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Stranger of Sword City Review

by forgottenlor, 2016-11-14

Wizardry is considered to be one of the first computer role playing games. It was very different from today's mainstream crpgs, boasting complex party and character development. One could only save their game in town, and caution was rewarded because death could appear in every corner of the ten-level dungeon either from deadly traps or surprisingly tough monsters. It was often unfair. And one was only given a few paragraphs to explain why one should traverse the ten level dungeon; the dungeon itself was the game. With Wizardry 6 the series began its attempt to modernize with more story, more atmosphere, more npcs, and consequently less dungeon, less traps, and so on. The makers of Stranger of Sword City are clearly fans of the first five Wizardry games. However, they didn't just want to remake Wizardry 1-5 with modern art (something which Elminage:Gothic did), but also tried to modernize these games while staying true to the idea of developing your party of adventurers in hundreds of ways and traversing brutally hard dungeons. While not all of their ideas about how to do this are perfect, they've managed to modernize the Wizardry experience in an impressive way, with an interesting story, a flexible character system which encourages experimentation, by doing an excellent job of making absolutely deadly mechanics fair, as well as by giving players a great deal of say in both the difficulty of play and how to deal with inevitable deaths.

Stranger of Sword City makes a great effort to make its complex mechanics understandable.

 

Story and Atmosphere

Very few dungeon crawlers can boast a good story and many have almost none. Stranger of Sword City does indeed have more than a token story, but it can hardly be considered the focus of the game. Still, it's apparent that Team Muramasa tried to come up with an interesting premise and invested some effort in its implementation. Your character comes from our world, and as the only survivor of an airplane crash, wakes up in a very different world with the equivilent of super powers. You are a stranger, but not the first. In fact, there is a whole guild of strangers, and all your party members are strangers as well, most of them hoping for nothing more than finding a way back home. Due to their powers, and the fact that they can slay and harvest lineage monsters (powerful monster breeders), they have found work as mercenaries. Such mercenaries are often hired by Sword City's queen, as well as the head of the Medell corporation, a powerful organization sitting in Sword City's slums. In addition to aiding the three factions (The queen, the corporation, and the stranger's guild) you are being shadowed by threatening enemy who, for some unknown reason, seems to wish you ill while also seeing you as a pawn for his schemes. Strangers of Sword City also does something a little different with its faction system. Even though the factions are rivals, they are not necessarily enemies. They cooperate to try to save Sword City and its citizens from the dangerous monsters which roam the world. That means that throughout the vast majority of the game, you are free to choose between whatever benefits the factions can give you on a step by step basis, without alienating the others. Not only that, but the relationship between the heads of the three factions plays a major role in the story and how it develops.

The art direction in the game is great. The dungeons and monsters are beautifully done.

Like Elminage: Gothic, Stranger of Sword City has excellent art direction. Many of the original character portraits, as well as those of the monsters and most of the npcs, are all done in a slightly eastern interpretation of classic western fantasy. Interestingly enough, anime character models were added for the western release, even though they clash with the graphic style of the rest of the game. Like in many Japanese games, monsters are sometimes extremely imaginative. The main npcs are all voiced in Japanese, with English subtitles, and though I can't understand any Japanese, they seem to accomplish making every character unique. If you don't like the voices, they can be turned off. The game, like most blobbers, features little animation outside of combat feedback. Characters (including npcs) are pretty much represented by their character portraits. The localization is competently done. The writing never results in confusion or unintentional comedy. On the other hand, the writing comes off as relatively uninspired, but I'm not sure if that's the translator's fault or if it's that way in the original Japanese as well.

