Experience Inc. came out of nowhere in the US in 2013 with the surprisingly solid Demon Gaze, a dungeon crawling RPG featuring some very strong and unique elements. It was a bit over the top in its aesthetic (IE there were lots of boobs), but it managed to stand on its own as a game well enough that, I felt when I reviewed it, it was worth checking out even if that wasn’t a selling point for you as a player. While I’d been hoping to see their next game top Demon Gaze, Operation Abyss was a throwback to their early releases on the PC in 2009, and it was… not a step in the right direction. While the game was aesthetically updated to match Demon Gaze, the mechanics were decidedly archaic and confusing, and it didn’t really feel like a progression for the company. As such, I was a little apprehensive when Stranger of Sword City was announced; while Operation Abyss was a remake of the first games Experience had developed years ago, it was also closer in tone than Demon Gaze. As such, it’s not unreasonable to have that worry that the game might not bring over the more user friendly aspects of Demon Gaze, considering that game was designed for a broader appeal thematically. Having spent some time with the final product, though, while I’m still a bit off from being able to write a full review, there’s definitely a lot to talk about to get you ready for the game, and assuage any concerns you might have about what it does or doesn’t do.
1.) The plot in Stranger of Sword City is surprisingly engaging, such that you could honestly see it being the focal point of a fairly solid anime series. Your character wakes up from a plane crash as the only obvious survivor, unscathed but lost in a strange dungeon in the middle of nowhere. After being picked up by a young woman named Riu, you’re told the reality of your situation: you’ve been transported to Escario (AKA Sword City), a world where people of Earth, dubbed “Strangers,” are super-humanly powerful for admittedly silly reasons, but just go with it. Honestly, the plot does this game a lot of good; it focuses on a core main character, like Demon Gaze, but the plot’s more focused on your interactions with the world than with romancing anyone, which broadens the appeal a bit. Not only that, but the game is more about behind-the-scenes mysteries than any kind of open animosity between forces; you’re introduced to the three core factions early on, but everyone mostly gets along and there’s a lot more broad substance here. It’s also implied that there are multiple endings based on the faction you align with, which is pretty great from a replay perspective, and so far, what’s here feels like it’ll be a good motivator to come back for more, if nothing else.
2.) The game uses the same visual style of Operation Abyss/Demon Gaze; that is, characters are represented using 2D hand drawn models, as are environments when in cutscenes, town areas or combat, while dungeons are all 3D environments. This works out pretty well, honestly; while there are no real animations to the characters or enemies, the contrast in styles is interesting aesthetically, and it works in this game quite well. This is also because, by default, the game utilizes a more realistic looking art style for everything, from the characters to the enemies, and it gives the game a really strong aesthetic feel from the get-go. You can also swap over to the anime-inspired visuals the game launched with, if you’d prefer, though they lose some of that effect. Aurally, the game also has a lot to show, and it’s all quite good, starting with the strong and powerful soundtrack. The combat and cinematic tracks are well selected, and the game will pop in the occasional tunes when navigating the game world to give some periods of exploration a specific feel, though it can be odd to hear the sudden transitions from music to no music when you’re grinding. The game also features a fairly solid amount of voice work, all in the native Japanese, and while there’s not a lot of it (so far), what’s here sounds great and fits in nicely.
3.) Character creation is the first place where, if you’ve played prior Experience dungeon crawlers, you’ll notice some changes have been made to the formula, and they’re almost entirely for the better. In the beginning you’ll be tasked to create your own character before any others, but once that’s done with you can jump right in and create the party of your dreams (or use the default party given to you if that’s more your speed). Most of the elements involved in character creation make sense immediately, such as choosing a character portrait, gender and voice, but the rest of the choices all have statistical implications that are worth considering. Age, for example, dictates your bonus point potential (the older you are, the more you can have) and Life Points (the older you are, the less you can have), meaning older characters can be far more skilled, but less hardy against death. Your chosen race dictates your starting stat distribution and some equipment, but in no way impacts appearance so you can pick whatever race works for your chosen classes and go nuts. Talents are probably the most interesting aspect of creation; in prior Experience games, special talents (such as protection from ambushes or hidden item discovery) were tied to classes, but here you can simply select a talent for a party member regardless of class, which is a significant improvement. The game also offers you a standard compliment of classes to choose from when building a party, such that fans of prior Experience games will recognize the options offered to them from jump. Fighters (front line combat units), Knights (front line tanks), Samurai (front line glass cannons), Wizards (back row casters), Clerics (healers fit for either row) and Rangers (back row damage dealers) are all staple classes, and Ninja (utility classes for either row) fit into a similar role as Assassins from prior games. Only Dancers seem fairly unique this time out; they offer a combination of multi-hit attacks and ranged damage, with some Morale boosting skills that make them a fine back row class overall. This is important, since you’re a lot less forced into taking specific classes (only Knights, Wizards and Clerics seem mandatory), so having that variety means something.
