Inside Pulse 12

Review: Stranger of Sword City (Sony Playstation Vita)

Stranger of Sword City
Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Developer: Experience Inc
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 04/26/16

In theory, Experience Inc is a company I can easily see myself appreciating in the long term; I’ve been openly effusive toward the dungeon crawler genre in the past, and by and large they make dungeon crawlers almost exclusively, so you’d think that would be a match made in heaven. In practice, though, while I found Demon Gaze to be an enjoyable dungeon crawler if you were cool with its subject matter, Operation Abyss was really hard to recommend for a number of reasons to anyone but the most diehard of dungeon crawling fans. Because of that, when it was announced that Stranger of Sword City was coming stateside, I found myself cautiously optimistic. On one hand, Operation Abyss was a remake of the very first games Experience made in Japan from 2009 while Demon Gaze was more current and more likely to be indicative of where Experience was going with their games. On the other, Demon Gaze was designed to be a more anime-inspired title, and it was certainly possible that Stranger of Sword City might take its cues from Operation Abyss as a more “serious” release. Well, as it turns out, Stranger of Sword City takes some of its cues from Demon Gaze, but it improves on them significantly, to the point that it’s honestly in a class of its own in the genre. There are definitely some odd quirks to the game, to be certain, but for the most part, this is the best game to come from Experience yet, and it’s easy to recommend for genre fans of any stripe.

On strange lands and stranger friends

The core plot of Stranger in Sword City focuses around your protagonist, as the game has opted to build around a central main character, ala Demon Gaze, instead of the team as a whole, while still allowing for the team to be as customized as you’d like. Essentially, your character is involved in a plane crash, but instead of ending up in a remake of Final Destination, you wake up in a dungeon in the middle of nowhere with no idea where you are or how you survived. After some introductory shenanigans that act as a partial tutorial, you meet Riu, the leader of the Stranger’s Guild, who informs you of the situation: your plane warped into the land of Escario, AKA Sword City, and you are now a Stranger, a human displaced from your home with rad new powers to compensate. Escario is watched over by three factions, each representing a powerful aspect of some sort of dragon gods: Riu, the leader of the Strangers Guild, Marilith, the leader of the Kingdom, and Alm Medell, the leader of Medell Co (a mining guild of sorts). Your task initially is to hunt down creatures and give Blood Crystals to these leaders as you wish, as doing so improves their standing in the balance of power in the world, but as the plot goes on things get a lot more complicated, and your decisions have significant impact on how the world ends up.

Honestly, the plot here is really strong for several reasons, not the least of which being that a lot of the important conflict takes time to build before it goes somewhere. The game is comfortable choosing not to show its entire hand, narratively, and instead builds up several interesting power struggles and mysteries behind the scenes, doling out plot development over time instead of in a massive exposition dump, and it works really well. It also helps that the game’s plot understates a lot of its conflicts at first, and in some cases creates true moments of surprise and shock through the story it’s trying to tell. There are also a total of six different endings, depending on who you choose to support in the end and how you choose to do so, and while there’s a certain degree of morality in play here, the plot is well focused toward trying to make it feel like everyone involved has a fair point to make. Morality plays in video games can often feel like they’re a case of saving the homeless versus eating the homeless, but Stranger of Sword City is more interested in making its factions seem relatable, such that you’ll want to see their stories through to see how things play out, rather than to pop a Trophy or whatever. Finally, it’s also worth noting that the characters in general are all surprisingly strong, even though most of the game is focused on dungeon crawling rather than plot exposition, and the character roster is full of well-written men and women alike who come across as believable and interesting. This might not necessarily be the sort of game you’ll play because of its plot, but it’ll definitely keep you coming back no matter what brought you to the dance.

