A dungeon well worth crawling through.
Last we heard from the good folks from “Experience Inc.” they had just released “Operation Abyss”. It was a deeply flawed title and most definitely a step back from the impressive “Demon Gaze”, which came before, but technically after, because Operation Abyss was actually a remake of a PC game from… OK, well it’s complicated.
All the same, with “Stranger in Sword City”, we have the true spiritual successor to Demon Gaze in terms of experience (pun always intended) and budget.
Platform: PSV, XB1
Space Required: 546MB
Voice Acting: JPN only
Length: 40~ hours with multiple endings and New Game +
The curtain opens to Sword City when the player finds themselves in an unfamiliar world, amidst the wreckage of an airplane.
After a quick brush with death, the player is rescued by a rather innocent looking girl wielding an impossibly large blade.
The player is informed that this is another world entirely, and those who cross over from the other side are given the title “Stranger”, as they possess mysterious powers in this world.
So begins the quest to find a way back home, at any cost.
As it might seem, the setting and the overarching storyline isn’t anything particularly interesting, but to compensate, Sword City has some rather intriguing characters.
Strangers are assigned the lofty task of gathering Blood Crystals by defeating unique, powerful enemies spread across the world. However, what’s just as important is deciding who to give the Blood Crystals to once they are collected, as there multiple factions, all vying for power.
Each side is represented by an individual and their assistant of sorts, and they are all written in such a way where no one side is clearly deemed the good guys or the dastardly mustache twirling villains.
Everyone has their own reasons for fighting and their justice is true, in their own way.
Given JRPGs are notorious for rather clear cut, one dimensional characters, it’s always nice to see that some thought went into creating these characters.
Assigning Blood Crystals also grants a unique ability that can be used during battle associated with the faction in question, so it also has some significant gameplay implications as well.
Ultimately, it even determines the way the game will progress and the ending the player will get, as siding with one faction often means making an enemy of another.
As for the gameplay, it’s more or less what’s expected of a dungeon crawler, with a few notable additions and flaws.
The first thing to note is that the game allows the player to choose from two wildly different art styles, which can be switched at any time.
Personally, I preferred to use Type A, as I found the art style to quite distinct and utterly gorgeous, and in comparison Type B seemed like your typical generic anime designs.
Once the player steps into a dungeon, they must first realize that this is a very, very, VERY, MUCHO difficult game and that they will die, a lot.
Enemies are merciless, the game can only be saved back at the base and warp points to get out of dungeons are few and far between.
If the deck wasn’t stacked high enough against the player, each time a non-mc character dies, they lose a life point which they have about 3 of, and when they’re all gone, they disappear for good.
A level 32 character you’ve been building up for 40 hours of gameplay just died twice in one battle and just vanished for good?
Well, to that I say, “please reload my last save, my good man because I can’t hold that ‘L’. And yes, I know it was from 20 minutes ago. Just do it.”
Replenishing lost life points can be done back at the base for free, but will take literal hours of in-game time to do where they can’t be in your party.
There are a few items that can recover life points, but they’re more valuable than mega elixirs in a Final Fantasy game, and even though you can simply pay to recover life points instantly, you won’t be able to afford to do it till the end of the game.
So, you have a game where checkpoints are limited, you die all the time and death is insanely punishing.
Did I mention that this game is hard?
However, even with its difficulty, it’s certainly not impossible, and carefully planning out my party composition, along with a lot of grinding ultimately carried me through to the end credits.
Given the rather uncompromising nature of Sword City’s design, every Blood Crystal earned was a major victory worth celebrating and thoroughly satisfying.
However, there were some rather cheap death mechanics like AoE instant kill spells, which was entirely dependent on luck and seemed out of place in a game that punishes deaths as harshly as this one.
Also, there’s a way to customize and use the skills of multiple classes at once, but losing half of my levels to do so in the process seemed too harsh given how long it took to level in the game (I’ve obtained level ~33 at 40 hours played), and I never saw much use for it after the first few hours.
The dungeons themselves were fun to explore and seemed on par with the offerings from Demon Gaze, but still nowhere near the brilliance of the Etrian series in terms of level design.
There’s also a great OST that fits the atmosphere of its various dungeons, along with some epic boss encounters.
Stranger in Sword City is a brutal and uncompromising experience that’s well worth overcoming. It features some interesting gameplay ideas along with a terrific art style and an OST to match. If not for its few notable flaws, it could have easily been the best dungeon crawler on the Vita.
Fun Tidbit: Experience Inc. has an allergy to allowing players to just buy good equipment from a vender in their games it seems as just like in Demon Gaze, there’s a very oddball way of scoring high quality gear in this game as well.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.