Neverland is a world that can only seem to scrabble toward peace, ruled in turn by demons and humans who just can't seem to find common ground. Spectral Souls [Free] brings us in at the start of an inevitable conflict between the two, when the Imperial Neverland Army of demons sets out to crush the rebellious Reformed Simba Empire of humans. This being a strategy RPG, it's pretty obvious that we'll be siding with the plucky and familiar humans, no?

Not quite. Spectral Souls does something a little unconventional: it tells us both sides of the story. It puts us in the shoes of the Neverland Army as it struggles to maintain its dominance. It sides us with the Simba Army, where we struggle to take back human territory and win freedom from our demon overlords. Eventually, it also introduces a third point of view—an idealistic group that hopes to find another way through this conflict. So which side is right? That's left up to us to discover and decide, one moment in history at a time.

This departure from black and white storytelling is refreshing, as is Spectral Souls' penchant for introducing characters that are more than just class templates. As you spend time with each army, you won't be creating your team from scratch out of a few named characters and a stable of blank slates, you'll be getting to know a group of individuals with their own histories and personalities. Yes, the game succumbs to RPG tropes on a pretty regular basis and the characterization can be thin, but it's a pleasant surprise to run into even a flawed approach to nuanced storytelling and character development.

The game adapts as you play, customizing a tale based on certain actions. Sometimes your tactical decisions affect how the story turns out. You might visit a town at the right point to meet a new character or miss something based on which locations you visit first. And every so often you come to a pivotal point in history, a Historical Moment when you can choose through whose eyes you want to see events unfold. All these things shake out to an ending that is the product of your decisions and the the sides you choose.

Now, as much as I like a game with a solid story, Spectral Souls spends much more time in combat than cutscenes. And while combat isn't as complex as it can be in the best strategy RPGs, it has some depth of its own. The basics are nothing if not familiar, though. Maneuver a unit next to an enemy, launch your attacks, and move on to the next turn—you know this part.

Hold attacks and Charge attacks mix things up. Hold attacks let you unleash a flurry of different blows at once. A side effect of that is that there are many ability combos to discover—attacks that, when released in the correct order, combine into something new and deadly. Two Slashes in a row becomes a Triple Slash, for instance, doing extra damage than two Slashes released separately or divided by a different attack. Charge attacks take that complexity and pump it up further, letting you hold any number of attacks between multiple characters, unleashing them all at once. These can be devastating, but there's a risk: if any of the characters involved in the charge are hit by an enemy, the whole thing is cancelled. You have to keep an eye on turn order and speed to make this really work.

That spirit of experimentation extends to the game's other systems, which include item and ability synthesis. You can learn to create a powerful new weapon from a recipe, or you can throw caution to the wind and try to create something on your own. It's a great way to power up. Similarly, you can play with your characters' classes when they reach a high enough level. You'll need to make careful use of these systems and the free grinding areas—this game absolutely refuses to go easy. The AI can be rigid, but the Spectral Souls makes up for that with sheer numbers.

If you're a fan of large-scale Japanese RPGs, you already know that there's a price tag attached to them on iOS. This is no exception. You can try out the first few battles for free, but then comes the paywall, currently sitting at $13.99. This may be too steep for some, but how many opportunities do we really have to play massive SRPGs on this platform? Not nearly enough for me to quibble about price.

Now, I'm not saying Spectral Souls is perfect by any stretch. The interface is something of a nightmare (a common side effect of bringing complicated console titles to mobile). Everything is covered in virtual buttons, you have to paw through pages of tutorials to figure out what most things do, and in hours and hours of playing I still haven't quite grown comfortable with some of the combat controls. The game's map is also a mess, with multiple levels that never show you where you can go next and with whom with quite enough clarity—especially when you've stepped away from the game for a while.

As dreadful as all that sounds, though, these things are mostly small irritations. They pop up more than I'd like, but they don't take much away from the overall experience. The original PSP version had it much worse, panned by critics for what were reportedly atrocious load times. Don't let that dampen your enthusiasm; the iOS version may have its own problems, but load times aren't among them.

It's hard to live up to the competition in the strategy RPG arena—Final Fantasy Tactics [$13.99 / $15.99 (HD)] is one hell of a game. If you have room in your heart for more than one SRPG, though, Spectral Souls is well-deserving of a place in your collection. From the cleverness of its systems to the scope of its story, this title stands out. Give it a chance. When you decide you need more help with the intricacies, our discussion thread is a great place to visit.

TouchArcade Rating

StarStarStarStarNone
  • http://twitter.com/Rage_boi Vince

    "This departure from black and white storytelling is refreshing"  I think the refreshing thing is that there is storytelling in an ios game ..even if it is from a port of a psp game. >.>
    A really good review that also addresses what quite a few of us wanted to know: Is this a good port? 