Visually, Stranger of Sword City uses the same aesthetics as prior games in the Experience catalog, meaning dungeons are rendered using the 3D engine, while characters, enemies, combat backgrounds and town environments all feature hand-drawn artwork. The game actually features a lot of hand-drawn artwork this time around; not only can you swap between two different sets of NPC artwork palettes, but you’re given an astonishing number of character portraits to choose from, and enemies vary significantly, such that while there are some reused models, they’re not as frequent as you’d expect. On the downside, this also means that combat animations are relegated to swipes of color on the screen, and while they look nice, combat feels really static from a visual perspective as a result. On the aural side of things, the soundtrack is mostly fantastic, featuring several strong tracks for each dungeon and multiple battle themes depending on the nature of the battle in question. All of the tracks fit well and match the theme of the game nicely, and there are a few that stand out on their own, including a few stellar vocalized tracks (though you can turn the vocals off if you’re so inclined). The game also features some voice work, in the original Japanese language track, and while the game isn’t fully voiced, what’s here is pleasant and adds to the experience when it does pop up. The only downside to the audio is that the game noticeably reuses sound effects from prior Experience titles, but it’s generally minor; the game does have its own effects in play, and there are only so many ways you can simulate combat noises, honestly, so while you’ll notice them, they’re not so big a part of the experience as to be detrimental.

On scavenging dungeons and slaughtering monsters

The core of Stranger of Sword City is based around first person dungeon crawling, so if you’re even the slightest bit familiar with the genre, be it from prior Experience games, Persona Q, Etrian Odyssey or the Wizardry or Might and Magic franchises, you’ll be right at home here. You can use the left stick or D-Pad to perform forward movement and turns if you want to make sure you’re always facing front, or the right stick if you’re fine with moving in the direction you press, and each method works out just fine. Combat works off of a combination of random combat (which is infrequent) and visible enemy icons that appear in the game world, and once in combat proper, the play switches to a standard turn-based battle system: you choose your options, characters go in order of their initiative, and battles progress until someone dies or you run away. When not in a dungeon at all, you’re given an overworld map to view that allows you to select your core destination, and the appropriate sub-destination within it, from a menu that instantly takes you where you want to go. While you can go to the Kingdom and Medell Co. if you need to advance the plot or turn in Blood Crystals (more on that in a bit), most of your time not spent in dungeons will be spent at the Stranger’s Guild, which acts as your hub, allowing you to perform transactions, fix up dead characters and so on as needed. The game gives you a fair amount of tutorial on how to play the game properly, so you’ll have a decent idea as to how things work from the start if nothing else, but a lot of the basic play elements are designed logically and with minimal menu navigation, so you should be able to figure it out quickly.

That said, there are a lot of interesting mechanics here that are worth discussing, not the least of which is proper character creation and development, because it’s quite extensive. In the very beginning you’re allowed to create your character as you see fit, which helps to acclimate you to the experience. This includes choosing your name, nickname, gender and portrait, though none of these things are related to one another in any specific way (and the game even explains this as being a side effect of Strangers changing when coming to this world) so if you want to make dude named Napoleon Bonaparte, nickname him Shortround and have him be a catgirl dancer, go nuts. The rest of the choices in character creation have a lot to do with how your character plays out, however, and are worth considering during the initial building, since you can’t change them later, unlike the cosmetic options. Race and Class are fairly logical up-front, as the former dictates your default starting statistic distribution and the latter dictates the role you’ll play in battle, IE, Knights are tank classes for front-line battle, Wizards are squishy back row casters, Clerics are healers who can work in either row and so on (which the game helpfully explains during selection). What’s less apparent is how your age impacts gameplay, especially as it relates to your main character. Basically, your age dictates the maximum number of Life Points you have and the likely maximum number of skill points you can get when rolling your character (though you can reroll that number as much as you like until it’s what you want). Older characters are more experienced, and thus have more skill point potential, but are frailer and have less Life Points, which dictate how many times you can be resurrected from death. This doesn’t impact your main character, mind you, but it is important for your underlings, so it’s worth considering, especially given how the resurrection mechanic works.

