Review: Stranger of Sword City

After 18 hours of dungeoneering, I feel that I have gotten a sufficient grasp on how this game works and where things are going to discuss it, and I’m honestly of mixed feelings here.

This is a game that is only going to appeal to a specific group of people. First, you are going to need to like Dungeon Crawler games like the old Wizardry series, Etrian Odyssey or Might and Magic – and you might not like it if you’re not fond of JRPGs and grinding.

If you fall under this very specific set of conditions, then congratulations, you have found an absolutely fantastic game well worth your time. But if not? Well, this may not be the game for you.

Let’s get into my Pillars and discuss the matter in depth.

VISUALS

The visual style of this game is something else. Artistically, it has a primary style that can be described as dark fantasy. The backdrops for the various cities and things are very distinct and memorable. Each area has its own style, whether it’s the empty desert of the Mausoleum of Metal, the snow covered trees in the Mausoleum of Forest, or the stained glass look of the Shadow Castle, each area feels different.  And yes, the names are hilarious.

I will however admit that the actual dungeons can look a bit… old school at times, as if they were from a PS2 game. I mean, just check out these sweet trees!

Furthermore, the monsters all share a similar style with this dark fantasy, each one being a visually distinct color and style. Yes, there are palette swaps, where upgraded versions of a monster are simply a different color and some slight design variations, and given the amount of grinding you will see the same creatures over and over, but it thankfully is nice to look at.

Effects wise, your attacks are pretty basic. Fire attacks make little fire explosions, lightning comes down in strikes from the sky, and your weapon attacks are simple effects on screen. This is a turn based dungeon crawler after all.

What’s interesting to me are the character sprites for the game. With the PC Version, you have 3 art styles to choose from.

You see, there is the style that meshes with the rest of the game. You can see it in that image there towards the bottom. Then there are two very anime styles. I prefer the anime styles, personally, but it’s all very good.

What’s really fascinating, however, is that you can actually change the NPC Portraits to a second style! Within the options menu there is a setting for art style 1 or 2. Here is a prime example. The following is the same NPC, a girl named Riu, and her 2 sprites.

My main issue with the game’s visual design was the UI. The game can be controlled via Keyboard / Mouse or Controller, but if using a KB/M combo you end up with all the buttons having a simple number, and by default, those numbers do not match up to the actual numberpad keys. And on several screens those numbers are small, so it can be hard to see.

Further, the UI doesn’t draw your attention to important information, and in some cases seems to be missing things. For example, there is no easy way for me to tell if a party member has a buff or debuff on them aside from poison, which colors the HP meter purple. Truth be told, the UI is just a mess. I mean, there are icons during exploration that after 18 hours I still have no idea what are for!

Also, and I am ashamed to admit this, but for the first 9 hours of the game I was convinced the game had a bug as I could not locate the Cleric spells Hit and Avoid, or the Wizard spells Slow. Turns out that there is a set of buttons below the spell descriptions that are kinda small, and they represent tabs. Those tabs are listed as Heal, Attack and Support. They actually put the spells into categories, but never mention that they do this. And honestly, those spells are bloody important!

Beyond the UI issues the visual style is great and I adore it.

AUDIO

Is there somewhere I can get the soundtrack? ‘Cause I need the soundtrack. From the opening theme to the individual tracks for each zone, to the battle music, to the menu music, this game has some fantastic songs.

The sound effects in battle are serviceable, the monsters make some basic noises, and the party member voices are also simple. You can choose how you want your characters to sound, but they basically just repeat the same noises and it’s very basic.

The voice acting for the NPCs is great, but it’s in Japanese, and I could not find any English dubbing. If you’d be bothered by the lack of dubbing, you might get annoyed by this.

STORY

The basic premise of the game is as follows: You are a traveler from our world, whose Pan Asian flight vanishes in route to Alaska. You wake up in a creepy ruin, and discover you have strange powers as you are a “Stranger” to the world of Escarion. You are a “Chosen One” able to kill these large Lineage Beasts and steal their blood shards, which can be turned into one of three vessels to grant them increased power.

You basically spend the story of the game trying to help yourself and the others Strangers find a way home. The story is threadbare at times, and I never felt myself really connecting to any of the NPCs. After 18 hours of play, due to repeated missteps and restarts, I only just got through the first set of dungeons and was granted access to the second, and not much plot development happened.

Basically, the story boils down to “Kill monsters, collect shards, find a way home.” It’s serviceable, and you generally play a game like this for the gameplay, not the story.

GAMEPLAY

This is a First Person Turn Based Japanese Dungeon Crawling RPG. Yes, that is a mouthful to say. The primary gameplay for a game like this is to go into a dungeon, kill monsters, get loot, level up, and repeat until you beat the game.

What makes this game unique, in both good and bad ways, is how it handles said dungeon crawling and the mechanics around its classes and systems.

First, you have 8 Classes: Knight, Fighter, Samurai, Ninja, Dancer, Ranger, Wizard, Cleric. Each one fills a role in combat. Knights are your tanks, Clerics your healers, Samurai are single target damage dealers, Ninja and Dancers each are unique support / damage classes, ect.

Character creation is another unique aspect of the game. When you start, you are going to make your main character. You will choose a race, which is forced to be Human, an Age, Class, Stats, and Talent. Stats are Strength, Agility, Intellect, Piety, Vitality, Luck. Each stat effects something, and it’s pretty well explained.

