(Review of the 2019 Halloween update, not the original version)
There is a lot to say about Spooks and Summons. I won’t be able to say it all, but I will speak on the details I find most important. As a disclaimer, there are many strengths and successes I won’t get around to, because for some reason it’s always easier to focus on the negatives.
The first strong point to address is the sense of humor. It's obvious we’re playing in a world with exposition beyond this single game, but Spooks manages to not alienate its audience. Certainly, there are inside jokes and cameos that can't be fully appreciated without knowing the source material, but Spooks doesn't rely on them. The best example is the summons themselves. There are characters specifically taken from niche media (Natalie, Charbile), some from more widely known pop culture (Slenderman, Spock), and others even from a more general public consciousness (Santa, Cultists). As a result, the player isn't in a perpetual state of "I don't get it" if they aren't in on the joke. The supporting dialogue follows this same theme, mixing inside jokes with plain old farcical humor.
Speaking of dialogue, it is consistently entertaining and worthwhile. The expository scenes set up just enough to let you know where you are, what's happening, and how character personalities will tie into the rest of the narrative. The development doesn't end with the exposition, either. It's not simply an arbitrary hook for the proceeding gameplay. Quickly, we understand Aunt Vellan and Sery's relationship as a fairly standard outrageous vs. stoic trope (not to a point of being cliché, to be clear). Therefore, when Sery's ability to see the future comes up in conversation, it genuinely generates interest in how she has behaved thus far. It begs the question, is Sery so straightforward, almost deadpan, because of her divination capabilities? Has she been subtly foreshadowing all kinds of things this whole time? Will she do so in the future? Small details like this are everywhere throughout Spooks and Summons’ s dialogue. Fenrir’s talent in creating worlds justifies his game’s existence, cementing it as more than an excuse for a reskinned gacha RPG.
Beyond world-building, the art is diverse, charming, and festive. Everything pops, Hati’s expressions are ceaselessly enjoyable, and the summoning circle is soooo preeetty. Gameplay-wise, the simplicity of character stats makes party-building accessible. Power, Armor, Magic, and Speed are easily understood and trackable. In fact, Armor and Speed rarely come into consideration, except when using specific items, further simplifying strategizing. Comparing and managing several summons can be a tad overwhelming, so knowing what to look for is important. At the same time, I would not say the stats are overly simplified. Adjustments to Armor and Speed, as well as HP/MP differences add nuance that make each character and party composition feel unique.
Sound Design was seemingly not emphasized when developing Spooks. For the most part, SFX are adequate in communicating what’s happening, but are rarely notable beyond this. One exception is the new party member sound when “A new spirit has been called forth!” shows on-screen. It makes hitting that button way more satisfying! On the other hand, the sound during the (saucy) summoning animation is nearly grating and adds nothing to the great visuals, if it doesn’t take away from them. This is almost certainly a result of dev time, as all shortcomings ultimately are, and I recognize that. That being said, carefully chosen sounds could have massively supported the visuals and added a good deal of polish to the game overall.
Now for the real beef. Gameplay in Spooks and Summons struggles in one pivotal way: menu navigation/UX design. Spooks, at its core, is a menu-based game, so any hiccup while navigating menus stands out far more. That’s a lot of pressure! For the most part, summoning, equipping, etc. are quick and smooth. Summoning 10 spooks in a row is user-friendly; you navigate to the option, then spam space/enter. Skipping the cutscene is the default, because summoning a bunch of spooks at once is a common action. This proves Fenrir’s conscious design and committal to a good user-experience. However, the menu doesn’t remember your selection, meaning each time you open it, you must navigate down to the summon option. That fraction of a second multiplies over each repetition, becoming more noticeable than if you had to do it once. Another example is changing lineup. This whole change lineup menu is a little clunky, but I won’t get into that. More simply, when you press escape to exit the lineup menu, it closes all menus. Therefore, if you’re dismissing Spooks, it means you have to open the grimoire, change the lineup, close the grimoire, open it up again, then go to the dismissal menu. Again, with each repetition, the extra steps become more prevalent.
All this is to say, the UX in Spooks and Summons isn’t bad, but due to its sheer importance in the primary gameplay loop, the expectations are high. Non-uniform menu items (a big “Summon” button) would assist in creating a visual hierarchy, grouping similar actions, emphasizing more common actions, etc.* The downside to changes such as these is the significant workload it presents. After all, functionality is far more important than perfection, especially on a time crunch. Spooks is definitely thoroughly functional.
*see screenshot aside: many menu options at one point, and a glance doesn't inform you which are most important.
Overall, I love it! Spooks and Summons kept me consistently engaged in the combat, narrative, and collection aspects. I even got tired after a bit, closed it, then came back later! Long-term engagement is the strongest sign of a great game I can think of, so thank you Fenrir for the experience. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in playing.