Once you have a full party, you might consider your job done, but that’s not even close to true for two reasons. The first is because you’ll almost certainly want to have a second party of five waiting in reserve for you to sub in when needed (though the game gives you a full party by default if you want to just go with that). This is because of the aforementioned resurrection mechanic; when your character dies, you’re resurrected immediately for a nominal fee, but when other characters die, you either need to use an item to bring them back or leave them at the Base to recover, for a period of one or more days… or pay a massive fee to bring them back right then. Battles generally elapse two in-game hours, so you can simply bring your second party out to grind for a bit if you want that primary character back, but it’s better to let them regenerate that Life Point while they’re in the Base. See, once Life Points are depleted, that’s it; the character gives up the ghost and “disappears,” thus ending their quest outright. This can be undone, however, by having them rest at the Base to replenish said point, which can take a week or more in-game. What this means is that you’ll either want to have backups at all times if you want to live life on the edge, or you’ll want to have a backup to fill in while a party member recovers if you want to play it safe. Further, backup characters level up (at a reduced rate) as you play and even collect cash for you, so having a full team to level and collect loot is the best possible option for your pockets and your roster.

The second reason is because you can also change jobs, which is very useful, if time consuming. Basically, characters can equip skills from any job they’ve used (up to a maximum of six), and while you only have two skill slots to start, each time a class hits level thirteen, you unlock another slot. Changing classes also improves your overall hit point value, meaning a character who has changed jobs six times can have eight skill slots and buffed out health, making them far more powerful than they would be without. Additionally, each class has several really strong skills that can be quite useful in the hands of a different job, and several classes have jobs that are ideal for every class to have on-hand. Knights, for example, get a passive skill that improves defense at every level, while Dancers get a skill that makes the range on any weapon infinite (meaning you can hit any row with any weapon), and Assassins get a skill that protects the party from attacks, so you’ve got plenty of options for jobs to assign to your team. This can also allow you to equip the souls of specific gear sets, so if you want to equip swords and heavy armor to your Wizard, have them take some levels in Knight and you can do so easily. That said, your stats are set up to the highest level job you’ve earned, so it’s better to keep your Knight acting as a Knight even if they’re currently an Assassin since they’ll have the right stats for it, but it’s surprisingly easy to grind out levels with your buffed squad the second go-round and beyond.

Another point to note is the Morale system, as that gives us a chance to discuss Blood Crystals, how you get them and why you want them. The Morale system shares elements with prior Experience mechanics, and it can essentially be considered as something of a team skill mechanic: each turn, your Morale meter can be increased or decreased based on the damage you do and spell or skill effects, and you can burn points from this meter to kick on special effects to benefit your team, called Divinity skills. These effects can vary wildly, as some will perform all-out, high damage attacks, others improve your hit and avoidance rates, and others still can regenerate your health, so you’ll have plenty of reason to use them, especially in hard battles. In the beginning of the game you’ll only have a small amount of Morale and a single skill, but you can earn more of each through acquiring Blood Crystals. This occurs when you hunt down Lineage Monsters, which (as the special name implies) are harder than average monsters, akin to bosses (though many aren’t positioned as such), who often have specific conditions required to spawn them, as well as more complex tactical requirements to take down. The first time you do so, you’ll be rewarded with a Blood Crystal, and once you have enough at one time, you can bring them to one of the three factions in order to cash them in. Doing so has several effects, as it allows you to purchase a Morale skill from the faction in question as well as increase your Morale by five points each time, in addition to offering your support to that faction in the narrative. Because of this, it’s worth weighing not only how useful the skills available to you are, but also how your choice might impact the factions you’re aiming to ally with; put another way, a faction might have a really useful skill available but might not be your ideal choice, and vice versa, making for some interesting decision making.

Now, once you have a party fully crafted, you’ll generally want to head out into the dungeons to fight enemies and collect some Blood Crystals, but even then there’s a lot going on here that’s unique both to the developer’s work and the game proper. For one thing, while the game occasionally pays out in loot when you kill enemies, most of the time you’ll either need to collect stuff from icons in the dungeon (for normal loot) or by using the Ambush system (for gear). For those who are familiar with Demon Gaze, this system will sound familiar; basically, you head to specific locations on the map, engage in challenging battles and collect loot. In Stranger of Sword City, however, the structure a bit more simplified: certain parts of the map are marked as prime locations for an “Ambush,” and by spending Morale (five points to start, more each time you reuse a location) you can hide and wait for enemies to jump. This is something of a lateral move from the system used in Demon Gaze, as on one hand, you don’t need to collect specific items to do this thing, making it easier to do regularly, but on the other, you have little control over the items you can get, as it’s left up to dungeon specifications and random chance, so you’ll need to experiment and wait a lot.

