Difficulty is something that some gamers crave. Dark Souls is the biggest testament to this, as its one of the most challenging, but rewarding franchises to come out of the last decade. With sales of the series skyrocketing and sure to go up again with the third installment, (see Rob’s review) it’s clear that how challenging a game is can make or break its overall design. Stranger of Sword City takes the brutal challenge of Persona and the game-feel of Etrian Odyssey to make an interesting hardcore, traditional RPG.
Stranger of Sword City is an RPG similar in style to Dragon Quest in which combat is in first person and flashy animations poke the imagination of the player. Starting up the game throws in a clueless player into character creation similar to a pen and paper RPG. Pick a portrait, pick a class, roll up some stats, it all feels like the classic Dungeons & Dragons games on PC. Gameplay has a lot of battles in which the enemy will likely be stronger and have high defenses against “mash the attack button”, forcing players to learn how to develop their party and use their strengths wisely.
It’s also important to note that leveling up does not happen automatically. If there’s one thing that halts a good D&D session, at least in my experience, it’s leveling up. Stranger of Sword City does exactly that, making players manually level up and choose what stat they want slightly higher. Each class has various skills and spells that happen at set rates, leaving one to wonder why manual level up was even needed.
Unfortunately, for me I either skipped over the part where this was taught to me or ignored it as there’s way too much text. So, my character was at the chipper, innocent first level for at least three hours of dying repeatedly. Saving also requires being at the main town and finding the save option, which is easy to forget is there.
Speaking of text, Stranger of Sword City is one of those games that loves to have the player read, unless you understand Japanese. The half of the game that isn’t traditional combat is more like a visual novel with cutouts of characters. Granted, the art used for the characters and monsters are awesome with tons of minor details to make an appealing aesthetic. In fact, I found myself ignoring the text and just admiring the character art more often than not. However, even though the game’s story and setting are unique, its presentation doesn’t do it justice.
The main meat and potatoes of the game is the dungeon delving. Everything is laid out in first person and the player makes decisions on a grid, checking for traps and waiting in special Hiding Spots for tougher battles and better loot. The area is mapped out as it’s discovered and there are a few really cool secrets that can be discovered. Exploration is a big part of playing Stranger of Sword City and while basic it is satisfying to check out unknown areas, shrouded in darkness, with a possible quick death at every turn.
One of the best features of exploring is the quick travel system. Pulling up the map and clicking on a square will chart the shortest path and send the player rapidly moving towards that spot. One is not immune to random encounters though, so expect a few fights here and there. It’s super handy when going from floor to floor in the dungeons. While this feature may seem like easy street, I found it to be one of the best ways to streamline this sort of dungeon crawler. It made getting back to where I was before dying less of a grind.
Speaking of grinding, if that sort of mechanic isn’t appealing, I’d stay away from Stranger of Sword City. After the first couple floors in the starting area the monsters suddenly become way stronger and show up in more waves. One enemy stopped me after getting to a new floor, only to have evasion out the wazoo, which left my party swinging at air as it summoned more and more enemies. It was disappointing to know that nothing my team could dish out would help me win this fight and watching slowly die was one of the most frustrating things about the game. Trying to overcome that foe turned into playing with different party make-ups and throwing myself at that area over and over until I succeeded. The revival system is a way to prevent players from doing that, but I was either owning my opponents or getting a game over from them, so the “bash head against problem until inevitably better from leveling” method proved useful.
Most of the time I spent with Stranger of Sword City was used in menus, tweaking characters, waiting for revivals, and buying things at the shop. The part I enjoyed, exploring dungeons, seemed to take a back seat to these traditional RPG staples, at least early on in the game. I think I would think better of this game if the presentation had been more diverse. The Persona franchise have released similar games to Stranger of Sword City, but most Persona games have such style and charm that it makes up for the lack of animations. Stranger of Sword City could’ve benefited from interesting characters and more lively experiences instead of this imagination centered game that fits more with the D&D games on early PCs.
It would be hard for me to recommend Stranger of Sword City to the average player. Yet, fans of hardcore RPGs who just want something challenging will have a much better time with it. Players who speak highly of games like Etrian Odyssey on the 3DS or those who played a ton of Eye of the Beholder back in the day may fall in love with the crazy monsters and style of Stranger of Sword City.
Stranger of Sword City will be available in the US on April 26 on the Playstation Vita, and is coming to European gamers on the 29th. It’s already available on the Xbox One and was originally released on the Xbox 360 in Japan in 2014.