(PlayStation Vita Review) Stranger of Sword City

Developer: Experience Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game / Dungeon Crawler
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

A plane disappears from one realm and reappears in another, slamming into the ground. The lone survivor of the crash awakes to find themselves in the Sword City, Escario. They are a Stranger, one of many who find themselves far from home and stuck in this new world. Soon they must begin to earn their keep by venturing into the nearby labyrinths and battling the seemingly endless numbers of marauding monsters. There are many Strangers, but the newcomer is different: they are a Chosen One. Their power allows them to harvest crystals from powerful beasts that are prized by powerful factions who are looking for a way to return to their own realms. Now the player must decide whose rewards best suit their needs in their own quest to find their way home.

Stranger of Sword City is the latest dungeon crawler from NIS America and Experience Inc. The duo previously teamed up for Experience’s punishing Demon Gaze and disappointing Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, and their latest release shares a greater resemblance to the former. Both feature a great premise (setting up at a lone inn, setting up at a guild in a mysterious land), simplified item mechanics, great art, and expletive-laden difficulty spikes. And they aren’t boring. But where they differ is why I found myself having a much better time with Stranger of Sword City. Its characterizations aren’t as strong, and could even be described as paltry, but it excels with better-designed dungeons, a simple but addictive combat system, and some novel progression hooks that tempt another roll of the dice with the lure of sweet, sweet loot.

Players set up shop with the Strangers Guild at the appropriately named Stranger Base. The base offers numerous amenities, including the aptly named Base that hosts facilities to heal characters and edit the party. A blacksmith runs the local Shop that takes in the player’s unneeded gear, which is in abundance, while also selling some decent early level kit. The Leader Room is for party management: registering and deleting characters, altering the party’s order, and changing classes. It’s a basic setup that offers few characters to interact with, and of those, most just offer advice or the latest rumors, which stands in stark contrast to the bustling inn of Demon Gaze. Non-playable characters will pop up from time to time to offer quests or discuss Stranger business, but interaction and discussion is minimal. Players who enjoyed the wacky antics of the inn might find the Guild a bit too staid, though I found the greater number of populated places offset this somewhat and Escario to be a bit too grim for lighthearted hijinks.

The Base ties into an interesting aspect of character creation: age. This is the facility where characters are revived and recover, both of which are determined by age. All characters have Life Points, one of which is lost when they are killed in combat, and the absence of which results in them “vanishing.” Reviving a party member involves bringing them back from death, while Recover allows characters to recuperate Life Points. Either can be done normally or instantly; the former is free but requires hospitalization for several in-game days (or real-world hours), while the latter requires a hefty payment. This is where age comes in. A character’s age can be set across a wide range, from 10 to 99. Younger characters receive more Life Points and recover them quicker while older characters receive fewer but have more bonus points to allocate during creation. Make a character too young and they will have a harder time during combat, but make them too old, and they are perpetually vulnerable to vanishing as they are left with only a single Life Point. This is the sort of give-and-take relationship that makes character creation interesting, and it has a serious impact on party performance and player progression.

Characters can be added throughout the adventure. To help make late additions viable, the game allocates the new member’s initial experience points according to the player’s character. This works well, even with disparate classes, all of which are able to hold their own long enough to level up to being viable alternates. The game offers an incentive to try new characters by having reserve characters gain coin and experience. This way, everyone pulls their weight, and a veteran character doesn’t necessarily have to be recovering to be left behind: they will still gain experience when swapped out and remain a strong member of the team. This is a thoughtful approach that allows for more frequent and less stressful experimentation.

The rest of the character-creation options are fairly standard. In addition to age, players set the character’s sex, name and nickname, voice (attack, damage, and death), and portrait. There are numerous gorgeous portraits to choose from with numerous representations of the five races that offer something for everyone, be they a Human, Elf, Dwarf, Migmy, or Ney. The races begin with different starting stats across six traits: Strength, Intelligence, Piety, Vitality, Agility, and Luck. These in turn lend themselves, and the character, to one or more of the game’s eight classes: Fighter, Knight, Samurai, Wizard, Cleric, Ranger, Ninja, and Dancer. This is a traditional setup, but it nonetheless allows for a varied, powerful party, especially after the weaker back-row support characters unlock the ability to use slings, bows, and other long-range weapons.

Multiple labyrinths dot the world, and within each are a variety of beasts, monsters, and other nasties that roam among the powerful Lineage monsters, which can only be killed by the removal of their blood crystal. As in Demon Gaze, there are both random and set encounters. These do not necessarily designate easier or tougher battles, as can be seen in the random godlike parties that players will stumble upon. Fortunately, there are two elements in the player’s favor this time around: difficulty spikes aren’t as prevalent as in past Experience titles, and there is a much more reliable means of escape by drawing from the party’s Morale.

