Spirits of Mystery: Song of the Phoenix

It’s funny how I often bemoan how I don’t cover enough studios and tend to focus on only a few only to then talk about a studio I’ve only mentioned once. In a Casual Friday even, so not exactly to any great length. I did like the game but also admitted I don’t really pay attention to them and that hasn’t really changed. But that said, I might actually pay a little more attention to ERS from now on.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - BannerSpirits of Mystery: Song of the Phoenix
(ERS Game Studio, 2012)

For years the two kingdoms of Dragon and Phoenix have been at war. And a prophecy states that if the two kingdoms are still at war when the evil witch Firella revives, she will rule the world. But the same prophecy also states that if the two kingdoms are joined through true love before then, Firella will be destroyed forever. And now as the two kingdoms prepare for the marriage between the princess of the Phoenix Kingdom and the prince of the Dragon Kingdom, it would seem Firella is gone forever. But as the day draws ever nearer, it would seem forces are conspiring against you. The prince has gone missing and his evil brother now sits upon the throne and demands that you marry him instead. It would seem Firella is not about to let you stand in the way of her revival.

Song of the Phoenix is the second game in the Spirits of Mystery series, the first being Amber Maiden and though I know I’ve played it, I remember precious little of it except a few key scenes and the general plot. I don’t remember disliking it but the fact that it left such a little impression on me suggests I didn’t find it all that great either. So I went into this game knowing relatively little but being rather skeptical.

That’s starting to become a recurring thing with me, it seems.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - Scene 2

I’ve become complacent in recent posts and my reviews have suffered for it. Gone is the harsh criticism and demanding things be done better and to suit me specifically. It may have been a limited way of seeing things but, dammit, it made for good reviews. Being angry, yeah, that’s the ticket! So with that in mind, let’s take a really long, good look at Song of the Phoenix!

Wait, is that a fairy mouse? Holy shit, that’s the cutest thing ever, five stars!

On a more serious note, I had this whole review written out and it was okay but I realized I had fallen into a pattern and wasn’t taking as much time and effort to really critically tear these games apart and while I don’t want to go back to being angry at games, I do want to make a bit more of an effort to go more in depth. So, with that, let’s talk about Song of the Phoenix. What it did right and what it did wrong.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - Puzzle 1

Let’s start with the very best the game has to offer: the puzzles. Because my god did this game satisfy me like none other in this department. Not only were they greatly challenging, there were a few puzzles in there that I had never even seen before. And I had to skip a few of them… like one… or two, I can’t remember specifics. Very soon I’ll say I skipped none and the fish I caught was so big!

But even if I had to skip puzzles I never felt like the game didn’t earn it. The puzzles weren’t unfair, just not my type of puzzles and my brain was honestly starting to fizzle with how many moves ahead you had to think in some puzzles. Something I simply could not do it no matter how hard I tried and other times I managed to stay with it and solve it in the end, earning me the biggest, most satisfying feeling in the world. But defeat never really tasted bitter, in this case, because ultimately it just showed that there were things I was good at and some things that I’m not so good at. And that’s okay.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even many of the puzzles that were familiar and typical often came with little twists, like a memory game where the pieces moved after every turn. Add in some standard jigsaw puzzles and combination locks and you’ve got yourself a pretty enjoyable four hours or so of puzzles.

And the puzzle element carried over to the hidden object scenes. Well, about half of them, anyhow. The game offers up two types of hidden object scenes: lists and what I call chains. Starting with the less good, the list variety, the scenes were decently designed though nothing really stood out to me. There was some interactivity but not a lot and it never got more advanced than “open container” or “use thing on thing”.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - HOS 1

Now the chain scenes, those were pretty damn fun. If you’re not sure what I mean with chain scenes, it’s the type of hidden object scene where every object leads to another one and then that continues the chain until you find the last, final object which is what you bring with you. It adds a bit of realism to the scenes and also sense because why would you sort through twelve items just to grab one specific one? I accept it because of gameplay but I always like it when they make the effort, like here.