 

Game Mechanics

You make one character at the beginning of the game who represents your player. You can choose from eight classes and five races. The races are only different when it comes to their starting stats, and no matter how bad a mage your dwarf might be at the beginning, you're not barred from any combination, and since you get to increase one attribute a level, you can eventually make any starting disadvantage good. Eventually, you come to the Stranger's Guild where five premade characters await you and where you can make an additional nine. And you'll want to use up ALL of your slots for a variety of reasons. The first and most apparent is that those characters not in the party go adventuring on their own, earning experience and extra gold, which is less than what your active party members earn (but still pretty close). The next reason is that a character could die (permanently or temporarily) at any time, and you'll need a replacement. In addition, some dungeons require a cleric or mage, and one prohibits spellcasting, so you'll probably NOT want a single class cleric or mage in the party for that dungeon. Also, you can play around with the game's multiclassing options, and if you really screw up with one character, or need time for them to level up in their current class, you can switch them out for another.

My roster is like a basketball team. I have a some guaranteed starters, a couple of quality reserves, and a few specialists for unusual circumstances.

Like in the classic Wizardry games, you have two rows in your party. The back row is only susceptable to ranged, magic, and some special attacks, while the front row takes the brunt of the damage. There are four front row classes: the defensive knight, the tough but not particularly accurate damage-dealing warrior, the more fragile ninja who specializes in killing single targets, and the more fragile samurai who can damage large groups of opponents. In the back is the ranger who specializes in taking down single opponents, the wizard, the priest, and the dancer, who is the only class that can use melee weapons at range and can use multiple consumable items each round. You can go without any of these, since the dancer can be as effective a healer as the priest, though this certainly costs more in terms of gold. Each class gains skills as they level up. Skills can be active, passive, a weapon proficiency, or the ability to use multiple spells. Each time you switch classes with a character you can "equip" skills from the former class. Each character starts with two slots, and gains an additional each time they reach level 13 in any class. The only downside to switching classes is that you start your new class at half of your old classes's level and class level determines hit and dodge chance to a great degree, as well as what level spells you can cast. This makes for a very interesting system that gives character development a lot of depth, allowing you to build all kinds of unusual characters (including ones that are pretty useless.)

Each character (except for your main character who is the "chosen one") also gets to choose a trait. These include being better able to find secrets, disable traps, identify items, getting additional stat points, or resisting damage. You can decide who takes what. It's often good to think this out not only with your starting characters, but also for your substitute characters. For example, I gave all of my starting ninjas and rangers the ability to disable traps, and all of my dancers and priests the ability to find secrets. The game assumes you can do both, and if you can't you'll be punished accordingly. Your main character "the Chosen One" gets a special pool of energy called "morale". This lets you ambush monsters (more below), escape automatically from battles, or use other special abilties. You get these special abilities by harvesting lineage monster and giving their blood gems over to one of the three factions.

Like in any Wizardry-style game, the vast majority of encounters are random. Even in the same dungeon (and even in the tutorial dungeon), the difficulty of these battles can vary enormously. However, you can escape combat fairly easily and in most situations you can even see the level of the creatures, so you can judge if you're in over your head. If you push into combat without studying your opponents you can be in for a terrible surprise. Also, encountering any new monster group the first time can be a worrisome experience. Like in the early Wizardry games, you can only save your game in town (here, in the Stranger's Guild). So you'll have to weigh risk against reward. And what happens if you screw up? Well here, Stranger of Sword City is much fairer than Wizardry, and lets you decide how difficult you want your game to be.

An encounter square lays before me. Now might be a good time to return to the guild.

In addition to normal difficulty selections (and even on easy you can run into battles that are simply unwinnable), you can choose how many life points you want your character to have (namely 1, 2, or 3). The fewer life points they have, the better their starting stats. One life point means permadeath for characters. If the character has more than one life point, they simply lose a life point and are dead till revived. Reviving can be done instantly with a rare item, instantly at the guild at great cost, or for free with a recovery time. Life points can also be recovered over time or with items. That's another reason it's good to have a big cadre. Of course, you're also always free to reload your last save. If that's after twenty minutes of lost progress, though, I found that I always weighed that option carefully. There are also butterfly wings. Those are very rare items which let you teleport out of a dungeon. I also kept one on me in case a character died on me 40 minutes into a dungeon and I had just defeated an important boss and was afraid to press on or backtrack out.

