There are some games that I like to play quickly and some I like to take my time with and savour like a fine wine or a posh sausage. Dungeon crawlers are always time sinks and a bad one can make time slow down, every minute dripping painfully by while you huff, complain and lose the will to game forever. But a good one? Whip out the comfy slippers, buy eight tubes of Sour Cream Pringles, call in sick and don’t speak to another human for the next two months except for the pizza delivery man. Stranger of Sword City is one such game, and that becomes apparent from the moment that beautiful starting screen loads up. Oh my.
Japanese games of this nature always seem to have stunning opening cut-scenes, and Stranger of Sword City is no different. Glorious. One of the first things you’ll then see is the character creation screen and it’s here you’ll begin to twig that you’re about to play something a little bit special. The artwork can make or break games like these, but one glance at the pages of characters available for you to pick from and you’ll realise this game isn’t going to have a problem. After a second glance at the characters you’ll probably notice two different art styles. One is a little more anime and one is a little more classic fantasy art. In fact the game’s entire art style can be switched anytime from the options menu. Personally I feel the classic style just has the edge but both are absolutely stunning and I’m still seething with abject jealously at all my friends who bought the special edition with the art book.
After creating your default selfie, you’ll discover that you are the Stranger of Sword City, a chosen one pulled into that realm under mysterious circumstances via a nasty plane crash. It won’t be long before you begin meeting other characters and are introduced to Sword City and your new role within it. You’ll be thrown into some fights to get you started and you’ll then begin what is essentially a tutorial. If you were lured into choosing the extremely deceiving Normal difficulty setting as opposed to Beginner, then this tutorial may very well take an enormous chunk of time. Death will come quickly and the consequences can be devastating. Normal difficulty is no such thing. It’s rock hard and changing it over to the contemptuously named Beginner means either starting a new game or grinding a large chunk of money to buy a special stone from the shop. My advice, think very carefully about what you want from this game. If you’re looking for an elite challenge, then by all means go for Normal. Otherwise stick to Beginner. You won’t level up nearly as quickly, which means your characters take much longer to gain new and exciting abilities and spells, but on the plus side you’ll generally stay alive long enough to be able to explore a good part of each dungeon before you need to go back to the City and save.
All members of your party, aside from you, are subject to permadeath. You get to choose each member, build them from scratch with the character creation screen, and depending on how old you make them, they will only have a limited number of lives. If a character dies in battle they are out of the game until you take them back to base to either recover over a period of time for free or revive instantly for an unrealistic price. They will also lose a life. To get this life back, they’ll need further recovery time. You can make replacement characters to put on standby but it’s quite likely they’ll be at a lower level and not so powerful as the guy currently in a coma. The only way to avoid all this is to save frequently and if you lose someone in a fight, just exit and reload. This is very effective on Beginner as the average random encounter will be reasonably safe so you can feel free to roam around and pop back to the City to save more infrequently. On Normal, you might want to save between every fight.
As with most JRPGs there’s a lot to take in but the core mechanics and stats will feel nicely familiar and, helpfully, there is easy access to a manual for your occasional senior moments, lapses in memory or just to confirm information. The manual is straightforward and an invaluable tool, particularly at the beginning where you’re too busy going ‘ooooh pretty’ rather than taking anything in. Combat is good old-fashioned turned-based but with a few added extras that give it that extra pizzazz. In addition to Fight, Defend, Spell, Skill and RUN FOR THE HILLS! there is the option to use Divinities, and this is tied in nicely to the game’s main objectives.
As a Stranger and a Chosen One, you must hunt down and destroy monsters called Lineage Types. These are particularly tough enemies and that will give you one hell of a nip if you’re not prepared. If you can kill one, they will drop a blood crystal. Give this crystal to one of three people and in return they will grant you morale points and a special Divinity skill to use during battle. The skill you get depends on who you give the crystal to. There is a handy skills tree for the Divinities to help you make up your mind, but it’s worth noting that who you give the crystal to will also affect the outcome of the game. What’s more important, the story or your skills? Personally, I went for skills and gave my crystals to whoever offered me the most helpful advantage.
During battle you can spend your available morale points on your various Divinity skills. These include gaining a percentage of HP back after every turn, an all out attack and increasing Hit and Avoid points. These skills are highly advantageous so if you’re out hunting for a Lineage Type, it’s best to have a full meter of points. The more points you have, the more Divinities you can use, including the life-saving Flash Escape. The meter is boosted back up by morale – taking and giving damage, winning fights etc.
Using Divinities is a careful balance, particularly on Normal mode and when ambushing. Ambushing costs five points and is done by locating an ambush area and hiding until an enemy transport happens by. These transports will come with some equipment you can steal but you’ll have to take down a powerful enemy and his minions quickly. As you’re in hiding, if you don’t want the equipment they have with them, you can let them pass and try the next transport. This will get more and more dangerous the longer you hide, but if you’re hunting for a Lineage Type, this may be the only way one will spawn. Just make sure you have enough points for a Flash Escape or a powerful opening move if the transport enemies decide to strike first.
Ambushing is the best way to get decent equipment. A limited amount can be bought from the base shop, but if you’re willing to fight for it, hiding and ensnaring passing enemies is the better way to go. Don’t let me forget to mention that these boxes of plunder also have traps that you’ll have to either disable or suffer before you can take what’s inside.
Dungeons are varied and terribly pretty, and most of them have their own challenge that’s aside from the random attacks and story-specific encounters. The Shadow Palace has transporter pads that will drop you in a different part of the dungeon and comes complete with riddles that guide the way. Getting back to an exit to save becomes decidedly dodgy and confusing so stocking up on healing items, keeping morale points high and not overusing your cleric or wizard early on is a good idea. The complexity of some of these dungeons adds a real sense of peril and challenge even to Beginner difficulty. The Dungeons are enormous fun and exploring them for the first time feels exciting. You never quite know what a new area will offer. Once you’re done with your initial burst of exploring or you want to travel back to a specific point, such as a doorway or staircase, you can auto-move. A handy map will show your current position. Just plot where you want to go and you will automatically start walking. You’ll still be subject to encounters, but this is the fastest way to traverse sections of a dungeon that have already been explored. It really does take some of the slog out the crawling part of a dungeon crawler. Think of it as a dungeon express.
In addition to auto-move, your life is also made a lot easier by an auto-fight function. Once you’re confident about the combat moves you want to make and if you’re not bothered about seeing the individual effect of each choice, you can simply click Fast Apply and you’ll do your thing quick as a flash and so will the enemy. Bang, it’s your turn again. The game will also remember your last configuration for the next fight. So click Fast Apply again in a new battle and you’ll be done in a flash. Considering the game’s almost relentless difficulty on Normal mode, the Fast Apply and Auto-Move functions take some of the grind away and allow you to get on with searching for those elusive hidden paths and golden livers before your whole party snuffs it.
Stranger of Sword City is a challenging game. It’s long and it’s hard work. Figuring out the locations of the Lineage Types and how to progress through different areas is difficult but hugely rewarding. This is a game that does not want to be rushed, and while you’re grinding and searching, you can enjoy incredible and stunning graphics. Stranger of Sword City is a love song to JRPG fans the world over.
S J Hollis Rating 8/10