scaling reduces attack power to a super small amount upon reaching 10 hits, and by 20 hits you're doing such minuscule damage that it takes forever to actually completely drain a health meter via an infinite. Combined with the seeming fixes done for the home ports, SvG does try to dissuade people from just playing cheap & dirty.

This leaves us with how the characters themselves play & what the overall balance is like. Probably the most curious aspect about the roster is that it's nearly void of any charge-based commands, i.e. holding a direction for a second or two before moving to the opposite direction. In fact, the only character to have such a special command is Roze, & it's for a single, solitary special. Even half-circle motions are only used by a small bunch of characters, though more complex motions (HC-to-forward, double-HC, etc.) are used for some supers. The end result is that every single character utilizes quarter-circle & "dragon punch" commands, with a lot of supers being double-QCs (Orochimaru's Level 3 super is triple-QC back, even), which in turn makes it relatively easy to pick up any character & remember their move sets after a match or two. Orochimaru, Ryuken, & Krayce differ slightly in that hey all utilize some sort of multi-input specials, whether it's doing specific button presses to continue a special or simply being a "rekka", i.e. repeating the motion command for more attacks.


In a nice touch, though, some characters' special & supers have some variety based around which strength attack you use. Wells, for example, has a Dragon Punch-style move that has three different arcs depending on the button; light is horizontal, medium is diagonal, & heavy is mostly vertical. Hiro's fireball super, on the other hand, fires out flaming skulls in different ways; light floats them up & down, medium is an anti-air variant, & heavy is all concentrated forward. Combining the Free Series Attack combo system with specials & ending with supers are essential for doing consistently strong damage, and SvG's harsh damage scaling really prioritizes not going too much over 10 hits, likely so as to not encourage long strings & allowing one player to consistently dominate. Overall, it's admittedly not an altogether original combat system, but the end result feels a little like a mix of Guilty Gear X (fast combat, relatively free-flowing combos, a Burst-like ability) & Street Fighter Alpha (three-level super meter, countering system, relatively simpler special commands). While it might not be quite on the same level as Martial Masters (I've never played it, so I can't compare), IGS still created a fighting game that feels good & solid to play with Spectral vs. Generation, if slightly derivative in its concepts.

In terms of balance, it's hard for me to judge since I can only go off of my own playing ability & how the computer AI behaves, but it feels fairly even, though some characters do have notable advantages. Jadou's fireballs, though reduced in their ability to create infinites, can still be spammed with some reliability. Erile's ghost partner Rifire (who is essentially a Stand from JoJo) is interesting because he can still continue an attack once it starts, even if Erile takes a hit, which in turn gives Erile some extra safety when attacking. Earth's standing kick actually advances on his opponent unless really close, giving him extra space to start combos, though his Level 3 super requires doing a double-HC back super first, making it tougher for him to access his strongest abilities. There are some other little bits like this, but overall I could see some characters being naturally better than others. That being said, though, Holy God Earth is one of the harshest cases of "SNK Boss Syndrome" I've ever seen. All of his attacks hit hard, he can summon lightning that allows for a guaranteed extra hit once knocked down (& the AI will always take advantage of it), and while his lightning super can be avoided for the most part (just go to the opposite side of the screen) his beam super is essentially what happens when you give Justice's Gamma Ray next to no lead in to try avoiding. Still, much like how I love fighting Justice in the original Guilty Gear, I actually really like fighting Holy God Earth, because it really feels like I'm fighting a legit god.


Graphically, SvG is an interesting creature. When this came out in arcades, the PGM was already eight years old, & its older tech was showing. In fact, this was the last game to be released on the PGM, with IGS debuting the stronger PGM2 in 2007. Therefore, the backgrounds are rather simple & barely animating, though nicely detailed, but the spritework is similar to SNK's output at the time (KOF XI & NeoGeo Battle Coliseum) by being kind of "small" but still nicely detailed. Even the standing animations for all of the characters are smoothly animated & still look nice to this day; one could only imagine how it could have looked with stronger hardware. It's always interesting to see a company push older tech as far as it could possibly go, just look at what SNK eventually pulled off with the Neo Geo in its later years, and in that regard IGS pulled off some nice visuals for similarly old hardware, come 2005. The characters in the game use designs done by Idea Factory's Katsuyuki Hirano (Spectral & Blazing Souls, Record of Agarest War series), which are very nicely done & more or less iconic for IF Neverland by that time; Hirano also drew the static images used for the character endings, which look nice, too.

