When you’re strange, no one remembers your name
Originally released in the west for the Xbox One back in March, Stranger of Sword City is the latest dungeon-crawler from Hachioji, Japan-based developer Experience Inc., the studio behind the exceptional Vita DRPGs Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. Now, their latest epic has finally come home to roost on Sony’s handheld in all of its monster-slaying glory. Stranger of Sword City brings with it a lengthy quest full of devious monsters, challenging boss encounters, and a dark and mysterious world to explore. However, dungeon crawlers are a dime a dozen on the Vita, with new entries in the genre seemingly landing on the platform on a monthly basis. That said, does this latest title have what it takes to push to the top of the Vita’s crowded DRPG heap? Read on and find out!
Stranger of Sword City wastes no time throwing players into a surreal situation. The story begins with your character surviving a mysterious plane crash during a flight out of Japan. After coming to, your protagonist discovers they’ve been whisked away to an alien world bathed in the light of unfamiliar stars. A land called Escario, the City of Swords. It’s here that you learn that you’re not the first human to find themselves in your present predicament. Many others have fallen through the same dimensional gap you’ve managed to fall through, making a name for themselves as outsiders who possess a special gift that grants them a prestigious place in this foreign land. Dubbed Strangers, these humans have capabilities far beyond those of Escario’s natives. Gravity has little to no effect on Strangers, allowing them to easily wield the heaviest of weapons and armor. Using their considerable talents, Strangers are tasked with tracking down monsters called Lineage Types and slaying them in order to keep the denizens of Escario safe, as well as harvesting the precious Blood Crystals these foes possess to keep them from being reborn.
Before assuming your place as the Chosen One, the Stranger of Sword City, players must first create their character from a variety of stunning, hand-drawn avatars. There are numerous races to choose from when creating your in-game persona, ranging from the genre mainstays such as humans, elves, and dwarves to more bizarre races such as the halfling-esque Migmies and catfolk. Each of these classes brings to the table their own unique traits to consider when creating your character. Humans are pretty much well-rounded warriors who do well in almost any profession, whereas Dwarves are built from sturdier stock and can withstand plenty of punishment, as well as dole out some serious damage to their enemies. Their heartiness makes them the perfect choice for front-row fighters. Additionally, Elves make very adept magic users due to their high intelligence stats, making them the perfect candidates for healers and powerful, elemental magic-using wizards.
After choosing your race, next up is selecting your hero’s class. The various classes available to choose from in Stranger of Sword City 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 most dangerous monsters. You’ll even choose the age of your character, which directly determines how many Life Points your character will be given (which also extends to the additional characters you’ll register for your party). Life Points determine just how long it takes for your hero to recover after being knocked unconscious in battle, with younger characters possessing more Life Points than older ones. This is worth paying attention to, as perma-death is a real threat that looms over players in Stranger of Sword City. Once a character loses their last Life Point they’re officially dead, meaning you’ll want to take special care to preserve your more experienced party members. All in all, Stranger of Sword City‘s character creation tool offers plenty of freedom to customize your ideal character and their companions.
One nagging gripe I have with the character creation tool is that the some of the avatars you can choose from, while absolutely awesome looking, are recycled from key characters in the game’s story. The first time I played the game I was unaware of this, and 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 encounter my doppleganger, Riu, in the game’s opening dungeon, who ultimately became a central character in the story alongside my carbon copy clone of the schoolgirl-turned-savior. The same goes for my hapless hand-crafted mage, who was the spitting image of one of the game’s three holy vessels you’ll encounter over the course of the adventure. While not the end of the world, it did tend to cheapen the experience a little bit, potentially lessening the impact that would otherwise come with meeting some of the story’s more pivotal players, and that’s a shame.
