It seems that decent dungeon crawlers with a focus on harvesting monster organs for fun and profit on the Vita are like buses. There’s none for ages and then two show up at once. I am, of course, talking about Drinkbox Studios Severed (review here, TL:DR it’s bloody brilliant) and Experience inc.’s Stranger of Sword City.
Players take on the role of the only survivor of a plane which falls afoul of a wibbly portal and crash lands in the mystical land of Escario – A land of dungeons, dragons and broken TV sets as far as the eye can see. After being rescued by a Japanese school girl named Riu with a bloody good sword arm, you find out that you are far from the first person this has happened to and are in fact considered to be one of the Chosen Ones, a select club of strangers to the land who have the ability to touch and carry Blood Crystals that drop out of defeated Lineage Monsters which plague the realm.
In a less-than-shocking turn, the power of these crystals is what you’ll need to get back home. Thus, it’s up to you (despite having no formal weapons training whatsoever, or any clue what you’re bloody well doing) to gather together a group of noble warriors to hunt down as many Lineage Monsters as you can, and harvest their kidney ston–er, blood crystals. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz, with slightly more evisceration.
The character creator is surprisingly robust, far more so than I thought it would be, or even than it actually needs to be. You have the choice to play as five different races and eight different classes. Race and gender aren’t tied to which of the thirty or so character portraits you choose to use, which is slightly odd. If you want to be a burly, bearded dwarf that’s actually a fourteen year old school girl, you can for some reason. You can also change the voice to suit your needs, giving them different voices for different actions, which is kind of fun. My main character, for instance, sounds like a guy normally but screams like a girl when he dies.
It’s a neat touch, but does seem a little at odds with the narrative, as I’d figure your main character should be a human, but I guess you could just pretend that going to this strange land magically transformed them in some way. Then again, I quite like making up mad back-stories for my characters in RPGs and it’s nice to see the game help me in making odd characters that don’t necessarily fit the tone.
You can switch between two distinct art styles for the NPCs at any time, using either the more classical fantasy look of Yoko Tsukamoto’s art from the original Xbox 360 release, or the new anime-tinged designs by En Okishiji. Personally, I preferred the original look as it fit with the backgrounds and general bleak tone of the game world a lot better.
Stranger of Sword City does some cool things in regards to Permadeath and character creation as well. Each character has a certain amount of Life Points, which, once used up, means the character is no more. However, the amount of life points a character starts with is dependent on their age – the younger the character, the more life points they have (up to a max of three). However, the younger a character is, the weaker it is as well. This creates a choice we don’t normally see. Do you try for a squad of hardy old bastards that are made of tissue paper, or a bunch of green horns that can take a hit. In my experience, a bunch of jaded middle-aged characters seemed to get the job done best (which is, admittedly, a bit like real life).
Getting your party set up right is crucial to success, as Stranger of Sword City is an utter bastard. Even on the easiest setting (beginner), I found myself being cut to ribbons by beasts that I thought would be easy to defeat. It was a strange feeling for me. In the past, I would power through, because all of the previous RPGs I’ve played would keep enemies near the level of your party, lest you venture in an area you’re not supposed to be in. That’s not the case here. I was constantly assaulted by creatures way too strong for my team. While that may be seen as poor programming, I saw it as an opportunity to learn that it’s okay to retreat.
You can unlock new abilities (called divinity) for your characters by giving Blood Crystals to Vessels (characters that can absorb their power). The first one you unlock is Flash Retreat, which acts as you’d imagine, giving you the ability to bravely run away from most fights (apart from certain Lineage Monsters). In most JRPGs, retreating is usually an option but not something you ever bother doing. However, thanks to the random and harsh nature of your encounters in Stranger in Sword City, along with the chance for your entire party to be killed off by a stiff breeze, it’s the most useful ability in the entire game. As the old maxim goes: “Those who fight and run away, use up valuable running time with all that fighting.”
Stranger of Sword City’s grid-based dungeons are vast, varied, and labyrinthine, with plenty to discover. From bandit camps to troll lairs to teleporting corridors, there are tons of noteworthy points of interest to stumble upon. Though battles can be a bit of a grind at times, slaying wave after wave of the same mindless grunts, it’s worth it for the joy of exploring the environment – discovering hidden pathways, solving puzzles, and uncovering new lineage monsters to fight keeps you pushing forward.
With the ever-present threat of permadeath lingering over your head, the game instils a constant feeling of trepidation as you venture into the unknown. Do you continue to push forward and see how far you can go until your team is on the verge of death? Or run back to the safety of the guild to save the game and regroup after every challenging battle? Often times, I would get back to the guild by the skin of my teeth, or (shamefully) find myself resetting the game after one of my comrades had been cut down in a random battle. Like Dark Souls, caution and preparation can more often than not win the day.
When you do need to replace a fallen comrade, the new character you create will be levelled up relative to your main character. In theory, this sounds perfectly reasonable. In practice, you can find yourself with a warrior three or four levels behind the rest of your team. However, since you can make new characters at any time, I’d recommend creating a surplus as soon as you are able to at the start of the game, as they level up even when you’re not using them. This means that the character you replace your slain samurai with is much more likely to be the same level (or maybe a little stronger, if you’re really lucky).
Training up new allies is an absolute chore thanks to how slowly characters level up. This makes the usual grind even harder and completely derails your progress when you have to find easier prey for the new recruit to fend off. Simply protecting them while fighting other higher-levelled monsters usually ends with the new recruit snuffing it – and occasionally taking someone else with them as well, which just compounds the issue further. This can, of course, all be avoided by saving regularly and restarting whenever someone dies, but that’s sort of missing the point a bit, isn’t it?
The game artificially extends its life by resurrecting previously defeated Lineage Monsters in front of a warp point you’ve unlocked in a dungeon, forcing you to trek back through from the beginning to take it out again. These encounters are more of an irksome nuisance than an additional challenge and the game could really do without them, especially as you’re told at the beginning that when you kill one of these buggers they stay dead.
Despite the pacing falling off a cliff from time to time due to the huge amounts of grinding required, I’d have no reservations recommending Stranger of Sword City. It’s is a damn fine dungeon crawler that’s beautiful to behold and incredibly challenging. It teeters along that fine line between tough and fair, and risk vs reward seems to be a main theme running throughout the entirety of its gameplay systems. Fans of the genre will find it a good entry, and those who’ve always wanted to get into it, will find that Stranger of Sword City is a great place to start.
Stranger of Sword City was reviewed on PS Vita, with a copy provided by the publisher
Publisher: NIS America| Developer: Experience Inc. | Genre: Dungeon Crawler | Platform: PC, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 16+/T | Release Date: March 22,2016 (Xbox One), April 26, 2016 (PS Vita), June 6 (PC)