Review: Summon Night: Twin Age (Nintendo DS)

Summon Night: Twin Age
Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Developer: Flight Plan
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 06/03/08


Summon Night, despite its niche status in the US, is a surprisingly robust RPG series in Japan, release-wise. There are about nine of the games in Japan (not counting re-releases), on the PS1, PS2, GBA and DS, of which the US has seen… three, counting this game. The different parts of the franchises seem to have dramatically different play styles; the normal Summon Night games with no subtitle are turn-based strategy games not unlike a Tactics Ogre, while the GBA Swordcraft Story games have more in common with the Tales games (and are the only ones outside of Twin Age to see a US release), and the game Summon Night Ecstasy (I’m not typing out the rest of the title, forget that) appears to play akin to Y’s. Now, with Twin Age, we’re seeing a FOURTH style of play in the series: the overhead dungeon crawling RPG, where overworld maps are simply places that highlight new locations you can visit so that you may depopulate them, most all of which are “dungeons” in the simplest sense of the term. More than a few people have noted that Twin Age plays like Y’s or Secret of Mana, which might be true if you are, in fact, insane; in reality, this is more akin to Ragnarok Online or a less interactive Diablo 2.

Not like I’m complaining; I love these kinds of games, and Twin Age is a pretty good, if not great, one, all in all.

The gist of the story in Twin Age goes like this: Aldo and Reiha (the default names of your male and female protagonists, respectively, though they can be changed) are two unrelated but emotionally bonded teenagers living in the land of Jarazi, an island that the Kascuza call home. The Kascuza are a race of odd beast-human hybrids that sport fur-tipped ears and otherwise fairly human features. As the story starts up, the Spirits of the land are starting to have a bit of unrest due to unexplained circumstances. Aldo and Reiha end up involved in the situation largely because they’re fugitives from the human controlled world of Alchien, for reasons they’re not entirely aware of. As things go, Aldo and Reiha end up having to travel to Alchien to determine why the spirits are having problems as well as figure out why they’re fugitives from their former home, all the while assembling a team of folks to help them save the world and all that stuff.

The story is your typical anime fare: plucky young adventurers and their friends save the world from evil while teaching us all a valuable lesson about friendship and love, and how they can overcome all obstacles. That said, the dialogue is actually pretty solid and the themes (racism, slavery, abuse of power) are actually handled reasonably well. I mean, you pretty much know who the good and bad guys are, for the most part, but there are “shades of gray” characters in the game and the themes are handled well enough. Also, the game doesn’t specifically force you into the One True Pairing, instead allowing you to have your final cinematic with whoever you have the highest Support Rank (more later), which gives the game a little variety. There are also a few choices you can make along the story, including which of the two main characters to play as… though most don’t affect the story TOO much, some have their noticeable effects. All in all, the story isn’t bad, and it was pretty enjoyable over the course of the game without getting in the way.

Visually, Twin Age is quite nice; the game is almost entirely sprite-based, and the sprites are clean and well animated (though some close-ups in cutscenes make them a little more pixilated than is desirable), and the dungeons are lively and colorful. The spell effects are generally pretty nice, also, and the uber-powerful spells all come complete with anime-style cutscenes that are pretty cool (and easily skipable after the tenth or so time of seeing them). Aurally, the game shines; the music is very nice for a MIDI soundtrack and many dungeons have quite awesome soundtracks, and the various sound effects in the game sound appropriate and work well. There’s also some voice acting throughout the game, which is a surprise, both because DS titles often don’t lend well to voice acting and because the voice acting in Twin Age is pretty good. It’s amusing hearing your character blurt out things like “This is mine now” upon pilfering the contents of a treasure chest or “Hey, wait up!” if you leave someone behind while changing zones, if nothing else.

