NISA, and their co-developer/publisher 'Experience Inc.' have a surprise up their sleeves for all those dRPG (Dungeon Crawler Role-playing Games) lovers out there. One that may, or may not attract all audiences ...
This latest dungeon crawler which is titled, "Stranger of Sword City" takes the gamer on a journey of discovery the likes of which have never really been ventured into in such a game genre before. That journey of which I speak begins intently with a modern era plane crash into a mythical city known as Escario, and follows up almost immediately with a subsequent assignment of heroic duty to the lone survivor. That survivor being a character of your own creation. As you awake amidst the wreckage of the missing north Asia airliner you were aboard you are greeted by a couple of mysterious individuals in a foreign landscape. One character, which is a hooded old man seems to want to guide you to safety, but ends up luring you into a trap filled with monsters instead. Thankfully Riu (a sword wielding school girl) shows up, and explains things to you while getting you situated in your newly discovered environment. The whole "you are the chosen one" cliche plays out in full with you ultimately being appointed a position in Sword City's(Escario's) Stranger's Guild as one of it's lead members. Your main objective there being that of monster slaying, and the collection of blood crystals for you and your party's betterment. It seems "Strangers", which you are referred to as being, are the only ones who can fight the lineage monstrosities that are plaguing Escario and it's people. Thus you pretty much get thrust into the job whether you wanted to or not.
Once you are back at the Stranger's Guild you are given proper introductions to the main role players of the realm, and to the vendors of the guild. Through the current leaders you are also given an entry level test before being accepted and sent out on errands to kill the baddies (lineage monsters), and collect the blood crystals from which they respawn. From start to finish, regardless of difficulty, your dungeon crawling skills will be tested to the max in a fashion that seems to be more brutal than that of a 'Dark Souls', or 'Demon Souls' game. Even your entry point test will kill your assigned party off with ease if you are not careful in your approach. Thus character customization, and party management are the main focus of this fantastical journey into this land that is unlike your own.
Character creation, as it were is the first thing that will be pushed into your face past the awesome cinematic intro sequence which is shown via the PS Vita's touchscreen. After the intro cinematic plays out you will be tasked with creating the main character, or "Chosen One". This includes selecting an appearance from three available grids of male and female character designs as well as assigning an age, name, nickname, class, talent, and bonus points. The "looks" assignment is fairly straightforward. You'll pick what you want your character's profile image to look like as well as a gender, age, voice, and name/nickname to go along with that. The name, gender, and voice selections are fairly self-explanatory, but the age is a little less so. The age surprisingly affects your life, and bonus point earnings with the older ages being more beneficial in the bonus point area while being less beneficial with life points. The opposite comes from choosing a character of younger age. The younger the character the more balanced/plentiful their life points, and bonus point earnings will be. What you have to understand about life points is that each character you create, from the main character to the additional party members, has a set number of life points. With each in-game death, and guild revival that character will lose a life point. Once all life points are lost the created character will "vanish", and be no more.
Along with those details you will also need to select a race (human, elf, dwarf, migmy, ney), a class (fighter, knight, samurai, wizard, cleric, dancer ...), and a complimentary talent. The race selection will affect attribute stats accordingly. Humans, for example are balanced with two markers in the areas of strength, pie, vitality, luck, and the likes. Character races like the Dwarves, on the other hand are more strong, and enduring with their strength, and vitality stats being their stronger stats. Of course there are races that differ in varying ways as well with stats like intelligence being their strongest stat. Complimentary to the race selections are the 'Class' setting which will affect your character in a manner fitting of such a classification. Fighters, for example are front row characters that can dish out big damage. Knights, which are also front row characters are more for defense in that they provide protection for the rest of the characters. Along with the class setting also comes the pros, and cons of each. The Ninja class, in particular is reserved for advanced players while some of the other classes are meant for beginners, or intermediate players. Choosing which Class setting best suits your method of play is up to you. Lastly, the 'Talent' will give your created character it's definitive perk. By that I mean it will allow the created character to perform special battlefield actions that other characters with different talents cannot do. These talents include things like item identification, extra defense, magic boosts/specialization, and even bonus point boosts among other things. Choosing the best complimentary races, classes, and talents will help your six member party be able to survive for longer. Make no mistake though, even on the "Beginner" difficulty setting you will meet battles early on that will end your adventure quickly if you are not careful.