If you’ve ever played Experience’s previous DRPGs Demon Gaze or Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, you’ll feel right at home diving into Stranger of Sword City. Most of your time in the game is spent exploring various dungeons in a first-person perspective, battling hordes of imaginative monsters while gathering treasure and grinding to be able to tackle the fearsome Lineage Monsters which serve as the bosses of each of the game’s dungeons. Battles unfold in traditional, turn-based fashion. Players arrange their party of six characters in two rows, one in the front and one in the back, with magic users, archers and healers typically taking a back seat, while knights and other hand-to-hand fighters push the offensive from the front row. While each character is initially rather unremarkable, as they gain experience they’ll unlock new weapon and magic skills which can turn the tide of battle and allow them to equip and master new types of equipment. Overall, the system is very similar to that of the Etrian Odyssey series along with Experience Inc.’s previous releases, and it offers players a great deal of freedom as each character’s repertoire of abilities opens up.
Escario, the game’s central city, serves as the main hub area where you’ll be able to register new party members, as well as a shop to purchase weapons and armor and an infirmary to house your wounded companions while they recover from their injuries. You’ll spend a lot of time venturing back and forth between Escario and the various dungeons you’ll explore, which run the gamut from arid desert wastelands littered with debris that’s fallen to the earth 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. There’s a great sense of variety to the game’s numerous dungeons, with no two areas looking alike. They’re also home to their 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 Vita across the room on more than one occasion.
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. Each of the game’s dungeons are littered with secret passages and hidden items, meaning you’ll want a thief or ninja on hand to sniff out the hidden areas with their keen perception skills, or a character well-versed in identifying items and disarming traps you’ll find along your journey. Additionally, some areas are filled with evil spirits who are immune to conventional weapons and can only be dispelled with magic. That said, careful consideration of which characters you bring along for each dungeon is imperative if you want to make it far in Stranger of Sword City.
Of course, none of this is news to those whose familiar with developer Experience’s previous releases, but newcomers will likely be a bit 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 have to admit I was 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 ramps up dramatically as you wander the game’s dungeons, and one wrong step can spell disaster for your party. One encounter with the wrong enemy for your current party lineup can mean a nasty trip to the “Game Over” screen. Even more frustrating though are the enemies who can seemingly call in reinforcements endlessly, quickly turning what would otherwise be a two-minute battle into a 10-minute endeavor. Additionally, your attacks can whiff through your foes at an alarming rate, making the game’s challenge feel pretty lopsided at times. To make matters worse, money is especially hard to come by, meaning you’ll gain most of your cash by selling the wares you’ll scavenge from the dungeons themselves at the shop to scrounge up the money for the good stuff. That said, one of the best ways to acquire substantial gold and experience points 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 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, thus 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 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.
Stranger of Sword City featured some gorgeous, hand-drawn art when it released on the Xbox One, but the environments themselves certainly looked the part of a game that was designed around the hardware constraints of a handheld. Thankfully, the game looks much more at home on the PlayStation Vita’s small screen. Overall, everything looks quite a bit sharper and cleaner this time around, and it’s a marked visual improvement over Experience’s previous releases, especially when considering the game’s absolutely incredible character and monster designs that have to be seen to be believed. That’s not to say it’s without its faults, as my playtime with the Vita version wasn’t without its odd visual gaffes, the worst of which involving my main protagonist’s sprite simply vanishing from the battle and post-fight screens save for his health and magic meters, which was only fixed after my character died and was brought back to life several hours later in my adventure.
One area of the game that really shines is the sound department. Stranger of Sword City features a wide variety of breathtaking operatic pieces and tense, atmospheric tracks that perfectly set the mood for for your adventure. 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.
Stranger of City may stumble in a few areas, such as the recycled character portraits and a story that feels almost secondary due to some relatively weightless central characters, but these annoyances pale when compared to just how satisfying the rest of the journey is. Escario is a wide and uncompromising land, and you’ll want to scour every inch of its dungeons just to uncover all of its secrets. If you enjoyed Demon Gaze or Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, you’ll definitely find Stranger of Sword City an adventure worth undertaking. The game’s lofty challenge will likely even appeal to fans of FromSoftware’s Souls series looking for something a bit different. If you’re looking for a dungeon crawler with some serious mileage and an unrivaled artistic design, Stranger of Sword City absolutely deserves a place in your Vita collection.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Vita (reviewed), Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Experience; Players: 1; Released: April 26, 2016 (Vita); Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review was based on review code supplied by the publisher.