Review – Stranger of Sword City (XB One)
Stranger of Sword City is a first-person, dungeon crawling RPG from Experience Inc., the developers behind Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. Originally released in 2012 in Japan for the Xbox 360, Strangers of Sword City has been updated with higher resolution graphics and a brand new optional art style. The game is currently available for the Xbox One as a digital download and a retail and digital release for the PS Vita is due at the end of the month from publisher NIS America.
When the game starts, you are a passenger aboard an airliner that vanishes and subsequently crashes. You are the lone survivor. You meet a mysterious old man who helps you to exit the dungeon, then eventually tries to kill you. Before he can however, you are saved by a girl named Riu, a mysterious armored swordswoman in a school girl uniform. After your first battle, Riu takes you back to the Stranger’s Guild, a place where strangers such as yourself have a place to stay and gather. It is here where Riu and her helpers, Anna and Kyou, who also happen to be strangers, tell you about who you are and the world you are in. There are three people in the world of Escario known as vessels, of which Riu is one. You are a stranger, someone from an outside world. Not only are you a stranger, you are also a Chosen One, someone who can defeat monstrous creatures known as Lineage Types and take their essence, known as blood crystals. For if someone kills a Lineage Type and does not take the blood crystal it will once again become a mighty, destructive beast. Each of the three vessels need these blood crystals for one reason or another. In return, you are granted special abilities to help you throughout the game. The story outcomes will differ based on who you give these crystals to, so choose wisely. I felt that some of the writing could’ve been better. There are times where some of the dialogue seemed a bit boring. but the writing didn’t bring the game down at all, the story itself was good enough for me.
One of the things about this game is that you can not only create your main character, but you can create your team as well. The character creation starts out with picking your portrait from one of eighty nine character portraits from both art styles. Then you choose your gender. Neither of these choices have any effect on the story or gameplay. You could be a dude that looks like a big breasted catgirl that sounds like a child if you wanted; the game won’t care. After choosing your portrait and gender, you pick your age. This is where it starts having some effect on the game. The younger you make you character, the more life points you get. The older your character is, the more bonus points you can get. After picking your species (human for you, samurai, ninja, fighter, dwarf, migmy, dancer, ranger, etc. for your characters) you get to roll (or reroll to your heart’s content) for your bonus points. Your bonus points can be added to any of your traits to boost them. Then, finally, you name your character. Be careful with what you pick for your nickname, though, because that is what all of the characters and the game refer to you as.
After you are told of the situation you are in, you can create a team of six (or use the premade warriors) and venture out back to the Mausoleum of Metal, the dungeon upon where your plane crashed. These dungeons are where the meat of the game lies. As I said before, the game is a first person dungeon crawler. If you’ve never played a dungeon crawler, the game plays like this: you walk through the dungeons in a grid like fashion looking for loot and monsters to kill. The map does have an auto walk system to it so you can just select a location on the map and the game moves to that spot for you. Sword City’s combat is your standard, first-person, turn based RPG. You pick the commands for each of the characters and everyone, enemies included, take turns attacking based on the stats of the character. You have your standard commands: attack, skills, spells for magic based characters, but you also have divinity skills. These skills use morale points and have different effects (100% escape from battle, health regeneration, etc.). Some of these skills are one turn only and others last for one battle.
As you are traversing the dungeons, you will come across special areas of the map that are good for hiding. Hiding also uses up morale points, but the enemies you face while hiding carry treasure chests and inside the chests are better loot. You are able to see what enemies are in each group and what type of item is in the chest they are carrying. If you don’t like what item they have or don’t think you can defeat them, you can let them pass. Be careful, though, as the more you pass up enemies, the more susceptible you become to an ambush attack.
One thing about Strangers of Sword City is that it introduces permadeath as part of its game mechanics. Each character has anywhere from 1 to 3 life points and when a character loses all of their life points they die… For good. So you really need to keep a good eye on everyone’s health. You can restore your HP and MP by returning to the world map. Returning to the world map also identifies the various items you find in the dungeons, such as armor or weapons. Without identifying items, they are unusable. Should your character or party die in battle, you can go to the base in the Stranger’s Guild and recover. For your character, it is instant and costs money (if you have it). For your party, however, they must become hospitalized and will remain there for a set period of time. You can also pay, if you have the coin, to instantly revive them. You can also use the base to recover lost life points. Doing so, however, will keep your character out of commission even longer. Because of this, it is wise, and recommended, to keep spare warriors at the ready so you can swap out when needed.
The thing about Stranger of Sword City, is that at the start it is exceptionally tough. You can progress through to the end of the first dungeon in maybe 2-3 trips. Once you get to the end, you fight your first Lineage Type on your own. If you are not adequately leveled, you will be murdered. Decimated. For an RPG, it does makes sense. All RPGs are like this. However, you can traverse quite a while before you get a random encounter. The hiding spots, while great for finding battles, can only really be used once per trip as the number of morale points needed increases substantially. Maybe the reason I had a harder time with it was because this is only the second dungeon crawler I’ve played, but even regular RPGs seem to have a higher encounter rate. It kind of reminds me of Pokemon, where you keep moving back and forth, back and forth through the tall grass just to find battles. This kind of makes leveling up seem like a chore. However, once you become a decent level, the game feels a bit more balanced. Another thing that kind of breaks the emersion into the game, at least for me, was the fact that your character’s design has no impact on the game. More specifically, the creator doesn’t take the story into account. Seems kind of silly, yes, but since you can only be a human, it doesn’t make sense to look like a catgirl or an elf and have everyone still call you a human or why there was someone in a full set of knight’s armor on a plane out of Japan. Kind of nit picky, I know, but it does kind of bug me.
Another thing that kind of bugged me was how you and your party level up. As per traditional RPGs you get experience by defeating enemies and when you fill your experience bar, you level up. Except here, you have to actually go into the character’s stats screen and manually hit the level up button, then you actually level up. It’s kind of irritating when you are having a hard time only to find out it was because you didn’t actually level up. Also, blood crystals being the currency of the land. Blood crystals are hard to come by and are required to buy items from the shop. You can sell excess equipment off, but you don’t get squat for it. Your best bet for finding new armor and weapons is to use the hiding spots in each dungeon.
Stranger of Sword City isn’t a graphical masterpiece, which make sense seeing as it was originally released for the Xbox 360 two year ago in Japan. The main beauty of the game, though, comes from the character and enemy sprites. The character sprites can be change between two different art styles. The original art style by Yoko Tsukamoto has a more western fantasy inspired look while the newer art style by Oxijiyen is a more straight up anime look. While both styles are absolutely great, I find Tsukamoto’s style more fitting for the story in my mind. The background music is some of the best I’ve heard in a while. The spoken dialogue in the game still uses the original Japanese voice track, so dub only players would want to keep that in mind.
So that’s Stranger of Sword City in a nut shell. While experienced DRPG players may feel at home with the game, novice players, such as myself, might feel overwhelmed by its slow start and high difficulty, especially with the permadeath. But keep with it, because once you are at an adequate level and the game gets going, it keeps on going and doesn’t stop. For those unsure if they may like it, there is an 8 hour free trial on the Xbox One and your character and stats will transfer over should you decide to purchase the full game.