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SpiritSphere

is a competitive local multiplayer game that draws inspiration from classics like Zelda and Windjammers and mashes it together with the nostalgic feel of playing air... read more

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SpiritSphere Early Access Preview

Author: Kurt Hvorup
06-Sep-2016

Category: Preview

A top-down air hockey-style game, SpiritSphere has players trying to smack randomly-coloured spheres into their opponent's net, with each match's sphere having different magical attributes that affect the flow of play. Charming as it may be with its chiptune soundtrack and pleasant 8-bit visuals, the game overall underwhelms and frustrates due to unbalanced characters, questionable sphere and map design, and an overall lack of content or purpose.

SpiritSphere Early Access Preview

Introduction

I have a certain appreciation for the 1972 game Pong, both in terms of its simple-yet-addicting competitive play and the impact it had on the emerging console game market. Many games have since tried to expand upon or refine that classic game's template, introducing new aesthetics and entire styles of play along the way.

SpiritSphere appears to represent developer Eendhoorn Games' attempt at such a reinvention, melding 8-bit fantasy iconography with gameplay reminiscent of air hockey to create a wholly unique experience. While commendable in their intent, the end result is a game compromised by poor design choices and generally skimping on depth in favour of style.

Those still interested in playing the game can find it on Steam or itch.io.

Core Gameplay

SpiritSphere is built to feel like air hockey, but with the aesthetic sensibilities of light-hearted, sword-and-sorcery fantasy. One to two players face each other (or an AI opponent in single-player) on a map divided into two sides, with the goal being to bounce a magical sphere into your opponent's goal three times.  

Players have the ability to slide up, down, left, right and diagonally (using the arrow keys) within their own section of a map, but they cannot cross over the middle line.  You can simply run into contact with the sphere to send it flying or rely on a forward-aiming energy burst move (Z button) and a charged deflection move (X button) to do the same.

The dog Buster and the mage Ozo facing off on SpiritSphere's magma chamber stage.
The concept here is that the play is simple to understand but made complicated by the titular spheres. There are a variety of different coloured spheres in the game, with related attributes that can help or hinder a given player. Green spheres are larger and therefore easier to hit, orange spheres split into multiple spheres after being hit several times, white spheres turn invisible, and so it goes.

Selection of one's character also factors in how well a match goes. At the time of writing, three characters are available for play - the swordfighter Lin, the possibly magical dog Buster, and the hooded mage Ozo. Each has their own variations of the special moves; for example, Ozo creates ball-and-chain-shaped energy constructions on his left and right, when the deflection move is used, while Lin's charged move consists of her spinning in place with her blade held out.

Mechanics & Content

Where I take issue with the game is how the variety offered ends up breaking a lot of matches, by either making the player's experience unbearably difficult or handicapping the AI opponents substantially. I admire that each character plays differently, but this ends up messing with the inherent balance of a Pong-esque game.

Ozo is, to put it plainly, overpowered. He seems to move faster than the other characters, helping by his dash ability (Space button) allowing him to just straight-up teleport. His special deflection moves can counter the other two characters with ease. When player-controlled, he is nigh-unstoppable... yet the same also goes for a computer-controlled Ozo, who can dominate players in more difficult parts of the single-player mode.

Lin is a competent character and a formidable foe, but suffers from slowness compared to Ozo. Buster, meanwhile, is unpleasant to use because of his sluggish movement and short-ranged special moves. Neither truly compare to Ozo, with the absence of any other characters at this time seeming all-too-conspicuous as a result.

More than that, though, matches turn quickly against the player for a whole host of reasons. For one, the random nature of sphere spawning means one match may go excellently while the next has you only narrowly scraping by. I experienced far too many instances of getting orange or white spheres for my liking, watching essentially as the match proceeded without my input or control whatsoever.

Then there are the cases where characters simply aren't fast enough or are too fast to properly keep up with a sphere in motion, leading to losses where the player is made to feel out-of-sync with the game. Or, as was often the case late in the meager single-player "campaign", AI opponents being so proficient at matching your moves that matches can be over in a minute.

It all contributes to a feeling of obligation, a sense that only through repetitive and senseless losses can one become good at the game. There could be an argument made that all (or many) competitive games tap into this mindset, but here it feels at odds with the game's look and atmosphere teasing a fun experience.

What doesn't help matters is that, at this point in its development, SpiritSphere simply doesn't have much to offer players in terms of replay value. The single-player consists of playing a handful of matches against AI enemies while the multiplayer is limited to two local players using the same keyboard. There are no other modes or unlockable content at this time.

While the game does let you earn points from beating single-player matches, said points can only be spent on the Sphere Fountain, which rewards you with... more spheres to use in single-player? It's not made completely clear and it feels to me like a waste of time and energy.

Presentation

SpiritSphere is at least a stylish game, if derivatively so. Like many of its peers, it relies on the 8-bit graphical style but does so in an eye-catching manner, pairing the low-resolution visuals with a bright and varied colour palette. Each stage looks distinct from the next, tapping into familiar fantasy elements to great effect. They range from a grassland map to a dark dungeon seemingly ripped from an old Final Fantasy game, right through to a pink-and-green stage that evokes a dream-like atmosphere.

SpiritSphere's dream-like map, where Ozo battles an as-yet unrevealed character.
Speaking of Final Fantasy, the character models recapture that adorable squashed look common to NES-era sprites, being at once charming and subtly detailed. I loved how each character was animated, how clearly defined against the background their colours were, and how they were designed to draw the player's eye during matches.

The music should also be commended for its use of chiptune and synthesized tracks to really hammer home its nostalgia-aimed focus. There's a real energy to matches whenever a given map's music begins, though the stop-and-start nature of play and the fast pace at which matches reach their conclusion could potentially affect one's enjoyment of the soundtrack.

My Verdict

SpiritSphere is undeniably beautiful in its visual design and admirable for its efforts, but it's hard to recommend something as mechanically frustrating as this. Weighing itself down with unnecessary sphere and character attributes, while skimping on worthwhile content, this is a game that direly needs to be reworked and built upon if the developer truly wants to deliver a quality experience.

Pros
Cons
 + Stunning Map Design
 - Limited Content
 + Suitably Retro-Looking Character Models
 - Poor Character Balance
 + Fun Soundtrack
 - Gameplay Undermined By Random Variables

 - Seemingly Useless Points System


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