People are strange when you’re a stranger
Dungeon crawling RPGs certainly aren’t in short supply these days. In recent years, the once obscure genre has gained a niche but ravenous fan base, especially among the handheld gaming crowd, with a steady stream of releases such as ATLUS’ Etrian Odyssey series and Sting Entertainment’s Dungeon Travelers 2. Japanese publisher and RPG developer Experience are no strangers to the genre, having released a pair of solid adventures on the PlayStation Vita with 2013’s superb adventure Demon Gaze and last year’s sci-fi dungeon crawler Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. That said, my interest was piqued when I saw that the studio would be returning to the Vita and Xbox One with a new game, set in a strange and alien world full of new crypts to explore, treasures to loot and horrifying monsters to slay in another sprawling adventure.
Stranger of Sword City’s story begins with a bang – literally. After surviving a mysterious plane crash, the game’s protagonist awakens in an alien world bathed in the light of unfamiliar stars. Shortly after regaining consciousness, players discover they’ve been transported Escario, the City of Swords. It’s here that you discover that many others have fallen into the dimensional gap, ending up in this strange and perilous world as well. Dubbed Strangers, these humans have capabilities far beyond those of Escario’s inhabitants, allowing them to master heavy weapons and armor with unmatched ease. Given their unique talents, Strangers are tasked with tracking down ravenous monsters called Lineage Types and defeating them in order to keep the denizens of Escario safe, and harvest the precious Blood Crystals these foes possess.
Before taking up the mantle as the Chosen One, the Stranger of Sword City, first you must craft your character from a staggering variety of gorgeous, hand-drawn avatars. There are numerous races to choose from when creating your in-game persona, from humans and elves to stocky dwarves and nimble fairies. Each of these classes brings to the table their own unique traits. Humans are pretty much well-rounded warriors, while hearty dwarves can take plenty of punishment and dole out some serious damage on their foes. Additionally, Elves make very adept magic users. The classes on offer are your traditional RPG fare, with Clerics making superb support characters with their healing powers, and Fighters and Knights delivering sturdy builds for players who wish to go toe-to-toe with Escario’s fearsome wildlife. Hell, you can even choose the age of your character, which directly affects how long it takes for your hero to mend after being knocked out. All in all, Stranger of Sword City‘s character creation tool offers plenty of freedom to customize your ideal adventurer, and you’ll want to take careful consideration into how you customize your avatar as well as the rest of your party.
If there’s one gripe I do have about the character creation though, it’s that the character models you can choose from, while great looking, are also used in the main story. Not knowing this, when I first fired up the game I chose the game’s bad ass schoolgirl avatar for my own, recognizing her from the game’s promotional art. That said, I was quite confused to see my doppleganger appear in the game’s opening sequence, ultimately becoming a central character in the story alongside my carbon copy clone of my schoolgirl-turned-godly warrior. The same goes for my hapless hand-crafted mage, who was the spitting likeness of one of the game’s holy vessels. This isn’t a game-breaking gripe, for sure, but it does serve to cheapen the experience a bit, making your characters and those who make up the world feel somewhat weightless at times.
Despite the game’s surreal setting, if you’ve ever played Demon Gaze or Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy you’ll know exactly what to expect from the core gameplay of Stranger of Sword City. The meat and potatoes of the adventure is spent exploring large, labyrinthine dungeons as you battle a burgeoning bestiary of menacing monsters, gather rare treasure, and unravel the mystery behind the game’s bizarre world. After leaving Escario, which acts as the main hub of the game where you’ll find your requisite base to register new party members and shops to purchase valuable weapons and armor, you’ll be sent out into the harsh wilds to hunt down the vile Lineage Type monsters that terrorize the land. The areas you’ll explore are varied as they are perilous. You’ll venture into foreboding desert wastelands littered with debris that’s fallen from the sky from other worlds, underground catacombs teeming with vengeful spirits, frozen forests designed to disorient the player and palatial crypts deep beneath the ground and more. Each area looks drastically different from the last, and is home to its own unique monsters that present their own challenges, such as spirits who can only be harmed by magic or enchanted items, and gangs of bandits who steadily call in reinforcements at the end of each turn – a nasty trick that will surely make you want to throw your controller from time to time. Given each area’s unique hazards, it’s always best to keep a diverse team of adventurers on standby at the base so that you can swap out the most effective team for the situation at hand. Some dungeons are teeming with secrets, meaning you’ll want a thief or ninja on hand to sniff out the hidden areas with their keen perception skills. Additionally, you’ll want magic users en masse to take out spectral monsters who are immune to conventional weapons.
