Stranger of Sword City Vita Review
It is all thanks to handheld gaming that I got myself into first-person dungeon crawling. I had heard of titles like Wizardry, Might and Magic, and Eye of the Beholder, but I never took up the chance to jump into their worlds. These type of games you might associate with PC, and while there have been a snippet of games released (Legend of Grimrock comes to mind), it has been quiet on that platform. If you want to experience (inc? Bad joke, I know) the genre, it seems your best bet is on the current set of handhelds, as both the Vita and 3DS keep on supplying great Japanese adaptations on this old school gameplay. Stranger of Sword City, from developers Experience Inc, a Japanese studio that knows the genre – they already have Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy on Vita – has brought another difficult dungeon crawler to the West with one of their modern day settings, which remains refreshing in a genre that is often associated with typical fantasy.
Stranger of Sword City wastes no time getting the adventure going. The game begins with your avatar in the middle of a plane flight, but is suddenly involved in an explosion, causing the plane to dive and crash into the ground. Waking up for the crash, you are the only survivor found in the wreckage. Confused and lost, it’s not long until a craggy old man appears before you and gives a slight inkling to what has happened. Unfortunately, five minutes in, it seems there is an motive behind the old man – he wants you dead. Just in the nick of time, a young woman with a huge sword comes in to save the day, chopping off the monster’s head and telling the old man to get lost. She then introduces herself as Riu Tsukisada, explaining that she is exactly like you, a “Stranger” in this unknown world. She explains that somehow the plane explosion had caused you to traverse dimensions, crash landing in a place that is not the Earth as you know it. Offering a helping hand, Riu takes the player to Sword City and invites them to join the Strangers Guild, so they can assist each other in finding a way back home.
The story sets up for an interesting premise, but it never goes all out, never goes above being a serviceable tale. There are some cool concepts here. For one, the idea that Strangers have superhuman strength due to the reduced gravity reminds me of a superhero plot point. It means the Strangers you come into contact with can look badass, as they wear over-the-top armour and wield huge weapons with ease. There is a part within the first two-three hours where a gameplay mechanic mixes in with the story that involves around three characters that are revered as special leaders of their respected cities. These leaders are also vessels that desire blood crystals, item drops obtained from lineage species (bosses), and in exchange for blood crystals, the leaders will reward with a special ability. Your selection is important, as these three vessels represent a light, neutral and dark side direction of the game and ultimately, the one you use the most is what determines which of the three endings shown. It’s an interesting mechanic to implement, but it can be too easy to go for the beneficial skills you desire over the attitude of the vessel that represents them. You learn a bit more about each character as you give them more blood crystals, but it’s a shame the game does not go deeper with the rest of the characters and this strange world.
One of the first jobs to do once the player is in control is use the character creator to make an avatar. If anyone has played any of the old BioWare games (Baldur’s Gate), you’ll understand the construct here, since it’s inspired by those Dungeons & Dragons computer RPGs. A party can consist of up to six members, but more can be held back at base, so the character creator is something that gets used often, especially since characters can die permanently (more on that later).
Creating characters is easy to understand. Simply pick a portrait from the many available, then select their age. This is important, because the age bracket determines what bonus skill points and resurrection points are received. Teenagers receive three hearts, but lack the experience for high bonus points. As the bracket goes up, it becomes flipped, with 20-59 year old characters having two hearts and the 60+ only having one, but gaining an hefty ten bonus points, potentially seven more than the teens depending on how successful the re-roll for more bonus points is. Hearts determine how many times a character can die. Creating an old character means they instantly vanish on death, while the young guns can be taken to the hospital to be resurrected, reducing an heart in the process. The last part is race, which changes the starting stats (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Migmy, Ney), Class (Fighter, Knight, Wizard, Ranger, Dancer, Cleric, Ninja, Samurai), basically how the character will play and what skills are unlocked at each level for them, and finally an assigned gifted talent, a bonus trait that could reveal hidden secrets or target enemy weaknesses.