As noted previously, the gameplay in Twin Age can basically be compared to something like a Diablo; tap where you want to go or what you want to interact with, and your chosen character will do just that. It’s incredibly simple, and works surprisingly well. Movement is as simple as pointing somewhere on the screen or dragging the pointer to the screen edge or holding the stylus in place, which will cause the character to run perpetually in the assigned direction until they hit a wall. Attacking enemies is as simple as tapping on them, as is busting open breakable boxes/pots/whatever and opening chests. Your characters also have all sorts of spells, techniques and items available to them, all of which can be assigned to hotkey palates on the left and right sides of the screen; tapping on the assigned action will pop up how it is used on the top screen (which normally displays the area map), and using it is as simple as following the directions, whether it be tapping on an ally, tapping yourself, tapping an enemy, drawing a line or three, whatever, they’re all simple to use and understand. The enemies are plentiful, of course, so it’s also good to note that you’re generally allowed three characters at one time (plus others, which will be noted in a bit), two of which you can play as by switching between them (Aldo and Reiha), which is as simple as tapping the icon in the upper-right. The third character will be any one of the several characters who joins your group as you play through the story; while they are unplayable, each has their own different AI instructions to guide them which are more or less functional (some will follow you, others will act on their own, and so on). Those who become annoyed at the idea of leveling multiple different characters needn’t worry; the levels of the tertiary characters are directly tied to your chosen main character’s level; thus, when you level, they level. The secondary character levels on their own, though, which can be of mild annoyance, though you’ll find that they more or less manage to stay around the same level as you unless they end up dying a lot (which shouldn’t be an issue).

Were the game as simple as all of the above, it’d be an uninspiring little romp into the genre, but Twin Age has a surprisingly large abundance of stuff to work around besides the combat. First off, both the overworld and the dungeons have their own options menus. The dungeon menu has a lot of options to it, including allowing you to set your hotkey palate, checking equipment and items, stat checking and so on, while the overworld menu covers some of the more interesting options, like distributing skill points, choosing your tertiary party member, and creating Summon Beasts. Skill Points are earned every time your characters level up, and can be distributed across several different passive and active skills, from elemental resistances to combat tactics to status buffs and so on. Only Aldo and Reiha can be upgraded in this way, however; the other support characters apparently distribute their own skill points as needed, which is both limiting (as generally, one wants to have all control of the product) and freeing (sometimes it’s nice to not have to putz around with EVERYTHING), and makes the game a bit more accessible if nothing else. Summon Beasts, on the other hand, are pretty simple to work with: as you destroy said beasts in the dungeons, you get their parts, which can in turn be used with Flasks (which are apparently where the beasts are kept in their off time) to summon the beasts to help your party. Before going into a dungeon you can choose to summon beasts with one of your support characters, with those of higher rank producing more Summon Beasts than those of lower rank. Ranks essentially dictate how well characters mesh with your character; by bringing characters into the dungeon, properly answering certain questions and talking to characters when allowed, the rank improves (while incorrectly answering questions lowers it), thus setting the support character up to perform better in battle. This also determines who you end up with at the end of the game, as the character with the highest rank ends up being your best friend/love interest, complete with a little cutscene. You’d think you’d end up with Aldo or Reiha because you’re stuck with them, but it’s actually pretty easy to end up with someone else; keep them in your battle party, talk to them at the end of every mission you can, and it’s pretty easy to end up with whoever you wish, no matter how late they join up.

You can also build weaponry and armor in the shop as well as purchase it outright (building the items often requires scavenging up the goods from dungeons), and the Shop will also often have sidequests pop up for you to take on, though most never go beyond “find me this item” or “escort this person out of a dungeon”. In addition, completing the game (which will take about fifteen to twenty hours depending on if you do the sidequests or not) unlocks several EX dungeons for you to putter around in as well as a New Game +, which allows you to transfer support ranks, inventory, levels and skills learned to a new game, which basically lets you tear through the game again only more buffed than you were before. Thus, there’s a surprisingly decent amount of stuff to bring you back to the game, especially if you want to see all of the ending cutscenes for both characters.

That said, there is one thing that needs to be said about Twin Age that, while not necessarily a FLAW, will limit your interest in the product: it’s super-easy. You don’t ever need to grind to beat a boss or a dungeon, as most everything will fall before you with little to no difficulty, with one notable set of exceptions. See, Twin Age does this thing where, during the casting of any sort of spell (no matter how inane said spell might be), your character is rendered invincible to EVERYTHING until the spell completes casting. This starts off as a mildly amusing advantage against enemies, until about halfway through the game when your characters can learn a technique that refills their magic meter. From that point on, the game becomes quite literally IMPOSSIBLE to fail at; cast spells until you run out of magic, cast spells to refill, repeat until everything is dead. It is, quite literally, a viable tactic to run into a throng of enemies and cast your ultimate area of effect spell, since you’re invincible during the casting and the enemies are quite dead or nearly so upon completion. The only flaw in this design is fighting humanoid foes, who are also invincible during their spellcasting, thus meaning that you’ll often find yourself in cat-and-mouse games to actually HIT THE BOSS in-between their casting spurts. Otherwise, the game is something of a breeze from start to finish, and even if a party member dies, no worries; just run around for a few minutes and they’ll respawn right as rain, with full health and magic!