Of course there are times when even the best planning doesn't help. Lineage battles can be brutal. One lineage type I ran into fairly early wiped out my party with ease. I kept on returning throughout my game to see if I could take him, and he destroyed my entire party at least five times, and only very late in the game was I able to destroy him. And strangely enough that didn't bother me, even though each time I lost between 10-30 minutes of playtime, but I think that's because of how dungeon exploration works in Stranger of Sword City.

 

Dungeon Crawling

Stranger of Sword City incorporates many classic systems that can be found in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. On the other hand, they make them fair. For example, The Bard's Tale has encounter tiles, or places where a battle is guaranteed to take place. In Stranger of Sword City these are all visible. That means you know when pressing on will lead you into a battle. There are also avoidable battles and this means, to some degree, you can choose when to fight (there are still random encounters too, though these can be mitigated later on with a spell or simply avoided by spending morale). There are also darkness squares. In Wizardry they completely blinded you. In Stranger of Sword City, you still know where you are, you just only see the outlines of monsters when you encounter them. Stranger of Sword City doesn't have all that many monster types. This is one of the game's big weaknesses. Each dungeon area usually has about five to seven types of encountered monsters. That means, for the most part, you can guess what monster you are encountering in the darkness. However, you can't see the monster's level. That makes it much more difficult to determine if you can win. Of course you can always run, but if an encounter tile blocks your path in the darkness, you eventually have to cross it. You're almost always given fair notice of what types of traps you'll be facing in a dungeon (such a poisoned floors, twisters, one way walls, lava floors, no teleport zones, one way pits, ice dungeons which prohibit the use of active skills, or underwater dungeons which hinder spellcasting), so you can prepare a party who can handle it.

This dungeon is full of traps, which we can at least see on the map once we've set them off once.

The game also has an interesting loot system. Most monsters outside of the big bosses don't carry loot. Characters who can detect secrets can find "ambush points", rooms or hallways where you can wait for a monster carrying treasure and ambush it. You can look at the monster, see its level, and the category of treasure it has (helmets, for example). You can then decide to attack it or let it pass. Attacking the first monster that comes grants a surprise round to the player. Waiting increases the chance with each new monster (you can wait 5 times) that the monster will get the drop on the characters and get a free round to beat up on them.



Do I really need another axe? Should I wait and hope for something better?

Defeating the big boss monsters, the so-called "Lineage" types, drives the game forward. The more you harvest, the more powers you can get from the three faction heads, and the faster the events of the game's story evolve. Many of these monsters are easy to find, as they block your path forward. Others are much more difficult to find. You're given a wanted list with hints, but these can range from very helpful to obscure. Some of these monsters are attracted by a specific object in your inventory. Others can only be found at ambush points, and then only if you fulfill specific conditions. Finding a few of these monsters were some of the biggest "aha" moments for me. Even on easy difficulty, battles against some of these lineage monsters can easily wipe your party if you're unprepared or too low a level. Monsters scale to your level to a specific point. Most areas or monsters seem to have a maximum level. Also, the levels are not intuitive. I had little trouble defeating level 7 monsters with a level 3 party, but couldn't beat level 17 monsters. It would have made more sense to make them level 2 and 12, but one gets used to the strange system pretty quickly.



Legacy monsters like these make for tense battles. Especially if you haven't been able to save for more than ten minutes.