4.) Once you have a serviceable party ready to go, you’ll be able to head right out into the dungeon and get to work on slaying monsters to level your team and collect loot. The game does a very good job of introducing you to the basics up-front, as the introductory story sections work to acclimate you to the basics of movement and combat, and your early dungeon navigation sections help to explain the more complex concepts, so even newcomers to the genre should get it down fairly quickly. Dungeon navigation is presented from a first-person view, and the game allows you to move around in the world effortlessly, as the D-Pad and Left Stick can be used for turning and forward movement, while the Right Stick can be used for directional movement without turning (IE backpedaling or strafing) as you prefer. As you move around the world the game fills in an automap, which you get a small segment of in the upper right corner and can view in its entirety with a press of the Square button. As you wander about, you’ll eventually bump into enemies and initiate combat, which also works more or less as you’d expect; you select combat options from a menu (including default attacks, item use, skill use, spell use and just plain running away), then initiate combat and watch it all play out.
5.) Outside of dungeon crawling, you’re given a hub to work with that’s based around an overhead map of the world proper, allowing you to simply choose where you’d like to go and go there whenever you wish. There are five core zones shown from the overworld map in the early goings of the game, though only three have anything useful within: the Stranger Base, the Palace and the Slums. Each zone offers an NPC zone and a dungeon (or several) to visit, though in the Palace and Slums the only purpose of visiting NPCs is to turn in Blood Crystals (which we’ll discuss shortly) and advance the plot. The Stranger Base, on the other hand, acts as a full-on town of sorts, allowing you to make new characters, resurrect the dead, sell off loot, buy new gear, save your game and more as needed, so that’s almost always where you’ll be headed any time you’re not in a dungeon. If you’ve played prior Experience games, you’ll find the Stranger Base and overworld to be similar in scope and structure to Demon Gaze, though if all you’ve played is Operation Abyss, you’ll note that menus and options are quite simple to work with and make game management far easier in comparison.
6.) Outside of advancing the plot, the main reason to visit any of the leaders of the three core world factions is to turn in Blood Crystals. You can acquire Blood Crystals through killing Wanted Lineage monsters (which we’ll discuss shortly), and when you have a set amount you can visit any of the three leaders to turn them in. Doing so gives you two significant bonuses, both of which are tied into the Morale System, which is essentially similar to prior systems from Experience games: you earn energy through combat that can be cashed in for special battle changing effects for a big boost when needed. The first bonus is that you buy a skill with the Blood Crystals, which is added to your Morale skill list and can be cast any time in battle (so long as you have the Morale to do it). The second is that your Morale meter increases so you have more points available to cast with at any time, making harder battles easier to manage as you go. The Morale system feels a bit easier to work with than the equivalent system in Operation Abyss, since it improves over time instead of requiring you to use it constantly, but it’s otherwise quite similar in design. Those used to the system from Demon Gaze will note that you have all your skills available at one time, though, which is a boon, but you also can’t change out skills at a whim as needed. Instead, each time you use Blood Crystals you have to commit to which leader you want to support, based on the effects available and personal opinions on the leaders themselves. This can sometimes lead to having to sacrifice one useful skill for another, and while I’m not certain if this impacts the endings you can achieve at this point, if it does it could end up leading to sacrificing useful skills to support your chosen leader, which would be interesting (if perhaps frustrating).