While character creation is an important part of gameplay in 'Stranger of Sword City' you'll find that learning about the guild, your duty in regards to quests, and the places you can travel to are equally as so. When the game begins the main NPC (Non-Player Characters) will give you a brief tour guide of the 'Stranger's Guild', and will set you free to talk with it's residence. This will open up options in the "Base" that are geared towards reviving dead characters, and even access to a shop where you can buy weapons, armor, and items to help your party members be better prepared for their outings. You'll also gain access to the 'Leader's Chambers' which will give you options with which to create, or manage your additional party members. Party members which are created in the same fashion as the main character. All options are explained, and are kept available via their specific location, or NPC for later reference. Bringing up the "Triangle" menu will also give options that coincide with individual party member management, character leveling, the use of skills/spells, and even an "identify" option to help identify the items you gain through battle.
For further reference the "Options" menu in the "Triangle" menu listing houses bestiaries of various sorts (enemy & item encyclopedias) as well as "Quest" details, and gameplay tutorials. You'll also find a "System" menu in the previously mentioned Stranger's Guild menu system that will allow you to tweak in-game settings as well as save your progress, and return to the title screen, if you so desire.
The main objective in 'Stranger of Sword City" is to basically do as the NPCs say. This usually involves going on outings into various labyrinths, or areas to defeat monstrous threats, and to gather the blood crystals that are left behind. You will be going through multi-layered mazes of all sorts in the first-person point of view as you randomly and intentionally encounter monsters of standard, and lineage types. Lineage being the more powerful of the two types. With your party members, their skills, spells, and abilities you will try to defeat the threats before you, and will return to the guild to deal with character deaths, and equipment needs should you need to. You'll also return to the guild to advance the plot via NPC conversations. One thing that's unique about battle though is that there is a specific type of points that will allow you to do special tasks such as escaping battle, and hiding in order to ambush king enemies in order to loot their treasure. These special points will build up as you fight, and only through fighting. They are displayed as a circle that fills in with blue as the point markers within add up.
When it comes to improving upon your party things such as experience points, and blood crystals play a vital role in keeping each member better prepared for the battles ahead. With the experience points gained through battles you can level up each party members' base stats much like you would in any other RPG. This improves upon their physical, mental, and metaphysical properties. Aside from base stat leveling you'll also find a skill tree in place that requires the use of blood crystals (?) to upgrade. This skill tree will add defensive, offensive, and even curative skills for party members as you unlock them. The skill tree branches off in multiple rows before coming to an end with a skill that hints at a mysterious gift that is gifted by god. Unlocking skills will, of course mean the difference in winning, or losing in the harder battles that occur later on into the game. I should also mention that the game has a one of a kind leaderboard system which takes in account the time it took for you to clear the game as well as the rarity of the loot/gear you were able to obtain along the way. It adds a sort of competitive side that can give you bragging rights among friends.
As I mentioned earlier in this review the difficulty, whether "Beginner" or "Normal", will have you fighting for survival early on. This is a game that is brutally hard from the start, and even more difficult as it progresses. Getting your characters in shape for the battles ahead won't be easy, but if you stick with it, and mind the mechanics you might just unravel the mystery of Escario, and your role within.
Graphics & Soundtrack ...
When it comes to the visuals "Stranger of Sword City" is a pseudo-realistic anime style game. While the character design hints at an anime art presentation it is more realistic than that. More so in the way that art from games like 'Magic the Gathering' are. I think this art style along with the heavily anime inspired cinematic sequences really compliments the adventure at hand. That along with the impressive soundtrack helps the otherwise vacant world of Escario come to life. The only downside if there are any is that there is a repetitive use of creature designs, and limited details in the labyrinth inspired locations. In a sense the game is more about imagination, and living out your role in Escario with only still imagery of characters and enemies to drive you forwards.
Now the Verdict ...
First, and foremost "Stranger of Sword City" is not for gamers who give up easily on challenging games. It will test your RPG know how early on, and will continue to do so throughout it's entirety. Even on the 'Beginner' difficulty setting I found myself dying during the tutorial phase. The game in that sense is definitely unforgiving. If you can brave the odds though, and don't mind a challenge with a unique plot setup, and interesting character development then you might actually end up enjoying this game. I personally thought it was alright despite getting aggravated at my early deaths. I loved the art style, I loved the character design, and I loved the soundtrack. It's definitely a dungeon crawler that lives up to it's asking price, and is definitely on par with some of the other notable dungeon crawlers out there. If you have the money to spare, a PS Vita, and a love for anime inspired RPGs then I'd suggest possibly adding 'Stranger of Sword City' to your list of games to get. Just know PS Vita games are becoming hard to find due to retailer's lack of stocking. While you can buy the game digitally you may not be able to find a physical copy of it unless you are willing to place a pre-order. I'll leave that up to you though.
*NOTE: I Failed to complete the game by embargo. The difficulty was a little too much for me, but I still stick with what I said in the verdict. I also plan on continuing to play up until released date (April 22nd) to see if I missed anything of importance.*