There’s been a few games that do this, like The Four Horsemen or Infected, and I always find that it helps the game stand out. It’s also very enjoyable, to me, to see how each scene plays out. It’s doubly fun here because you actually return to just about every scene twice. This is something I’ve always been a fan of simply because it breeds familiarity with the surroundings and setting. But returning to the chain scenes, or the fully interactive ones if you prefer, was a lot of fun because after a while you started thinking about what might be the chain the second time around. So once you did return, the same scene played out entirely different which was great fun.

But what I didn’t like so much were the graphics.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - Scene 3

This is, of course, wholly personal on every level but looking at the screenshot above, there’s just things that stand out to me as not enjoyable. For one, again, they use the blue/yellow contrast thing that’s been hugely popular, not just in HOPA but everywhere. I found that grating a few years ago and it hasn’t gotten any more enjoyable. And it’s a shame too because the quality of the graphics themselves are great but the lack of coloring and this blue tint with yellow for highlight really saps the game of any energy or life. It’s just one of those things that once you’ve noticed, you can’t stop noticing.

I like color, is what I’m saying.

The game also lacks widescreen support. Couldn’t get it working on my TV where I normally play these games, but luckily I got it to work on my laptop screen. I know it’s from 2012, which in HOPA years is decades but I still expect something like that to be standard by then, especially since the rest of the world changed standard formats a decade or more ago.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - CutenessPerhaps more importantly, though, it does the games no favors since it kills my interest in the world itself. Different locations almost look the same thanks to this coloring and despite running into fairy mice, dryads and phoenixes nothing really pops. Which is a shame because all the ingredients for a really engaging fantasy that game that utterly sucks you in is right there. When the fairy mouse first appeared my interest in the game completely changed because it was something I hadn’t seen before but it’s underutilized and, again, blue and yellow!

And the rest of the game features very similar stuff, cool designs but the coloring really lets it down which isn’t fair at all. Part of me was really into the world but the rest just couldn’t get excited because it was the same landscapes blanketed in moonlight that I’ve seen a hundred times by now. And yet fairy mice! FAIRY MICE! That alone made me sit up and pay attention because FAIRY MICE! If these little bastards don’t make an appearance in the next game, you don’t know your own selling points, ERS!

Spirits of Mystery SotP - Scene 2

I still found the world more interesting than the story, though. It was your typical fare of princess saving the world and I largely ignored it in favor of learning as much as humanly possible about the world itself. Like the fairy mice, giant stone heads and magic spells powered by water. To me it was soon less about saving a prince and more about simply bringing the phoenixes and dragons back to the lands because that’s actually interesting. Imagine a whole game series where all you do, game after game, is travel around the world and set various supernatural beings loose on the world again to restore balance.

Actually… don’t imagine that, it’s my idea! No, that’s a bad Eipix, stay away from my ideas!!! (Unless you actually want to do that story, it’s all good!)

But it’s not exactly good when the concept of the world itself is more engaging than the plot itself. The fact that I had to marry this prince was secondary to luring the mythical beings back or releasing the animals under evil guy’s control and I don’t think that was the intention.

Spirits of Mystery SotP - Cutscene 1

I also don’t see how someone created a spell that required two warring kingdoms to be joined in matrimony and true love. If the kingdoms were joined through war, does that null the spell? And what if they’re joined in matrimony through arranged marriage and not love? Ah well, I guess we can chalk it up to fantasy!

All that being said, though, I actually ended up enjoying the game a great deal. The gameplay was solid mostly throughout and it was a hard game to put down thanks to the gameplay. But HOPA aren’t just for the gameplay anymore, the games rely just as much on the story as the graphics and gameplay so when one feels off, let alone two, it really hinders the game. I still recommend the game to anyone who’s in dire need of a challenge and some fun puzzles and there are hints of greatness here.

Maybe the sequel can capitalize on them better?

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