Now, the Ambush system also has its own interesting risk/reward system in place, as it allows you to camp that spot and wait for an enemy to show up, at which point (if they have an item you want), you can choose to jump them… or you can let them pass and see if the next enemy has better loot. You can do this up to five times, but each time you do, you increase the risk the enemy will ambush you instead, which can seriously leave you in trouble. Further, you also have to kill the leader enemy to get the loot, and the leader will try to escape after a few rounds, which, if they succeed, means you get no loot at all. It’s an interesting system, to say the least, and if nothing else, it’s a good way to grind out loot for selling as well as experience. It’s also worth noting that you’ll have to do this thing if you want to get gear; while the in-game shop has some decent equipment for the early parts of the game, it doesn’t add new gear after a certain point, and most of the higher quality pieces are prohibitively expensive for a long time. As such, not only is the Ambush system a free method of getting loot and cash, it’s also the only way to really get gear at all after a certain point.

Beyond the above, there are a few other things to note about the game that, while not immensely game-changing, do give the game a lot of added substance and personality. For one thing, when in battle, each class has the option to either utilize spells or skills, depending on what class you’re using and what skills you’ve equipped. This isn’t significantly notable on its own, but several dungeons can limit whether or not you can use spells or skills in battle, which makes knowing your characters inside and out very important during play. Some monsters are also only vulnerable to certain kinds of weapons, or skills that make your weaponry that weapon type, so it’s useful to pay attention to the monsters you face and, if they’re not taking damage, to try out one of those skills to see what happens. Another interesting addition is in how the game handles its auto-map; not only does the game fill in a full map as you move around (so you don’t have to do it yourself), but it allows you to select a spot on the auto-map to move to if you’ve been there already, and it’ll take you there by the fastest and safest route possible, making dungeon movement easy once you’ve filled in the map a bit. You will also find some markers in the dungeon that allow you to leave the dungeon whenever you wish, acting as waypoints of sorts, but in an interesting twist, Lineage monsters you’ve killed can respawn on these waypoints, making them inert until you’ve killed the monster again. Finally, the game also offers a function called “Fast Apply” that can rocket through a round of combat, and the ability to press Triangle during battle to repeat the previous round’s selections, so if you want to just grind out levels as fast as possible you can do so with no problem here.

On the overall experience

You can probably complete Stranger of Sword City in around sixty to eighty hours, depending on how much time you spend grinding out job levels and how much exploration you do, but there are a lot of benefits to coming back to the game beyond a single playthrough. For starters, the game has, again, six potential endings to see, each with its own final resolution to the story, so you’ll have plenty of motivation to see that through, especially if you like the cast and want to see how their stories end. Further, the game offers a New Game Plus mode to carry over your stuff from a prior go-round, including levels, skills and gear, while resetting your job changes to allow you to do it over again if you like. It also raises the levels of the enemies, so you’re not just expected to plow through the same enemies over again, but can expect a challenge every time you play through, similar to how Dark Souls handles this thing. There are also a fairly large amount of Trophies to earn if you’re interested in this thing, ranging from storyline based earnings to Trophies based around finding specific pieces of gear, so you’ll have plenty to do if you’re into unlocking everything. In other words, even if you’re only up for a single playthrough Stranger of Sword City has a lot to offer you, but for those who love games with a lot of long term play, you’ll find this to be more than satisfying to your needs.

