Stranger of Sword City, the new title from Experience Inc., aims to provide an engaging dungeon crawler that will sap up much of your time, even if you are a veteran of this genre. Known for their previous title, including Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss, they are no stranger to the genre, but how will their newest release stack up?
Stranger of Sword City begins as you awaken after a plane crash. You discover that you are the only survivor, and quickly find a chest that has a few rags you can clothe yourself with. You soon get into a difficult situation, and Riu, a schoolgirl-turned-warrior, shows up to save you.
She proceeds to explain that you are in a world known as Escario, an island floating between dimensions, and are known as a Stranger. Strangers are people from the “regular” world who finds themselves transported into this one for varying reasons. She suggests that the best way to find a way to return home lies in hunting down special elite monsters, known as Lineage Types, that drop magical Blood Crystals.
Her advice isn’t exactly selfless, however, as Riu is a Vessel for the God of Neutrality. as such, when she gains Blood Crystals, she gains a boost in power. Of course, she isn’t the only one in town seeking them, as the church leader Marility, Vessel for the God of Law, and the black market dealer Alm, Vessel for the God of Chaos, are also vying for the Blood Crystals you gather.
You are stuck in a three-way tug of war, and, if you hope to survive the harsh, unforgiving lands of Escario, you will need to choose your allies carefully…
The story may not be anything special, honestly, but it is still interesting enough to keep you on your toes as you play through the title.
The first bit of gameplay you are introduced to is the character creation system. In this system, you can choose your character’s gender, age, race, and class. There are five races to choose between: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Migmy, and Ney. Each offers up different starting stats. Once your race is chosen, you choose from the game’s eight classes; Fighter, Knight, Wizard, Ranger, Dancer, Cleric, Ninja, or Samurai. Finally, you get to choose voice and name, even giving your character a silly nickname, if you so choose. You will also choose a special perk, such as being able to locate hidden paths and a better chance at disarming trapped (which the sheer majority are) chests.
As you advance, you can even change your character’s class a set number of times, making them even more useful to your party.
One major factor to consider during character creation is the age of your character. The younger characters have more life and can recover a bit faster, and the older characters are slower to recover with less life. That said, with age comes experience, and what the older characters lack in life they make up for with higher stats. Perma-death is a very real thing, however, so you will have to consider the age carefully, as if you make a character with only a single life point, he or she will die for good if taken out in battle.The youngest (under about 20) have three life points, but the lack in stats can make them a bit less useful as well.
After you have your party of six (placing three in the front and three in the back), you are ready to adventure into the dungeons, which is where you will be spending 90% or more of your time. These are navigated in first-person view on a grid system, and you will need to worry about both random and set enemy encounters. The set enemy encounters will need to be defeated before you can advance at all, although if you wish, you can run from the random encounters without any major penalty.
Battle is turn-based, and Experience has implemented a few systems to help mitigate the fights. There is an auto-repeat feature that implements the same moves you used the last round, and a way to skip all animations, instantly showing you the results of each round. That said, you likely won’t want to use the repeat function too often as, in my experience, it can lead to feeling a bit complacent, which, in Stranger of Sword City, is almost always a death sentence for at least one of your characters.
If a character falls in battle, what happens depends on how many life points that character has. If they only had the one, either due to age or dying before, they will vanish for good. If they have more life points remaining, they can be revived, either with an item or in the infirmary. If you opt for an item, you should be careful, as these tend to be somewhat rare. Infirmary-wise, you will have two options for revival; Free and paid. The free option lets you revive, but it takes a bit of in-game time before the character will be ready to join you once again. The paid option lets the character rejoin instantly, however it does cost quite a hefty sum. Either way, however, your character will be short one life point.
That said, the infirmary does give you the opportunity to recover these lost life points. As with revival, it comes in free and paid options, with free taking a week of in-game time for the character to recover. The paid option is extremely expensive, and I typically couldn’t afford to utilize this option.
Your main character can revive without limit, however.
Thankfully, you can create more than just the five members that will accompany you, so if you lose one, you can have another join in. Each newly created character will receive a bonus based on your main character’s level, helping mitigate the grind a bit. Honestly, this is the most fair way of handling perma-death that I’ve seen in a game yet.
Back in the dungeons, there is a third way to initiate encounters, which is also the main way to gain equipment. In each one, there are parts marked off as ambush spots. You can hide in these spots, at the cost of a resource known as Morale, and ambush groups of enemies as they come through, carrying chests of items. You have the chance to check out the chest to see what type of equipment (sword, clothing, hat, thrown, etc.) and the power of the enemies, and, if you decide to battle the first group, you gain an ambush bonus, allowing you to move first. You will have a limited time, once battle begins, to take out the leader or leaders, as they will run away if they can, taking the items with them.
If you decide to wait, you run the risk of the next group detecting you and turning the tables, although it can be a wise option if you’re trying to get some specific equipment. You can only pass five times per hide attempt, however, so if you don’t come across any on the last attempt, you can either run or fight and take whatever the group has on them.
Morale is also used to activate powerful skills, known as Divinities, which can assist you in a variety of ways. You can reduce all physical damage, for instance, or cast one that allows each of your characters to heal a bit after every turn.
After gaining equipment and other items, you will quickly realize that everything is unidentified. You can attempt to identify the items in the dungeon, but there is a risk of failure and the item in question becoming cursed, and thus unusable. As a result, I typically just waited until I got back into town, with 100% guaranteed success in identification. Town is also the only way to save, further strengthening the idea that attempting to marathon a dungeon is a bad idea most of the time.
This isn’t the only way items, specifically wands, can become cursed, however. If you use a fire wand, for instance, each time you use it to cast a fire bolt at your foe, the wand may become cursed and thus unusable.
There are a variety of enemies, including the powerful Lineage Types, which are essentially the boss-type enemies in the game. These aren’t just found at the end of dungeons, however, and the way they are implemented is also creative. You will need to gather info from various people, then figure out what to do to lure them out. For example, one Lineage Type loves a certain type of candy. If you don’t have this, it will not appear. Another is afraid of humans, so if you have any humans in your party, it is difficult to ambush it.
As you explore the dungeons, you will occasionally encounter characters and even ways to warp back to town. With perma-death constantly a looming threat, however, you are always faced with a decision; Is it better to continue on or retreat and heal?
Art and Sound
Visually and thematically, Stranger of Sword City is a very dark game. This can be remedied somewhat by switching the graphics option to Type B, which gives more of an anime look to the characters, however I personally felt that Type A was more fitting for the world and better complimented the enemies.
In terms of enemies, the monster designs are quite creative, helping to make the game more exciting as you advance to see what the game can throw at you next. From television-dwelling hydras to robots made out of automotive parts, there is a good deal to enjoy.
The music also feels fitting to the game, enhancing the atmosphere of dread as you adventure and battle.
The game constantly reminds you of how dark it is, and the art style and music both supports the mechanics in making you feel that the sense of danger is quite real and persistent.
Stranger of Sword City does have some flaws, including a poorer than you would expect translation (some places are simply a literal transfer of Japanese into English, making some sentences obtuse, complex, or even clunky), especially from a title published by Nippon Ichi Software America, but it is still a winner for the genre.
Though dungeon crawlers are already well represented on the Vita, Stranger of Sword City goes beyond, bringing a darker and more melancholic alternative to a genre filled with more bright titles. When you add in some of the unique twists on the classic mechanics, this is a game that veterans of the genre should enjoy.
Final Score: 4/5