Stranger of Sword City is a bucket of cold water to the face of most Vita owners. Games on the PlayStation handheld are typically short-burst timewasters, or casual, mindless experiences that can easily fill the time during a commute. Even the games that don’t fit into that category are easy to put a few minutes into here and there during some off-time. Stranger of Sword City is not that kind of game. It demands your full attention and then some, and if you’re not willing to give it that, your party will die. And you will lose all your money. And it will suck.
Stranger of Sword City is the latest dungeon RPG from Japanese developer Experience Inc., who were responsible for Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss:New Tokyo Legacy, two other Vita dungeon-crawling RPG niche hits. While Operation Abyss felt like a natural successor to Demon Gaze in everything but name, Stranger of Sword City feels like a new beast entirely. The other games from this developer were entrenched in bright anime visuals and all of the character and story cliches that come with that. Stranger of Sword City taps into a darker Western influence both in terms of visuals and narrative, giving it a unique style and flair of it’s own.
In Stranger of Sword City, the player is on a flight to Alaska that suddenly disappears, re-emerging and crash landing in a strange high-fantasy world of elves and monsters. As the only survivor of the crash, you quickly find yourself encountering harsh battle and mysterious characters, one of whom leads you to a guild made up of people who were also once unsuspecting Earthlings now transported to a strange new world. These Strangers have the ability to defeat unique enemies called Lineage Types and use their Blood Crystals to enhance their own abilities, and it’s up to you and the guild to take advantage of this ability and save the realm, while trying to find out how you even got there in the first place.
It’s an interesting narrative with a strong cast of characters, but because of a shoddy localisation, it all feels a little bland and lifeless sometimes. It’s a shocker that this is published by NIS America, the geniuses behind Disgaea and Danganronpa, because it lacks all of the polish and personality that those games boast. Character dialogue is stinted and awkward, and a lot of lines feel like they’re hastily translated versions of sayings that make more sense in Japanese. This also bleeds into the dialogue choices that you frequently come across in the game, as I found characters constantly responding to my choice with a line that felt like it was meant to be a response to something else entirely.
Saying that, it doesn’t feel like much care was put into the original Japanese either, if the voice acting is anything to go by. Actually, all of the audio in the game is pretty bare bones. Even if you have no knowledge of the Japanese language, it’s easy to tell that the frequent Japanese voice acting in the game lacks the passion and quality you might expect from the genre. Music, too, is basic at best and mind-numbing at worst. This wouldn’t be a bonus soundtrack-CD worth getting excited over.
The rest of the aesthetic of the game is pulled off pretty flawlessly, at least. Character and environment art is gorgeous, maintaining a strong balance of Japanese and Western influence. For the fans of the character aesthetic present in this developer’s previous games, though, there’s an option in the settings that actually changes all of the character art to a completely different and overtly anime art style. Enemy designs tend to feel a little generic, but the sharp art style helps to make them feel a touch fresher.
Equally fresh is the meat of the game, the gameplay. No matter how many dungeon RPGs you’ve played before, Stranger of Sword City is sure to throw you for a loop. The basic systems from something like Etrian Odyssey or Demon Gaze make up the foundation; you customize a party of characters with various classes and skills, and explore various dungeons to encounter enemies and obtain treasure, all in a unique and immersive first-person view.
The character customisation is deep, letting you assign numerous art portraits to equally numerous classes, as well as a number of other choices. One such option is the ability to set a character’s age, but this isn’t just there so you can have a team of hot grannies. In this game, when a character dies, they lose a life point, and when all their life points are lost, they are dead forever. An older character gets more initial stat points, but they also have less life points. The opposite applies to younger characters.
Choices like that are important in this game, because if you don’t plan things out and play smart, you’re going to suffer for it. In the initial tutorial dungeon, I lost teammates at the drop of a hat and nearly had to reset my game after I lost all of my money paying the revival fee for a party member. Enemies are tough, exp is limited, and equipment is rare. The best way to get stronger equipment is through the unique Ambush system.
By going to a certain part of the map and spending a few points that you’d also use to escape from a battle or perform other auxiliary actions, you can cloak yourself and wait for enemies to pass by, transporting cargo. You can see the levels and types of enemies, as well as what kind of equipment they’re carrying, and choose to fight them or let them pass. Letting them pass runs the risk of another group of enemies ambushing you, but fighting a tough group of enemies might lead to a swift death. This is a game all about rewarding patience and quick thinking, and it never pulls any punches. Unless of course you buy an item in the shop that decreases the difficulty of the game.
Stranger of Sword City excels at one thing, and really flounders at the others. It’s a rewarding experience if you’re a fan of challenging RPGs and gameplay depth. If you’re a fan of well-written dialogue, engaging music or proper difficulty curves though…well….there are a lot of other video games out there that may suit you better.