All of this should be old news to those who have dabbled in Experience’s previous releases, but newcomers may be overwhelmed by just how unforgiving Stranger of Sword City can be. After all, even as a veteran of the previous entries in the studio’s stable of DRPGs, I was often overwhelmed by the tenacity of the monsters who lurk around every corner, and traps that are scattered around each dungeon to confound the player. The difficulty of the monsters you’ll encounter spikes pretty dramatically as you wander the game’s dungeons, and one wrong step can spell disaster for your party, as enemies seemingly call in reinforcements endlessly, and your attacks can whiff through your foes at an alarming rate which can make the game’s challenge seem pretty lopsided at times. Making matters worse, the specter of permadeath looms over the experience, and money is especially hard to come by, meaning you’ll gain most of your cash by unloading wares you’ll scavenge from the dungeons themselves at the Escario’s shop to scrounge up the cash for the good stuff. That said, one of the best ways to accrue gold and experience is to take advantage of “hiding spots”, which are scattered in tucked away areas in each dungeon. When you venture into one of these areas you can spend the morale points you earn during fights to hide, which will allows you to get the drop on wandering enemies who are transporting valuable treasure such as new weapons, armor and accessories. Before jumping into the fight, you can size up your foes or take a glance at the chest to see if it has the type of gear you’re looking for. If you feel like it’s a losing battle or you’re not wild about the loot on offer, you can choose to wait for another encounter, but this puts you at risk of being detected by the enemies, costing you valuable morale points and a potential defeat at the hands of a particularly nasty foe.
With so many variables at play, The Stranger of Sword City is certainly not a game for the faint of heart. Progression is done at a very methodical pace, and you’ll often spend dozens of trips back and forth from any given dungeon to the sanctuary of Escario before completing any given quest. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, as fans of Experience’s previous releases will likely be all too familiar with the grind-heavy nature that makes up the heart of Stranger of Sword City‘s gameplay. It’s no walk in the park, but the immersive dungeon crawling and challenging foes that stand between you and your objectives will keep you engaged, and taking down a boss who trounced you on your previous trek into the heart of a dungeon feels tremendously satisfying when you ultimately persevere, claiming their Blood Crystal for your own, which you can then use to unlock powerful Divinity abilities by offering it to one of the game’s three godly vessels, making your otherworldly avatar even more powerful.
The premise of godly vessels, alternate dimensions and a band of humans-turned-superhuman saviors certainly sounds exciting, but the story of Stranger of Sword City actually proves to be one of the game’s few steps back when compared to Experience’s previous release, Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. Told largely through still, visual novel scenes, the cast of characters you’ll meet over the course of your adventure just isn’t quite as exciting as I would have hoped, and it’s hard to feel an attachment to the cast as you’re largely left to your own devices, hunting the game’s big baddies with your band of hand-crafted heroes. The writing is consistently solid, however, and the world itself is built upon an interesting lore that will grab you even if the supporting cast somewhat fails to do so in quite the same way.
While Stranger of Sword City is an Xbox One title, the game’s in-engine visuals make it clear the title was destined for the PlayStation Vita. That said, don’t go expecting loads of bump mapping, volumetric lighting or advanced shaders that will blow you away. The game makes up for this lack of stunning technical prowest with some absolutely stellar hand-drawn art, however. The portraits for your characters and the game’s myriad monsters are simply awe inspiring. From the towering hydra that players first meet when they set foot into the Mausoleum of Metal, to the massive orcs and imposing chimeras who stalk the corridors of the darkest dungeons, Stranger of Sword City‘s artistic direction is the best since Dragon’s Crown – and that’s saying something.
This same level of quality extends to the game’s soundtrack, which features an array of gorgeous operatic pieces and tense, atmospheric tracks that perfectly set the mood for both explorations and battle. The pumping main battle theme in particular is one that will be stuck in your head for days. While there is no English spoken dialog in the game, the Japanese voice cast does a respectable job of delivering their lines as well. Simply put, Stranger of Sword City is an aural delight, with sounds that rival Experience’s best efforts.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure you can breeze through, this probably isn’t the game for you. However, if you’re a fan of the gut-punching difficulty FromSoftware’s Souls series of games delivers and are looking to get your hands on truly challenging RPG, Stranger of Sword City is the right choice for you. The game pulls no punches, but those patient adventurerers looking for an utterly engrossing trip into a stranger and uncompromising world would do well to pick this up. After all, it’s not often Xbox One owners get the chance to experience these types of games, and Stranger of Sword City stands as one of the better ones out there.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: Xbox One (Reviewed), PC, Vita ; Publisher: Experience ; Developer: Experience; Players: 1; Released: March 22, 2016; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by Experience.