It is fair to say the character creator includes various options, but it is not something that reinvents the wheel, rather, it is important to create a varied group with the tools at hand. A party needs damage dealers, healers, magic users, since various enemies are strong and weak against different elements. An unbalanced party is easily going to be met with death, as this game is no joke when it comes to making sure you are paying attention to your party’s current state. One mistake can easily put you in a bad situation, and so having that healer is vital to repair the damage. The ability to change classes is smart. Using this tool – maximum of five per character – allows the character to bring a couple of skills from their previous class and meld them with the new one. Being able to do this multiple times across classes can offer some class builds that could potentially cover multiple roles. Imagine a healer who could also tank and receive damage as a knight, or a wizard who could sit in the back row, but when exhausted of magic points, could bombard the enemy with arrows (that is giving me Magick Archer vibes from Dragon’s Dogma). There are plenty of options here, so while it might not be revolutionary in character creation, there is an layer that gives enough to the player to customise their team in a number of ways.
Most time spent with Stranger of Sword City is being outside of the safety of Sword City and doing dungeon exploring, a lot of dungeon exploring. The major task of the game is to hunt down lineage species in each environment. A menu item shows the information you have on the species. Speaking to non-playable characters who cross your path, either back at base or in dungeons, often coughs up information on finding the harder, more hidden monsters. Once past the tutorial, the game opens up multiple locations, giving the freedom to tackle the objectives in the order you like. Of course, some of them are harder than others, indicated by a star rating under their wanted poster, so only the utmost brave (or stupid) will want to challenge the harder monsters. That does not mean players have to stick to the ideal path, as plenty of monsters fit in each star rating, so you are free to investigate within the confines of the difficulty.
Every location outside of towns acts as a dungeon. The first-person view translates to seeing just the environment in front of you, but this is not free movement, since every press of a direction will move one square on the map. It would be easy to get lost in some of the larger, later dungeons, but thankfully, the map system automatically fills in the squares you have visited. It begins as a blank slate, but exploring reveals more of the map on screen. It’s not often I feel obsessive compulsive disorder, but when it comes to filling in the map, I have to touch every wall and search every square before moving to the next floor. Unlike Etrian Odyssey, another first-person dungeon crawler, Stranger of Sword City does not let you mark anything on the map, but steps and dungeon specific traps do automatically highlight. I never had any issues knowing where to go, since the undiscovered map was easy to see the point I had travelled to before retreating back, and once the floor is solved, the map clearly indicates how to get to the next floor or what doors are locked (highlighted in red).
It must be said that you will be retreating back a lot in Stranger of Sword City. Your party will take punishment, and supplies can be in short supply, so a return to base is often the best case to get everyone fully healed for free. This makes the inclusion of the auto-move mechanic such a smart one. The auto-move needs a square on the map to be selected, then the game will drive the movement at a faster pace. The only issue the player needs to worry about is hitting a dizzy trap or running into a random fight. Auto-move cuts down travel time a ton, but the downside is that auto-move does not work between floors, meaning a new point has to be selected each time the player moves up or down a dungeon floor. But that is the only downside to what makes grinding a more bearable experience. Just pick the furthest point on the map, let the game move for you until it runs into a random battle, then the game takes back control to continue moving once the fight is over.
As the word grinding might have alerted you, fighting is quite the common event here. Combat is turned based, with all sides attacking in their turn before switching to the other side, and preserves the first-person view – your party avatars sit on the bottom of the screen and will glow when its their turn to pick a command. Party members sit in a three front, three back formation, and can attack, defend, use skills or items, or if the worst happens, flee from battle. There is nothing complex to understand with Stranger of Sword City‘s battle system, but it can be challenging if you do not make maximum use of your party’s strengths, using their buffs and skills to make life easier or making sure their position is correct. For example, you do not want a cleric on the front row and a knight on the back, or forgetting to cast magic enchant on weapons to fight against spirits that are only weak to magic. Failing to understand the effects that characters can have during in battle will make life hard, and will no doubt lead to death, and there is plenty of death to go around, as I found out.
I have to tip my hat off to Experience Inc for implementing features that are aimed to get rid of the grind. I already mentioned the auto-move, but battles have also been given mechanics to speed the process up. Options to repeat the last round command means you can skip repeating command entries. On top of that is the option to perform an instant outcome, which will instantly show the results of that round. Sadly, grinding is mostly a compulsory part of Stranger of Sword City. There are points where I feel you have to if you are playing on the normal difficulty (there is a beginner difficulty to make the game a little easier). Stranger of Sword City is full of surprises, rather unforgiving if I am honest. It can be all to easy to auto battle areas you have already visited, but in fact, the same enemy might be a higher level than before, and there is no indication this is the case unless you specifically look at the details of the enemy when manually attacking – no colour change, no size change, making it easy to think nothing of it and auto battle yourself to a couple of party member deaths. Being prepared for anything is the best course of action. This game doesn’t care about uncaring players, and plenty of times it will make you feel at a disadvantage, as it did with me when enemies would often call in reinforces after I slaughtered the first lot. It can feel a tad cheap with its use of reinforcements, but unless you are badly prepared – make sure to remember every enemy’s weakness – you can usually manage to get through it with minimal casualties.