7.) Another thing that’s really worth discussing here is how the game handles item and gear collection. The game uses a system that’s similar to Demon Gaze; essentially, you can move to specifically marked locations on the map and use a Morale based skill called Ambush, then beat up enemies to collect new weapons and armor as needed. There are a few distinct differences, however, not the least of which being how items are decided and acquired. In Demon Gaze, you collected specific item drops that allowed you to fight for specific item types as you wished, but you needed to have the items on-hand to try and get gear. In Stranger of Sword City, you can Ambush as long as you have Morale to do so, but the gear you can get is determined based on random chance and what’s available in the zone (some zones cater more to specific gear drops than others). You do have a bit of control over what you get (as well as the enemies you face), though, as when you Ambush you can see the quality and type of item (if not the exact drop), as well as the enemy guarding it. You can choose to attack the enemy (if you want that item) or Retreat (if you want to bail and sacrifice the Morale used to Ambush), but you can also Pass if you want to see what the next enemies have to offer. This increases the potential danger of your ambush, however; the longer you wait (up to five pass turns), the more likely you are to be ambushed yourself when you attack, which can leave you at a major disadvantage. Still, it’s a great system for loot grinding, especially since initial Ambush attempts are cheap (five Morale), and you can replenish by leaving the zone and coming back, but it’s not “better” or “worse” overall at this point.
8.) Once you’re in combat proper, there are also a few things of note besides the default menu and combat options. First off, the Morale system allows you to use Divinity skills each turn if you wish, which burn a set value of Morale in exchange for defensive or offensive improvements, which can turn the tide of severe battles in a hurry. Each class also has unique skills that make them useful in any battle; Knights can protect the team, for instance, while Samurai can hit every enemy in a row, Rangers can hobble enemies, and so on. Wizards and Clerics can also cast spells in line with what you’d expect, as well as imbue weapons with Magic and Holy attributes, as some enemies are only weak to those effects, making some battles require more attention than others. However, in a nice touch for those who want to speed through grinding, the game also offers you the ability to set skills in a battle, then reuse those skills each round with a press of the Triangle button, so you can just blow through grinding sessions as needed. You can also choose “Fast Apply” if you don’t want to be bothered seeing damage applied in order to just start the next turn and deal with the fallout. Also worth noting here is the idea of Wanted Lineage, which are essentially rare monsters that can appear under certain circumstances as random battles. These battles are treated as serious business and the monsters associated with these battles can wreck shop if you’re not prepared, but taking them on (aside from rewarding you with experience and, in some cases, plot progress) also nets you Blood Crystals, so you’ll want to hunt the enemies down as soon as you can. Just… make sure you save first.
9.) Even beyond what we’ve discussed, there are so many more interesting elements that are worth discussion that are just hard to fit in. Making a second set of party members is recommended, for example, because they can sub in for injured party members and because they (slowly) level and earn you cash even when not in active combat, making them really useful long-term. The job change mechanic from Operation Abyss is also here, but is actually useful this time out, as you can equip skills from other jobs to your current job to build a top-shelf custom job however you wish, and so far it’s pretty exciting as a concept. In fact, there are only three really questionable design choices so far, and only one of them is really bad in its execution. On the minor side of things, you’ll sometimes get attacked by enemies several levels higher than you (which you can escape from so it’s not the end of the world) and the game doesn’t feel designed for a handheld (IE saving can only be done from the Stranger Base), but these aren’t heavily detrimental. Only the Resurrection system feels truly concerning; while your main character can be resurrected for token donations (due to plot armor), but other characters can be killed, and resurrection keeps them off their feet for one or more in-game days (which elapse through battles basically) or a massive cash donation you probably can’t afford. However, each character has Life Points that dictate how survivable they are, and when those deplete they “disappear,” taking them out for good. Replenishing those either means a week off their feet or an amount of money I promise you will never have, and the older the character is, the more likely you’ll have to do it ASAP on death. In theory it’s not a bad system, but in practice it encourages a lot of time-sink grinding to get a character back on their feet, and I just treat it as “death = Total Party Kill,” but it’s definitely a system that won’t be for everyone.
10.) All told, though, Stranger of Sword City is shaping up to be the best dungeon crawler to come out of Experience yet, as it takes all of the positives and lessons to be learned from their prior games and applies the results in the best ways possible. The game isn’t quite as accommodating to new players as Demon Gaze was, as even with an easier difficulty level it’s still a little challenge and grind heavy, but honestly, it feels like such a natural evolution and improvement of the systems in that game that, so far, it’s almost as easy to recommend. While we’re still a ways off from a full review, early impressions are very promising, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the final review bears that impression out (unless later stages become absurdly overbearing, which is possible). We should have a review up for you in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out, but so far, things are very promising.