Monday, April 11, 2016

Stranger of Sword City

I like to consider myself a jack of all trades as a gamer. I will willingly give all game genres a shot and usually enjoy them (with a few exceptions such as sports games and RTS games).
Despite this there are still a few genres that I haven't even dabbled in at all for one reason for another and the DRPG genre was one of these. I'd heard of it but had never really touched a game in the genre before, until now that is.

Going into Stranger of Sword City (which I will abbreviate as SoSC from now on) I really had no idea what to expect having not played a DRPG before. Non the less I took the plunge and I am certainly glad that I did. So without further ado here is my review of Stranger of Sword City for the Playstation Vita.

Now before I get into the nitty gritty review stuff I just wanted to bring attention to this games… interesting release history.
SoSC was originally released in Japan on the Xbox 360 in 2014. Yes, a Japanese exclusive 360 game. Originally it was released exclusively on the 360 but then got a PC port later on which was again only released in Japan.
Why is this relevant? Well, the 360 was never a top performing console when it came to sales in Japan so having a Japanese only game released on the 360 exclusively is quite unusual.
Now around a year later the game got rereleased on the PlayStation Vita in Japan and then another year after that this version of the game got ported as a digital download title to the Xbox One of all systems.
This means that SoSC has come out on the interesting platform combo of 360, One and Playstation Vita, which for a Japanese game is quite odd.

The version that I will be looking at for this review is the Playstation Vita version which was published by NISA. The Xbox One version of the game is largely identical from what I've heard, although it was self pubished by Experience Inc. I was going to take a quick look at the Xbox One version of the game for the purposes of a comparison but that isn't quite out in New Zealand yet so I'll update this review with a comparison when it has come out.

Anyway with that out of the way lets move onto the story.

You play as a self insert silent protagonest who is the only survivor of a plane crash. When you wake up you find yourself in the fantasy land of Escaro. From there you learn that in Escaro you are considered a stranger, and as a stranger it is your job to hunt down special monsters known as Liniage types and collect their blood crystal (which is a sort of life source) to keep the peace in Escaro.

The plot is…. Well I'll admit it doesn't seem to be the games' strongest point.
While the game spends around an hour at the start fleshing out the characters a bit, the plot quickly takes a back seat from there in favour of the gameplay. While that isn't technically a bad thing it does mean that the plot does progress at a rather slow pace for reasons I will get into later.
SoSC isn't really a game you play for the plot anyway, it is there and the concept is certainly interesting, so I'll give it that. It's just paced really slowly.

Oh boy this section is going to be LONG.
Before I dive into the games' mechanics, let's just clear up what a DRPG game actually is for those not in the know.
DRPG's stand for Dungeon Crawler RPG. Most of the time the games are played from a first person perspective and involve… well crawling through dungeons, fighting monsters, character building, sometimes permadeath and insane amounts of grinding.

With that out of the way, SoSC is not for the faint of heart especially if you have trouble with games with loads of systems and mechanics.
SoSC does not hold your hand, it basically shoves you right off the deep end and won't force tutorials upon you unless it absolutely has to. However, at the same time the game does provide info for newer players in the form of a guide that can be accessed at any time by pushing the Select Button.
I like this feature a lot. As a person who has never played a DRPG before, this guide certainly made learning the many mechanics and systems in the game far FAR easier.
Speaking of the mechanics and systems, there are a lot of them. Like… tons of them.
You've got skill trees, weaknesses and strengths, weapon balance, permadeath, alignment, positioning, the list goes on. There is a lot to learn in SoSC, which I could see putting off players new to the genre, something which I completely understand myself.
However, the reward for learning these mechanics is you get an incredibly engaging game with a lot of strategy, planning and thought involved in everything from battles to character creation. SoSC is one of those games which will have you spending quite a while in the character creator but unlike other games it isn't because you are spending hours making your character look just right, it's instead spent weighing out what class to go with, how to allocate your points, what age to make your character and lots of rerolling of the RNG die to get the highest number of bonus points possible. Yes, even age plays a part in how your character performs out in the field.
This is why I find SoSC so rewarding. Learning these mechanics is a long process but the payoff leaves you feeling very satisfied and pleased with yourself. I like that.