Death is something to worry about, as all created characters, apart from yourself, can be permanently killed. I mentioned about the life hearts earlier in the review, and these are what set how many times a character can die before they shatter and vanish forever. This is why it’s recommend to first check the enemy out before doing something silly, as a death of a team member can easily happen, and for me, that occasionally meant a reload of my save file and learning from my mistakes. Characters with hearts still spare can be taken back to Sword City and be hospitalised to recover for free or for a fee. The free takes a day or two (the in game time moves when exploring and fighting), while paying will instantly bring them back, but the cost is not cheap. It is also possible to repair a heart, but this takes a lot of time, a whole week if going the free route, or incredibly expensive for the instant repair, which is hardly ever worth it, as money can be used to buy items and new weapons from the base’s shop. Sword City is also the only place to save, which might frustrate people, but you can buy/find butterflies that will teleport back to safe haven. These are costly, and it was more common to auto-move back to base for a save. This is one of the only few dragging parts of exploring this game’s world.
It’s weird, because since the party members are silent people, you don’t really care for them as a person, but more for their abilities. It’s a huge shame none of the team members have personality. Even if it was something limited to only a few attributes that you could pick from the character creator, I think it would go far for the player to care about his squad members, say similar to a game like Fire Emblem, where losing a member can really change both the team and yourself.
Gaining gear can help tremendously in protecting death, and there is a ton of loot to find. An usually feature that I don’t think I have ever seen in such an RPG before is the hide mechanic. Every dungeon has special areas where the player can sit in hiding by using a resource called morale – this is also used in battle to cast additional skills gained from giving blood crystals to the three vessel. While hiding, monsters carrying treasure chests will walk pass, allowing yourself to ambush them and steal their goods. A preemptive examination is an option to check what kind of items are in the chest and what level the enemies are. Not liking the gear? Pass on it and wait for the next monsters to arrive. Be warned, as you can only do this five times, and each time will limit the chance of gaining an ambush on them, as the enemy will flip it around and ambush the party. A lot of loot is stashed in these chests and is usually the best way to get better gear. Items found during time spent exploring dungeons and hijacking monsters have to be identified. This can be done during exploration, but there is a chance the character examining the item will fail, causing it to be cursed. I always found it best to take the loot back to base and let them identify my acquired items, since it guarantees success.
I remember seeing screenshots for Stranger of Sword City back when it was announced and that defining it for me. It’s visual style is striking and unforgettable, one that leans on the dark and grim, but it fits well with the moody setting of the world. Everything is depressing and unpleasant, yet each beautiful piece of art is packed with exceptional detail. Disappointingly, all of it is static. A new art style was brought across with the Vita version of the game that changes the characters portraits, one that falls more within the modern anime design, but I don’t like this style, as it’s way too colour for this game’s setting. They simply stand out like a sore thumb. It is nice that you can switch between the two styles at any point by going into the options, so for anyone who wants to give the anime aesthetics a go, they can without having to stay with them for the entire game. The environments aren’t as pleasant, suffering from being empty and barebones, and the backgrounds, while visually clean, are also uninteresting for the most part. This is something that seems to plague a lot of dungeon crawlers.
Stranger of Sword City takes the fundamentals of the dungeon crawler and coats it with a twist of Japanese. It infuses dark gorgeous visuals with engrossing gameplay, while fixing up some of the weaknesses of the genre by implementing extremely useful mechanics that help the game flow better and remove the sterile downtime that can happen often in other dungeon crawlers. Stranger of Sword City might suffer from a standard story, and it can certainly throw in a few difficulty spikes, but with the peril of permadeath lingering with each battle, the tense, polished gameplay, and the improvements to the formula make Stranger of Sword City shine, and is easily one of the better, more satisfying dungeon crawlers to get immersed with on handheld.