In other words, this is a good introductory RPG for those who’ve never played one. Baby’s First RPG, you might say.

For the RPG enthusiast, however, the game quite literally becomes repetitive about five to ten hours in, because there’s virtually nothing to it. Combat is a breeze, there’s little to no variety in the weaponry and armor, side-quests are made up of the same two types of quests (find me this or save this person) ad infinitum, and nothing that the game does isn’t something you won’t have seen several times before. Make no mistake: for all of the cute and charming things the game does, and for as easily accessible as the controls are, the game is very, VERY basic from start to finish, and the only saving grace of the simplicity is that the game is very easy to plug your way through, though unless you become invested in the story, there isn’t really any reason to keep going through it unless you’re the sort of person who finds mowing down lots of enemy forces fun.

Even if you do, though, there are a few other oddities that keep Twin Age from being the game it really should be. Pathfinding isn’t very good insofar as the CPU is concerned; if you end up leaving a character behind, they’ll be just as likely to find their way to you (through the most dangerous route possible) as they will to bumble into a wall. The CPU characters also have little sense of self-preservation, and will often walk through damaging floor sections that you took great pains to carefully walk through without taking damage because they aren’t very bright. You can customize certain elements of the CPU behavior, but not to any satisfying degree; it’s great that I can turn spell casting on or off, but why can’t I just set the character to ONLY Heal or ONLY cast damage-dealing spells? The Escort Missions (so called by your own characters, who literally shout “An Escort Mission! YAY!” like that’s something to be terribly, terribly happy about) start out tolerable and become incredibly annoying, partly because of the logic issues (how did I get to this guy or gal without engaging in combat anyway?) and partly out of CPU stupidity (all of the people you escort are perpetually Level FIVE, unarmed, and feel the need to stand RIGHT NEXT TO THINGS THAT WILL KILL THEM A LOT), when simply having the characters clear the dungeon up to the point where the person to be saved is located would have been a lot more interesting (though the demise of your suicidal escort is met with little more than a “try again” message followed by a restart, though enemies you’ve killed stay gone). Summon Beasts are a neat mechanic that’s basically useless, as they essentially die in short order often and you’re nigh invincible anyway. And last, but not least, upon checking your inventory for the first time upon starting out you will discover that your characters, for reasons beyond my understanding, have a HUGE stockpile of second-tier healing and magic refilling items, thus essentially making the period of time from the start until you develop regenerating magic points no challenge at all, either.

In short, Summon Night: Twin Age is essentially designed to be easy from the get-go, and as such, is really only for people who enjoy no challenge in their video games, or enjoy the sensation of depopulating an entire dungeon in minutes. It’s certainly well presented; the story is cute and engaging without being cumbersome or ham-fisted, the presentation is slick, the controls are very solid and there’s plenty of reasons to come back to the game should the concept appeal to you. Someone looking for a challenge or for something fresh and exciting might be put off, however; there’s virtually no challenge to be had with the game, and the things that Twin Age does that are interesting aren’t terribly useful or special, bringing the game down to basically being the same thing for fifteen or so hours. It’s not a bad experience by any means, and it’s pretty fun if you’re of the right mindset for it, but Twin Age basically exists as an introductory RPG or an unchallenging time-killer for the RPG fan; serious hardcore fans need not apply.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Summon Night: Twin Age is an entertaining if unchallenging dungeon crawling RPG experience that’s worth checking out if such a thing interests you. A solid story, strong presentation and controls that fit naturally for the DS make this a surprisingly engaging and entertaining experience that’s simple and fun to play. It’s not challenging, however, and has a few technical issues that keep it from being anything more than enjoyable even beyond its lack of difficulty. If challenge is a must, Twin Age probably isn’t for you, but if you’re looking for style over substance, this is still a surprisingly good time that’s entertaining, if unchallenging.

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