Role-playing games often feature the same basic dynamic - you start with a basic character, and spend time developing that character's skills. Normally this means a combination of training and combat. As your avatar develops, new skills and new paths to explore appear. The ultimate aim is normally to find some ancient treasure or (more usually) to defeat some uber-boss in a massive showdown. It was expecting something along these lines that I came across Spirited Heart and I have been somewhat wrongfooted as a result!
Spirited Heart features a largely similar dynamic - one chooses an avatar from three races (human, elf, demon) and chooses how they start their life. Are they raised by farmers, artists, nobles? A series of life events will influence their characteristics - or you can skip this and let the computer assign them randomly - before they are left in a home of their own with a little money and an entire life ahead of them. At this point, we abandon the traditional RPG - there is no combat here, no turn based fights with randomly generated foes. Your avatar pursues a career - there are twenty job types to try - and spends her time developing her skills and pursuing her ultimate aim... a husband!
Guide your human, elf or demoness through her life by choosing what she should do each week. Click on the relevant buttons to spend time training, working or relaxing. You need to keep an eye on her health and morale - if they dip too low, she won't want to work - and your cash flow. Watch out for the punitive taxes as well! While at work, a number of Random Encounters may take place, in which potential suitors will appear - two of each species are there to be found. Choose how to react wisely and your relationship with them may deepen. Can you get your young lady married within ten game years?
Fans of Japanese cartoon series will be instantly at home with the graphics here. There is no real animation, though things do move around the screen and characters change their expressions according to mood and circumstance. Everything is bright and colourful, though perhaps a little too twee for my tastes - but then again, I'm not really the target market. Graphics are accompanied by a number of generally appropriate sound effects and a small set of background tunes (largely for the main menu and random encounters).
A very easy game to get into, there are two difficulty settings. Normal mode is... well, normal. If you find the game particularly difficult (!) you can choose "Easy" mode, in which taxes are less painful and your skills do not diminish over time. The three girls you can choose from all vary in their starting attributes but all three can be trained up in anything given time and effort. The hard part is knowing what to do - which skills to develop? Which career to pursue? Which boy to get involved with? Staying focused is the key strategy here - if you don't know what you're doing, you'll just flounder about and get nowhere.
There are twenty possible "normal" endings plus six "marriage" ones, so in theory there is plenty of replay possibility in order to see them all. A typical game lasts a long time - ten years is over 480 weeks! This is a game which, if it appeals, will keep you going a long time. You can develop your girl's skills in any number of ways and there are always plenty of random events and potential relationship encounters to keep things varied. That said, I found things got a little repetitive and irritating after a while - especially when my human girl was getting mugged every few weeks (really!). I suspect your skills and attributes have some effect on these random events but there is no clearly shown link between them. Do I avoid muggings by boosting my combat skill? Is health affected by stamina? I'm playing blind for much of the time.
Further irritation comes from the way your work can sometimes boost your skill in key areas - or, in a bad week, reduce others. Trying to train up more than one skill at work can be very frustrating. This seemed to happen to me even on the Easy setting, despite being told skills do not go down in this mode. Direct training is better, but becomes steadily more expensive the greater your current skill. Some aspects of the game seem ludicrous - spend all your money as soon as you can, as you are taxed on your current balance, not your earnings! Random encounters with potential suitors can increase your relationship status with them, so the obvious thing to do is to spend as much time in that line of work as you can and pick the right choices (which are not always the obvious ones). Like a traditional RPG, when you have a definite aim it all becomes something of a grinding exercise.
I'm surprised at the lack of music. I would have thought some gentle background music to the main game would have been an obvious addition, but instead these sections are silent apart from the click of my mouse on the various buttons. I also fell foul on my first game of quitting by simply closing the game window, not realising that I had to manually save my game first (many RPGs autosave, which also helps to prevent simply reloading when things don't go so well). On the positive side, I am impressed by such touches as the skill descriptions when you hover the mouse over your character sheet and the way your atavar's expression changes according to her mood!
I like the concept behind Spirited Heart, and there are some good ideas in there. My main misgiving is that it all becomes a bit samey after a while, and there is little advice on what strategy one should adopt - some form of "getting started" guide would be good. What should my ultimate aim be? Am I just trying to win a husband, or do I need to amass money and/or skills as well? The open-ended nature of the game is a great strength, but also means it lacks focus. Perhaps I simply don't "get" the concept, not being part of the target market, but I found myself wanting more from the experience.
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