The other layer of the gameplay is the actual dungeon crawling bit. This is a pretty standard affair and should be familiar to most who have played a DRPG before. You control your character from a first person perspective and use the dpad to move him or her around. Unlike a lot of DRPG's though, most enemies appear on the overworld instead of the encounters being random (although random encounters are still present they are nowhere near as common of an occurrence as in other DRPG's).
One unique feature is the ability to hide in certain places on the map and ambush enemies. These enemies will usually be carrying treasure chests which contain weapons, armor or other items. To make sure you receive these items you have to succeed in killing the leader of the pack of enemies you ambushed. Sometimes after getting a chest you'll have to disarm a trap as well, usually the game will give you good hints as to what the trap will probably be but there are some cases where you just have to guess and hope for the best. Again, this mechanic of hiding is something I quite enjoy although it does result in a lot of back and forward.

Battles also take place from a first person view. Depending on your character and their position, you will be given a variety of options which can be performed. Once you've selected all the options you want, the battle plays out all at once.
One main gameplay concept is rows. Often when you run into a pack of enemies they will be arranged in rows with a max of three per row. Depending on what type of attacks you're using (magic or physical), the characters possition (I.E front or back row) and the type of weapon you are using you will be able to hit enemies in specific rows.
Most of the time front row people will only be able to attack the first row of enemies unless they have a long or ranged weapon. Back row people won't be able to use physical attacks at all unless they have a long or ranged weapon. On the flipside however, magic attacks can hit any enemy in any row regardless of where the user is placed in the party, which means it is usually a good idea to place magic users in the back row and the physical tanks in the front.
Back row people also get attacked less so it's usually a good idea to place all the physical tanks in the front row and the support and offensive magic users in the back row.

The battle system is surprisingly strategic in this way, because it makes you think about the pros and cons of where you place party members, what weapons you give what member and which characters you create. SoSC is one of the only RPG's I've played where I've thought to myself “Y know, maybe giving everyone super powerful weapons isn't the best idea”.
Different weapons also have the ability to hit a different number of times, with a max damage cap for each hit so sometimes it may be better off equiping a weapon that does 20 damage per hit but hits twice rather than a weapon that does 45 damage but only hits once.
SoSC is a game that makes the player really plan and think about their loadout and the pros and cons of different equips. For example, all characters have the ability to equip a second weapon in their non dominant hand, but this weapon usually will have lower accuracy and can also leave a penalty of lowered damage to the weapon in the dominant hand as well. On the flip side it's a chance to deal more hits and sometimes more damage. It's little things like this which really made me think and plan my party in SoSC and I found it very enjoyable.

Like other RPG's, when you finish battles you gain experience points. Unlike other RPGs, however when you gain enough experience points to level up you don't level up automatically. You have to manually go into the character menu and select level up. It took me a little while to get the hang of this mechanic, but once I did I didn't find it too annoying.
What is important though is to always make sure you check your fighters who are NOT in your party when you exit a dungeon as surprisingly they also gain experience even though they are not in your party. However like your party members they manually level up so you need to remember to check and make sure all of them have been leveled up if possible otherwise they won't gain any extra experience while you are out and about.

On the subject of characters lets have a quick look at the permadeath system.
All characters in SoSC have a certain number of LP, or life points. These life points show how many times your party member can die before they are gone forever. A characters age actually determines how many life points the character will have with older characters having less LP and younger characters having more.
When a character falls they have to recover back at the base. This takes time though, despite revival actually being free. So while your character is recovering you go out and continue your questing to make time pass. When a character is revived you can put them right back into your party, but they will have still lost LP. If you don't want to lose the character for good then you can again rest them to recover LP. This takes… quite a lot of in game time to be honest, but it's worth the wait if your character is one who you really don't want to lose.
You can buy revival items for use in the field but they are rather expensive and like all items in the game are in limited supply so use them wisely.
Finally, we have the Divinity system. Think of it like a special form of magic that only the main character can use. As you proceed through the in game skill tree you will earn divinities which allow you to do such things as escape all battles (except things like boss fights), heal the whole party, perform attacks which deal large amounts of damage and other stuff.
Divinity moves use up divinity points which are gained by fighting in battles and proceeding through the dungeon. Personally I really like the divinity system as it provides some useful little moves which can really help out in a pinch.