The audio by IGS' Andrew Parsons Lin (DoDonPachi II) is a real highlight, generally going for a strong & fast rock influence, but with a variety of styles to match the characters. Some notable examples are that Mayura has a nice intro that gives the feeling of a cold snowstorm, Orochimaru has a royal feel to his theme, Roze gets a cool low-key beat, Ryuken obviously gets the stereotypical "Chinese martial artist" motif, & Jadou has an intensely addictive synth beat; you can judge the OST for yourself at this YouTube search. The first song you hear upon booting the game up, however, is the intro theme, "Freedom to Fight" by Naomi Wu. Also composed & written by Lin, this theme is likewise extremely good &, though a little too "J-Poppy" for some, a very strong hook to get your interest. Hell, when two characters clash strong attacks during a round, the music will switch over to "Freedom to Fight", and though it does clash a bit when compared to the rock song that was playing just a moment ago, it still fits well enough. Oddly enough, though, the game recasts almost every single character when compared to who voiced them in prior games; the only reprisal was Hidehiko Kaneko as Jadou, though he would be replaced in later games. That being said, most of the cast were IF Neverland veterans, but as different characters, like Reiko Fujita (Luwenelva/Yunellia in Spectral Souls) now voicing Hiro, but it honestly doesn't make much of a difference anyway. That's because the characters barely say anything in the first place, usually only for intros, win poses, or the occasional super, and the audio quality of said voice clips aren't all that great, anyway. At least the sound effects & music make up for them.

No specific console packaging, but this
is used for the PS2 version's cover art.

I won't make any excuses here, because the timing for this review is on purpose. As of this review's original posting, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite has just released, and while I'm sure the gameplay is just fine, it also just reeks of being nothing more than a corporate creation to help shill other products, instead of trying to do something cool with its concept. Granted, I'm sure Idea Factory had similar ideas in mind when they worked with IGS for this game, but Spectral vs. Generation at least has a novel concept behind it. IF Neverland is built around mostly tactical RPGs, one where specific generals lead giant armies (at most 1000 vs. 1000) into combat, so taking these various leaders & pitting them against each other in one-on-one combat actually makes sense as a game. The end result is one with a lot of excellent potential, and had IGS been given a second chance at it, likely with the power of the PGM2 behind it, I'm sure a second SvG could have been much bigger & even better. That being said, the game that was did get is still a fun 2D fighter, with fast gameplay that feels like a mix between Guilty Gear X & Street Fighter Alpha, a small but varied roster of characters, a final boss that truly feels like the "god" that he's billed as, graphics that still hold up rather well today, & a pretty rocking soundtrack that should be given more credit. Sadly, I doubt we'll ever see the return of IF Neverland, with the last mention of it at all that I could find being a Siliconera interview with Compile Heart's Kenta Sugano back in 2011, who claimed that the franchise wasn't dead yet, though it's now been almost a decade without anything new.
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If you are curious about this fighting game, Spectral vs. Generation has a varied pricing range, depending on which system you want it on. The PGM original is obviously the most expensive & hardest to play on, as you'll need both the cartridge & the arcade system itself, not to mention the ability to hook up & display the PGM unit, let alone even play it. The PS2 version has maintained some respectable value compared to other IF Neverland games, usually going for at least $25-$30 for the Japanese version; Midas' European version goes for more, usually. Finally, the PSP version, which has none of the infamous loading problems that Idea Factory's earlier PSP outings had, is the cheapest, usually going for at least $12-$15 for either Japanese release (the 2007 original or the 2010 "Idea Factory Collection" reprint); again, the European version is more expensive. Of them all, I'd say that the PS2 version is the best, as the PSP isn't always the best for fighting games, and the home ports in general do fix some of the infinite loops the PGM version had.

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