After the tutorial dungeon, you're given multiple dungeons to explore concurrently. Each dungeon has its own traps, monsters, quests, and challenges. Most dungeons are made up of multiple maps, and each new map is more difficult than the last. This is a real plus, because if you get tired of one dungeon, or find it too difficult, you can simply switch to another. Each dungeon has short cuts which need to be opened, which cut down on backtracking, and a teleport stone. This is great since you can't save in dungeons. One of the only mechanics in Stranger of Sword City that I found unnecessary and stupid was that defeated lineage types occasionally can reappear and conquer teleport stones. This results in tedious backtracking and you can't even harvest the lineage type a second time, so its just serves as an annoyance. Still such an annoyance almost never results in more than 10 minutes of extra backtracking. The one big exception when it comes to backtracking is the last dungeon. Here you have to defeat 4 bosses and clear about an hour's worth of dungeon (once you know where you need to go) with no real opportunity to save. If you get wiped by the last boss, too bad. Still, it's a mechanic in lots of old games (including the original Wizardry, Bard's Tale, and Final Fantasy 3), but I've never really liked it (though I know others would disagree). It took me close to 75 hours to get to the last boss, so I certainly got my share of entertainment out of Stranger of Sword City, which is a very long game.

Combat is turn (phase) based, and classical fantasy fare. Some classes have a lot of options in combat (such as the spellcasters) whereas others, such as the ranger, gain a ton of passive abilities and have few active attack options until later in the game. In tough battles you have to make full use of your skills, items, and morale pool. Like in many games, you know you'll win a fight before you start, and unlike in most games you can actually choose to do a fast combat, where the turn is instantly calculated, and that makes such battles go by extremely quickly. Anyone who has played the classic Wizardry 8 is aware how long such combats can normally drag on, and why no one has come up with such a system before is beyond me. Also even normal combat rounds in Stranger of Sword City go by relatively quickly.

 

Ports

Like so many modern rpgs, especially Japanese ones, Stranger of Sword City was designed primarily for consoles. The game works exceedingly well with keyboard and mouse. Nevertheless, one sees signs that the game was not primarily designed for the PC. The only thing that I found somewhat strange is that there are button numbers on some menu screens. For me, the logical thing was to try to use the keyboard numbers to access the various information screens, but alas, nothing happened. You simply have to click on them. That's not really explained anywhere and it would have been better to remove those numbers. Also, while the game's mechanics are generally well-explained, tool tips would have been helpful for some things which later become apparent during the game (like what individual attributes do and what some of the symbols on the user interface are). Still, I got used to the game quickly, and it was (for me at least) a very minor irritation.

 

Summary

I've played a lot of games this year, and haven't enjoyed any of them more than Stranger of Sword City. It's a thinking man's dungeon crawler with tactical depth and lots of options, and I've always enjoyed games like this. Before I played this game, I'd never have believed how a developer could make the core systems of this kind of dungeon crawler so accessible without dumbing them down or making them easy. Stranger of Sword City at least makes an attempt to deal with the biggest problems of the old school first person party based dungeon crawler, and for the most part does it quite succesfully. It is an excellent game. It's not for everyone, though. For one, it can be frustrating. I personally don't like Dark Souls, because I'm an idiot when it comes to real time combat skills. It simply isn't a game for me, but I can still recognize and understand why so many people might enjoy it. Likewise, Stranger of Sword City is not going to be for people who don't like to think out party design or combat strategy in detail, since failing to do so can lead to brutal punishment. Also, it's in Japanese with English subtitles. I'm sure that will put some people off. There are also people who hate random encounters, even though they were a staple of early crpgs (including many classics). And then there are people who - quite understandably - hate anything which looks like a console game. That being said, Stranger of Sword City does what it sets out to do very well, and that makes it one of the best dungeon crawlers I've played in years.

Box Art

Information about

Stranger of Sword City

Developer: Experience Inc.

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Dungeon Crawler
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: Unknown
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
Internet
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2016-06-06
· Publisher: NIS America

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Excellent artwork and voiceovers make characters unique
  • Strategy and planning are necessary for success
  • Easily accessible, even for players new to the genre
  • Wizardry-style gameplay reinvigorated for a modern audience

Cons

  • Monsters lack variety
  • Some console-specific UI features remain
  • Japanese audio a turnoff for some players
  • Lineage monsters can cause annoying setbacks

Rating

Review version