Bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, 3-2 count, and the batter steps back into the box. The pitcher stares the batter down but he reciprocates the pleasantry as they try and gain a mental edge. Here comes the windup, the pitch, and the swing. Any baseball fan has heard this a million times as it is the most romanticized situation in all of sports. Welcome to Professional Baseball Spirits 2013, the newest installment in Konami`s baseball series, trying to make you fall in love with Japanese baseball like a Joe Carter World Series home run.
This game is hardly known in the west by the simple fact it was never released outside of its home territory. This is a Japanese language only game. But that does not mean the game is unplayable. Thanks to the efforts at www.spiritstranslation.com, the essential information for playing the game is at your finger tips, with anything else being trial and error.
PBS is a sports game unlike anything seen on the western market as it showcases the talents of the Nippon Professional Baseball league with five separate game modes: Grand Prix, Manager, Star Player, Pennant Race, and Spirits. Every mode except for Spirits mode has similarities with a western counterpart, which makes trying to tackle all the menus and gameplay a lot easier for those who do not read Japanese.
Grand Prix mode gives you a set of player cards to make a starting team. After winning tournaments and trial matches players can be bought in packs or traded with the computer to help make your team better. Tournaments can replayed infinitely, and there are so many differing tournaments with differing rules that it keeps the grinding fresh. One tournament might force you to only field a team of Pacific League players, while another requires all your players to be under a 50 rating. Games also give players experience points, giving lower rated players a purpose rather than being instant fodder, and making people pause to consider keeping their almost-ready-to-level up scrub instead of benching him for the better rated guy just pulled from a pack. The lack of contracts also allows gamers to build the team they want without needing to constantly grind simply to re-contract their players, creating a vicious cycle as seen in EA`s Ultimate Team mode.
Manager mode is brand new to the series this year and will appeal to those who enjoy Football Manager and pure sim games. You are only the manager, having to monitor a budget, recruit assistants to do your bidding, hire coaches, train the players, literally all of the entire management side except for playing the actual baseball game. This part of the game requires the most trial and error as it is text heavy and elements are completely random, making the unwary scratch their heads at what to do early on. But that randomness allows for lots of replayability, ensuring two run-throughs are never the same.
Star Player mode is Road to the Show. RttS vets will think it feels like a silk glove as it plays exactly the same. The difference between the two series is how the experience points are used. Every at-bat increases or decreases the number of experience points earned and at the end of the match they are divided by 4, which is the number of different stat categories. Pitchers will have a field day with this mode as eight pitches can be learned, making Rocket Roger look like a minor leaguer with the number of strike outs you can be raking in. It also gives you the option of playing as a pro player for those who enjoy stepping into the shoes of their favourite player.
Pennant mode is exactly like franchise mode but it allows you to customize the rosters before the first pitch of the season. Want an all-star team? Just trade everyone you want to your team. Want to see if you can win with an all-rookie squad? Trade away all your certified all-stars. It also allows you to play each individual game as either the manager, a specific player, or the entire team, thus letting you fully enjoy how you want to play the game.
Spirits mode, the only different mode from a western counterpart, is a create-a-player mini-game for making players for franchise mode. In PBS you don`t get to make maxed out players like in EA games; instead you have to complete goals within a set amount of turns. This is a one-shot deal meaning if you have bad luck then the character will have few points to be made with, but conversely if you are really lucky and skilled you can make the next Sadaharu Oh. No two characters will ever be the same and you might have to spend hours to get the character you want.
The gameplay of PBS is a different breed than The Show, either making it a fun change or frustrating to get the hang of. Pitching is handled with a one-shot closing circle system, meaning the moment you press the button when the circle closes shows how much of the ball is there for the batter to hit. Get trigger happy or forget to press the button and you’ll get jacked, but keep your nerve and it’ll be the size of a BB, making for lots of strike outs and pop flies. A pitch’s control stat determines how fast the circle closes, forcing players to get used to various rhythms at a time if multiple pitches have differing stats. Conversely, when batting, the stats determine how big of a sweet spot is on the bat displayed for the gamer to hit the ball with, and also differentiates between how good you are at contact and power hitting. If you are an Ichiro batter then expect a large contact sweet spot to hit the ball, but such a tiny power sweet spot that it’d be riskier than stealing second base with Prince Fielder.
One problem that was always annoying, and still has not been fixed, is the lack of defensive plays. Defence is more important than anything, and if your players have low position ratings it means slow grounders or pop flies will become singles due to the lack of diving plays or jumping catches. Seeing the third baseman even attempt to make a diving stab at a slow roller is rarer than Bo Jackson not breaking a bat over his knee. At least the game is fair and makes computer controlled teams just as incompetent at basic fielding as your team.
One concern that I had with the game before actually going to a Japanese baseball match was if the in-game presentation was real. Watching MLB on TV and playing The Show, the crowds are very boring and lethargic outside of a playoff game, and it shows in The Show. Crowds in PBS are always cheering, singing team songs, and have drums and other instruments making music in the background, giving it a festive, lively atmosphere. After seeing my first baseball game in Japan, I am happy to say that the in-game presentation is authentic. Blow out or nail biter, the crowds actually matter and have a point, keeping the player on the edge and into the game. The commentators are also well done but, like all sports games, are crippled by dialogue recycling. To make up for it at least the commentators have some form of emotion when a home run is hit or a game is won in extra innings, instead of the ho-hum attitude from other sports games.
Graphically the game has been polished from previous years. The animations look crisper, more detail has been etched into the players like being able to see their veins bulging from their biceps, and the crowd doesn’t look as generic as in games past. It doesn’t have the system-pushing graphics of a Mass Effect title, but it gets enough of the job done that it doesn’t negatively impact the game.
This game has one glaring problem and that is it is only in Japanese. There is some English around the menus, but 98% of the game is written in Japanese making it very intimidating for anyone to try and play. How badly you need to be able to read everything will dictate your interest level for this game. Additionally, since this game is only released in Asian countries, it is expensive to import because of its rarity. On the flip side for anyone learning Japanese that is a gamer of any kind, as long as you enjoy playing baseball it will help improve your basic reading skills as you would be seeing similar kanji and words on a regular basis compared to trying to learn Japanese through an RPG.
Professional Baseball Spirits 2013 is a must-buy for any baseball fan. The amount of game modes, diversity, and replayability is unmatched in any sports game on the market. Game modes were improved upon with new additions instead of being a complete rehash, giving a reason for importers to put down 2012 rather than skipping a year. Being an import title and it being the Japanese league will make some shy away as it can be intimidating, but those who are adventurous and want to learn about the Japanese league will not regret the EBay prices.
Summary: The best sports game on the market, hitting a grand slam in every category. Five fun game modes in one game means baseball fans will have their life signed over to Konami for improving on an already polished title without it being a complete re-hash.