That isn’t to say that spikes won’t cause problems, however, as they can still throw up sizable roadblocks. I had to restart the game three times after dying twice in the opening area, once from being repeatedly poisoned and once from encountering enemies that were five-plus levels higher. I then spent the next several hours grinding, and each time I thought it was time to proceed, I would hit enemies so much more powerful that I believed the game was throwing up a warning that I was going too far into the area. Each time, I would grind some more, determined to force my way. It turns out that I actually just had a run of a bad luck. By the time I took the plunge and pushed forward, escaping from powerful mobs and reattempting to proceed, I began to make substantial progress as I was either not challenged or encountered weaker groups of monsters. The result was that, after a few ignominious retreats, I made my way to the boss, which I dominated. I hadn’t just prepared for the fight, I had over-leveled considerably. Fortunately, this helped a great deal in taking on future overpowered enemy parties, and it taught me the importance of beating feet.

By far the most helpful mechanic is the ability to escape nearly any encounter by calling upon Flash Escape. This is a Divinity power that draws upon the party’s pool of Morale. Morale is gained during combat and utilized in a variety of ways that can often turn the tide in the party’s favor. Divinity powers are gradually accrued as players turn in blood crystals to the factions’ Vessels. In turn, they bestow a new Divinity power as a reward, which can range from increasing the party’s hit and avoid stats for a round, to healing them during each round of an encounter. These powers not only add a mechanical twist to combat and level the playing field, but they also add a twist to how players decide to dole out the crystals.

Morale also affects the Ambush mechanic. If enough points are banked, the party can lay in wait in designated areas until an enemy squad strolls by, carrying a marked treasure chest—a generous move on their part. The enemy’s level can be checked, and if it seems as though they are manageable, the player can engage them; if they are too strong or too weak, or the treasure too paltry, the player can pass and await the next convoy. Passing carries a risk, however, in that it adds a notch to a danger meter that increases the potential of enemies turning the tables and ambushing the player. Treasure chests are also frequently booby-trapped, with the more desirable items being protected by stronger traps. However, I frequently found my party opting for a different trap than the one I chose, and no information to indicate as to what particular stat my party might have been weak in. That said, ambushes offer the best chance at getting higher-end gear, so it’s often necessary to run every risk in the hope of attaining prime kit for the party. This also leads to an immensely satisfying lottery-style reveal of what was acquired upon exiting an area, with each item’s name and stats flashing into view one at a time.

Ambushes also provide a preferred alternative to the overly gimmicky dungeons found in Demon Gaze and especially Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. Those had numerous areas that were a chore to navigate, due to constantly having to work through one-way, illusory, teleporter, and booby-trapped tiles. Several of those reappear in Stranger of Sword City but not nearly to the same degree. They are used sparsely to accentuate the dungeons rather than dominate them. The locations themselves aren’t as visually appealing as the character designs, but they are on par with the serviceable characterization. The heart of the game is the tension from guessing when to pull back and when to push a little harder. There are rewards aplenty for those willing to take a risk, but a simple bout of absentmindedness or an attempt to game the system can result in a loss, whether that’s a character vanishing, being hospitalized for hours, or the player having to spend a small fortune reviving their main character.

It’s possible to be bested in combat before knowing it, too. The game has a handy feature that repeats the player’s last inputs, so that they don’t have to keep selecting the same skills or spells each turn. There is a danger in this, though. It becomes very easy to come up with a good strategy and rely on it too heavily so that the player becomes overly confident and fails to notice sudden turns of events. Given the level spikes, two enemies might look the same at first blush, but while the previous fight consisted of a few level 10s against the player’s level 11s, they are now suddenly facing level 30s. The result is a swift loss. Likewise, a handy map-navigation feature allows players to set waypoints so that they don’t to manually stroll the length of an area, and this is where the party might bump into a particularly nasty set encounter. So while the game is much more manageable than its predecessors, and greatly benefits from a quicker pace, it will definitely punish those that fail to keep their guard up.

Stranger of Sword City is an all-around solid dungeon crawler. Minimal character and environment involvement might have some feeling cold, but the focus here isn’t on the characters but on the quest. The game’s relatively brisk pace, especially when compared to other titles from Experience, and its emphasis on attaining and assigning crystals provide strong draws for braving the labyrinths. Players wanting a strong dungeon crawler with some novel mechanics that emphasizes a strong risk-and-reward system should check out Stranger of Sword City.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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