    • MangoFandango

      I bought it before the TA review. I can highly recommend it. Having not played the psp original, I can't tell you whether it's a good port. I can say that for someone fresh to the game, the user interface was confusing. Yet, having played the first few chapters, I know what I'm doing. The touch controls are solid and intuitive, for sure.

      My only gripes are I don't know what to do next sometimes, and the storytelling from multiple angles - whilst novel and welcome - leaves the player in a state of "huh?".

      The game's not cheap for a iOS game but it's well worth it if this is your kind of game. Two thumbs up from me.

  • chinito77

    For $14, I hope there is no additional IAP in this game.  How are controls compared to Final Fantasy tactics?  Right now I'm hooked on Rainbow Moon (PS3) which barely had a story but gameplay is VERY addicting.  I'm hoping the same for Spectral Souls.

  • Onikage725

    I have this on psp, and it is a solid game. The psp version suffered horrid load times at first, running on umd on the original psp. This was much better playing on a slim, and playing it off the memory stick rather than umd. I'm going to try this out, and as long as the load issue is fine I'd say go for it. I assume it isn't an issue, or it would surely have been in the review. It made the ff tactics slowdown look slick and the pax version of ff6 seem playable in comparison! Now if Squenix would put out Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre...

    • Onikage725

      Just to add, I paid $40 for this on psp. So ask yourself, if you were tracking down a used umd or this showed up say on the compatible PSN list on vita, $10-20 would probably be the fair asking price, right? I hope no one thinks it should be a buck. It isn't a freemium-powered time waster. It isn't a throwback RPG that clocks in at 5-6 hrs with dlc chapters maybe later. It is a full length console quality RPG.

  • Texazzpete

    Would it be so hard for TA to throw in the name of the Game studio/producer up there with the review? 

  • ducksFANjason

    The game was inevitably compared to Final Fantasy Tactics (as most SRPGs are) and my question to anyone out there is this: If I didn't enjoy FFT (the PSX version, I LOVED the GBA and NDS versions for whatever reason) will I hate this as well? It looks like an amazing time-sink that I would thoroughly enjoy dropping hours into but I worry that it'll be too much like the iOS FFT and I'll regret my purchase... Anyone have any thoughts on that?

    • Onikage725

      Give the free trial a shot. It compares to FFT, especially on ios, from a genre standpoint. But mileage can vary even within a series (I like ff6 but not so much 5, I like smt 1 more than 2, hate phantasy star 2 but love 4, etc).

    • Cocosoy

      Short answer: Give it a shot! I didn't enjoy FFT on the iPhone, but I love Spectral souls on the iPhone! So far I've spent almost all of my gaming time on SS instead of other high end console/PC games.

      FFT is a great game, but the graphic and interface really isn't cutting it for me at this day. 

  • xDyNaMiiCx

    About time a good recent iOS game comes out. Still waiting for Street fighter X tekken etc this game will hold me down.

  • The#1

    I bought this game on my old android last year for fifteen bucks. It was worth every cent. The game is epic. I put over 100 hours into it and still never beat it.

  • http://twitter.com/Hyperdevbox Hyperdevbox

    Thank you for the nice review and for all your comments :)

  • http://twitter.com/RedPhoenix5 Red.Phoenix

    This review fails to mention one glaring omission: Quick Save. Sorry,but if i'm going to play a game where some missions can take well over 30-40 minutes to complete on a mobile phone,i'd like at least the option to quick save. 
    That's aside from the game's horrible difficulty,but that's not a problem specific to the ios port...

  • Cocosoy

    1516156

  • Cocosoy

    WARNING: There is no autosave nor quick save during a battle. I've had to restart 30min battles after taking a call, multitasking on my iphone, etc. This game crashes easily if you tab out the game and start using some other tab. 

    The game itself is AMAZING. Being a huge SRPG fan, I am very pleased with its gameplay. I've been waiting for such game to land iOS forever!  However, it is not a good MOBILE PORT. At this age, you'd think be able to quick save during a 20-40 min.long battle it's a given on a mobile device. 

    Bottom line: if you do not use your iphone as a DEDICATED gaming device, don't buy it until the developer incorporate quick save function. Or just buy it on the PSP.

  • http://twitter.com/Hyperdevbox Hyperdevbox

    @Cocosoy:disqus : The version 1.2 we recently released should fix the crash that occured after receiving a phone call. We know there is still an issue when you keep the game inactive in tab for a long time, this will be fixed in the next update which is already on its way.
    Regarding the quick save function, we are currently working on it to see if there is something we can do.

    By the way, I wouldn't recommend the PSP version for its extremely long loading times ;)

    • Cocosoy

      Glad that the dev. is working on the crashes and quick save. Quick save will make life a lot easier.
      I just finished my first run (without doing the post game content). This game really gives FFT a run for its money. The combat, skill and equipment optimization is ridiculously fun and well done. After beat the game once, I feel that I barely scratched the surface. Going new game + :)

Spectral Souls Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 4