What’s interesting is the Age and Life Point systems. Your character has an age, which dictates how many Bonus Stat Points you start with, as well as your starting Life Points. This game features permadeath, but each character has a certain number of lives, called Life Points. If you run out of Life Points, the character is gone for good. Unless it’s your Main Character, who is immune to permanent death.

The older your character is, the more bonus stat points they have, at the cost of Life Points. It’s a balancing act. As a tip, set your main character to be 60 years old. This gives them a minimum of 10 bonus stat points and 1 Life Point, but remember, they can’t die. Everyone else should be set at 40 years old, which gives 2 Life Points and a starting minimum of 7 bonus points.

Race also dictates your starting stats, with Humans having a baseline of 9 in all 6. Again, the screen clearly gives you tips on where to go. What’s fun is that you can set your sex to be male or female, and then select any portrait you want regardless of sex, age, or race. And you can give whatever kind of voice you want too. Want a deep male attack sound, and a high pitched girly damage sound? Go for it.

Finally, the biggest aspect of character creation is Class Changing. Basically, you can stop being one class and switch to another, at the cost of half your current level. You can only change class five times. You are able, once you change, to equip some of the old skills and spells of your previous classes however, and if you make it to level 13 as a class, you unlock an extra Skill Slot. You start with two. As another tip: Make all your future Back Row characters as Rangers first and then switch them to whatever you are going to have them as such as Cleric or Wizard, as that way you can equip bows.

I personally got to level 12 as my highest character. It does take a while to actually level up at times, and the grind is very, very real. What’s worse is that the game actively seems to try to prevent you from grinding. Enemies give very little XP and the encounter rates are very low. You can use the Ambush system to force encounters, but it still takes a very long time to level up and it feels like a slog at times. Truthfully, I am not a fan of hardcore grinding like this anymore, and I felt that they could have balanced the XP rates better.

General gameplay consists of you walking square by square on a grid in dungeons, once you have selected a location to visit from the world map. There is a handy mini map and even a large map, with auto pathing feature. I frequently would use said autorun option to move from Ambush Site to Ambush Site.

Ambushing is a mechanic unique to this game, where you go to a specific location and use the Hide option to basically surprise a group of enemies. This is literally the best way to get gear and XP, as these enemies always carry treasure chests and if you kill the leader before it runs you will get something.

In fact, killing the random encounter spawns and the static map spawns that show up don’t often give you anything beyond XP. Currency is very difficult to come by, and buying anything other than consumables is a waste as gear in the shop is highly expensive. This shows the after combat results, and while it seems like a lot, at levels 10+ that 1k XP is about 1% of a level, maybe 2%. And note the lack of Blood Gems, aka currency.

The game is also brutal. Even on Beginner, the game pulls no punches. Your characters will get knocked out, frequently, and the game will frequently and without warning throw enemies who you have very little chance of beating at you. Since you have no way to scan an enemy during combat, the only way you can tell their difficulty is based on their level. Generally it seems that if they are 10 levels or more higher then you, you better run.

And yes, you will run quite often. The first Divinity Power you get in this game is a 100% flee power. Here is a video I recorded of the first hour and a half of the game. Towards the end you can see what I mean about having to run over and over again.

What’s a Divinity Power you ask? Well, it’s a system that ties into the game’s story. You see, your primary job as a Stranger is to kill Lineage Types, basically boss monsters. Kill one, you get a Blood Shard. Take said shard to 1 of three vessels and you unlock a Divinity Power. Each Vessel has a path you unlock with unique powers, and this actually dictates the ending. You generate Divinity Points during combat, and you spend them both to Hide (Ambush) and to use Divinity Powers.

One thing I do want to mention that I found awesome is that any characters who are not on your active team still get XP, albeit at a reduced rate.  They also bring in cash.  It is smart to actually build your roster fully at the very start of the game, filling up all available slots in your character roster, so that way any time you have to bench someone for healing you have backup.  There are actually enough open character slots to create two of every character, and I had two spare slots.

I found the Gameplay enjoyable to a point, but the fact that you have to grind out XP, and that the game makes doing such an activity a chore caused me to start using Auto battle more and more frequently. Which in turn caused me to stop paying attention… and then I ran into a group of high level monsters and got murdered.

The main reason I got bored with the combat is that it is dull. Most of the time, you just spam the attack command and kill things at a high speed. The only time strategy is involved is during the Lineage Encounters, and most of that involves casting Slow on the enemy, Avoid and Hit on your group, and using your most powerful attacks.

The dungeons at least have some variation in that they involve puzzles like false floors, traps, and even mechanics like a Water Dungeon that prevents all magic use, but it felt more like a gimmick than anything natural at times.

OVERALL

In the end, despite its faults I enjoyed the game. It has a wonky UI, combat that is repetitive and a threadbare story, but the music and the art are very appealing and in short bursts it’s a ton of fun. I really enjoyed actually chasing down Lineage types and seeing how bizarre and creepy they looked, and I am curious as to where the story, such as it is, will be going. If you are a fan of Hardcore JRPG Dungeon Crawlers, you cannot go wrong with this.

On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy a hardcore grind with unforgiving mechanics, I would suggest avoiding this game.

Stranger of Sword City releases on June 6th on Steam.

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