The single biggest negative the game has against it, all told, is that it’s hard to really pin down the balance in any meaningful way based on how the systems work, and it really feels like a game designed for players with significant patience. The resurrection system is a prime example of this; early play will leave players either losing members or leaving them out of action for in-game weeks at a time as they adjust, while mid-to-late game play often allows for so much cash that paying off the costs outright is entirely feasible. The game also likes to occasionally spawn high level enemies in zones that can trash your party if you’re not careful, as well as Lineage monsters who interrupt battles who are way out of your league when you first meet them. This is fine, to a point, but the thing is, the level scaling is odd; because your Strangers are more powerful than the natives, you’ll almost always be lower level than the things you face, such that it’s hard to know what the scale is. For instance, I completely trashed a level thirty four Lineage monster at level twenty, but a level thirty Lineage monster ruined my entire party outright, and some Ambush monsters are simply more powerful than you can face, despite being the same level as the monsters around them. None of this is unmanageable, mind you, if you save frequently and pay attention, but it can be frustrating to do well for an hour in a dungeon only to be smeared because an enemy was more powerful than its levels implied or through an ambush by something you just can’t beat. It’s also worth noting that the game is grind-heavy, so those who aren’t used to such a thing will want to adjust their expectations a bit before coming in. The game also isn’t really optimized for handheld play, as you can only save in the Strangers Guild, which wasn’t a problem Demon Gaze had; this is a port from the Xbox 360, which may have something to do with that, but it’s an oversight that should’ve been addressed before the game was released. Finally, it also bears mentioning that the game is heavy on the gimmicks, as between enemies that are weak to certain weapon types, dungeon traps and unique dungeon conditions, you’ll spend as much time managing the dungeons as you do combat.

That said, if you have even a little bit of appreciation for dungeon crawlers, Stranger of Sword City is one of the best in the genre, and it’s easily the best game to come out of Experience yet; it’s absolutely not a game everyone can jump into, but it’s not meant to be, and if you like its genre, you’ll love this. The story is surprisingly high quality, such that it could be the plot of a really good anime series, and the presentation is top-shelf across the board thanks to strong visual style and mostly excellent aural selections. The gameplay will be conceptually familiar to genre fans from jump, but offers all sorts of strong additions, such as Ambushing enemies for gear, automatic map movement, the Divinity system and class change systems that improve your team significantly, and it makes playing the game complex and satisfying. There’s also a lot to see in the first playthrough, as well as the ability to carry your party over to a second playthrough to see all of the game’s six endings, especially since each successive playthrough offers an added challenge. The lack of animation in character models and the repeated sounds may be a letdown for some, and the game has odd balancing quirks that make it frustrating in the early going and potentially fatal in the late game, as judging enemy strength can be hard based on the systems in play. The game also doesn’t have quicksave options for handheld play and the dungeon gimmicks can be overbearing if you’re not prepared for them in advance. If you like dungeon crawlers, however, you’ll likely be prepared for some of these concerns and able to adjust to the rest, and for those players Stranger of Sword City is a masterwork that’s well worth checking out. If you’re patient and can deal with the challenge, there is a lot to love here, and it’s one of the best in its class overall, without a doubt.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Stranger of Sword City is an outstanding experience for fans of dungeon crawlers, as it combines the core elements fans love with several excellent improvements to the formula that make it feel unique, even if it might not draw in those who aren’t into the genre as readily. The plot is outstanding and easily among the best parts of the game overall, and the presentation features beautiful artwork, music that stands on its own while complimenting the experience well and some solid, if sporadic, voice work. The gameplay should be instantly familiar to genre fans, but offers several unique twists to make it feel special, such as Ambushing enemies for loot, the Divinity system to give your team an edge with influential spells, a job change system that makes characters into multi-faceted team players and more. There’s also an extensive amount to see and do the first time you play through the game, as well as the ability to carry over progress to another session so you can see the six endings the game offers and take on greater challenges each time you play. There are some minor concerns, of course; the game features no character or enemy animation and reuses sound effects from prior Experience titles, the balance needs to be adjusted to quite a bit throughout the whole game due to the way the game systems work, the dungeons can be a bit heavy on the gimmicks and the save system isn’t optimized for handheld play. That said, genre fans should be able to adjust to these issues without significant concern, and if you can do so, Stranger of Sword City is a must have game in your collection; it’s one of the better dungeon crawlers released in years, and the best Experience game yet, making it easy to recommend if you’re at all into the genre.