Stranger of Sword City is a dungeon crawling RPG from Experience Inc. Originally released only in Japan on the Xbox 360 of all places it has now been released on the PS Vita. If you’ve played Demon Gaze or Operation Abyss from the same developer you’ll have a strong idea of what you’ll be in for with this new release. Hardcore would probably be a suitable word for it.
There is a story to Stranger of Sword City but it takes a back seat to the rest of the game. You are involved in a plane crash, survive but wake up in an unusual location as a Stranger. You aren’t the first and it’s revealed that Strangers are very powerful in this world but all of them ultimately want to return home. You are rescued from an untimely death by Riu, a fellow Stranger who welcomes you into her guild. From this point you are sent to dungeons to hunt Lineages, powerful enemies who will respawn if killed by anyone other than a Stranger. Upon defeat they drop Blood Crystals which you can offer to one of three Vessels (Riu being one) to gain new powers and eventually decide the ending to the game.
There are multiple characters that you’ll see over and over but you won’t be carried through this game by the story. You’ll either play this for the grind, the loot or the challenge. Stranger of Sword City is a difficult game, so much so that the difficulties labelled ‘Beginner’ and ‘Normal’ should be labelled ‘Normal’ and ‘Hard’. There is an element of RNG to everything and on ‘Normal’ the randomness does not work in your favour. This is an RPG so obviously you can power through it but that initial area, supposedly a tutorial, will destroy you over and over again. After I beat the tutorial area I actually took what I’d learned and started the whole game again, switching down the difficulty and creating a new character. Things went much smoother this time but even on the lower difficulty you will eventually get one shot by a random enemy.
When you create a new character you can choose the portrait that represents them, their class, race, gender, voice, name, everything. There is even a dice roll at the end to determine how many bonus points you get to put into your stats (which you have full control over). I wish there wasn’t as you’ll be there re-rolling over and over hoping for the best possible outcome which will probably never come and when it does you’ll have been pressing X for so long you’ll accidentally press it again and lose it. Some people will find this incredible, once I’d finished creating all the characters for my party (you have full control over that as well) and a few spares I was hugely frustrated.
Once you’ve assembled your crew, hopefully with a variety of classes that compliment one another, you set out exploring dungeons in a first person view, slowly revealing a map square by square. You can find random items lying around, traps, locked doors, hidden doors, enemies set in place or random encounters. The random encounter rate isn’t that high thankfully, though the battle system is pretty fast for this type of game and load times are swift throughout. You choose a move for each of your characters from a simple attack, to magic or a skill and once you picked all of them you confirm it and it plays out as well as the enemy’s moves in order of quickness. There are three characters in the front row and three in the back so the front row will protect the back row and do melee damage whilst the back row will support.
What speeds battles up most though is that you can either watch each move individually or just have everything happen at once. There’s a log available if you need to check what happened but in the more straightforward fights this is an excellent feature which is only improved with the ability to press a couple of buttons and repeat the same attacks you did previously. This keeps the more frequent battles from bogging you down too much though there will be times when you want to take it a little more slowly.
Another interesting feature is the ability to ambush enemies. In set locations you can hide and enemy patrols will pass through carrying loot. The chest is marked with what’s inside so if you fancy your chances against the enemy and want what’s inside then you can leap out and attack. The more times you pass on a patrol the more likely you are to be discovered but it’s a new take on loot grinding if you feel your gear is due an upgrade.
After the initial difficulty wall things do settle down a little. Your characters level up and learn new abilities to help you out. There’s no saving in dungeons so you just want to explore a bit, maybe open up a shortcut before heading back to safety and saving your game. You will still encounter enemies that will make you suffer seemingly out of nowhere but as long as you’re cautious you should make some slow and steady progress. If you do find yourself stuck the game is pretty good at giving you a few different locations to explore at a time so you can move onto somewhere else to take a break if you fancy. There is no denying though that this game is difficult.
Added to the difficulty is the fact that all characters you create other than your main have a limited number of lives. If they run out of lives they vanish and you have to replace them with someone else, who’s probably underleveled. I’m not sure it’s a mechanic that adds anything really and I just ended up reloading as soon as someone died so as not to deal with the consequences. A more welcome mechanic is the ability to change your character class, though you are limited to doing this five times and your level is cut in half when you do meaning you have to build up your character again. Stats and skills carry over, plus half your HP and MP though so there is a benefit to creating hybrids, just know that if you do you’re going to have to spend time grinding yourself back to where you were.
Visually the game relies on very angular 3D dungeons which although not ugly are very basic, with all character and enemy elements being 2D. The default artwork is actually very nice but if you are so inclined there is an anime option which replaces all character portraits with an anime style version. After seeing the original the anime artwork didn’t sit well with me at all but it’s nice to be given a choice. Outside of dungeons everything is navigated by menus so there’s not much in the way of world to explore. None of the music or sound effects are particularly stand out but they do the job and there are only intermittent Japanese vocals.
Stranger of Sword City is a hard sell for anyone who doesn’t already know they like this type of game. I’ve probably seemed quite down on it throughout this review but despite the terrible first impression it gave me once I started to actually make progress things started to look up. Yes I would still get destroyed now and then but that was book ended by decent progress and character development. This is a good example of this type of dungeon explorer, it’s just a shame the difficulty curve is one of the harshest I’ve ever seen.
+ 2D visuals are very nice
+ Battles are quick when they need to be
- RNG for everything