Phew that was a long section. Like I said, SoSC is a very meaty game with a lot to get your head around which is why this section was so long. Still with me? Good. Let's move onto the presentation then.

SoSC is in a word, pretty. The art is stunning and incredibly detailed and character and enemy designs are very well done (although I have heard that some of the enemies have been recycled from Dungeon Travelers 2).
One thing that is interesting is the game has two different art styles that you can pick from, the second art style being more light and fluffy while the first one is a little more dark and gritty. Given the setting of the game I used the first art style as I felt it fit with the setting way better than the second art style, which felt a little out of place in my opinion.
Graphically the game, while certainly not pushing the Vita to its limits, looks really nice. Environments are nicely designed and quite a few of them really pop and make for quite a pretty looking game which looks excellent on the Playstation Vita's OLED screen (For the record I'm using a Playstation Vita 1000). To top it off the game also runs at a silky smooth 60FPS the entire time and it makes everything that little bit better.

Musically the game sports an excellent soundtrack with some lovely orcestral pieces which really fit the mood and setting. You have some more mellow tracks, some more upbeat tracks for boss fights and enemy encounters and some eerie tracks for some dungeons.
The vocals sound really nice too, although you are given the option to turn them off if you don't like them which I think is a nice touch.

Now, I don't normally do this but I'd like to touch on the sound design for a second because I feel this is an area that SoSC really excells in.
The sound design in SoSC really blew me away, especially in the dungeons. When all you can hear is the background ambiance you can really appreciate how good it is. The calling of distant birds, the bustling of a village, the chirping of crickets, it's all there and it blends together incredibly well in SoSC and really makes the dungeons that little bit better. I really like games that do a lot of work with the sound design so SoSC really impressed me with it.
Voice acting is also really good too. Most of the game is voice acted, and while I can't understand Japanese the voices do sound pretty darn good.

Before I get onto my conclusion I just have a few minor nitpicks I wanted to point out. Firstly, this game is very, VERY grindy. It took me around six hours to unlock the first set of dungeons grindy. Now I know this is a trait of DRPGs but that doesn't make it any less of a chore to continuely go back and forward hunting out battles just so you can beat the next boss. I only make this a minor nitpick though as the games battle system is enjoyable enough that it makes me forget about the constant grinding for the most part.

The bar for entry is also quite high. Like I said before this game will not hold your hand and I wouldn't really recommend it to people who are brand new to DRPG's. The game is still excellent and I would highly recommend it to people who have had experience with DRPG's before but it isn't the best DRPG game for people completely new to the genre.

The difficulty might turn some off as well, as this game is quite tough even on easy mode. In fact, easy mode has points where you can be massively outleveled by certain enemies due to a lower encounter rate and enemies on the field so I would highly recommend you play on normal anyway.

Despite those complaints I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with SoSC. It's a game with a lot of polish and thought in the mechanics and is a great game for those who love games which are real timesinks. The game also has multiple endings which adds replay value to an already jam packed game.

So would I recommend Stranger of Sword City?
Heck yes. Like I said above I wouldn't recommend it to newbies of the genre but I totally recommend this game to people who have played DRPG's before and are looking for another excellent timesink.

Stranger of Sword City gets a highly recommended.

This is probably one of the longest reviews I have ever written so if you are still here after all of that then give yourself a pat on the back. Either way I hope you enjoyed the review as much as I enjoyed playing the game.

BDVR Guest Author Nathan Green signing off

PEGI: 16



OFLC: M (Unrestricted)

Stranger of Sword City game provided for review by NIS America. Screenshots provided by NIS America. Cover from