Developer: Experience Inc/Team Muramasa
Publisher: Nis America/Experience Inc.
Platform: Vita/Xbox One
Release Date: April 26, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game
It is sort of easy to use Etrian Odyssey games as the catchall example for recent handheld first-person dungeon-crawlers. Which, in all fairness, they are held in high regard for a reason. Still, the Vita has managed to sneak in a few solid, though admittedly often fanservice-y, titles of their own on the often overlooked library.
My own personal favorite dungeon-crawler of the batch was Experience Inc's Vita release, Demon Gaze. It managed to be surprisingly approachable as a game for a subgenre that is often steeped in archaic design, as well being fairly dense with audio and visual personality. So, as soon I heard about a new title from Experience Inc. called Stranger of Sword City, I was on-board to check it out.
That said, boarding planes seems to be a bad idea in accordance to the lore of this game. This is because planes have a tendency to disappear from the modern world that we know of and crash-land into a new, and harsh, world that this title is based off of. Those that survive such abnormal plane crashes tend to become regarded as "Strangers," as they often possess abilities stronger than those that naturally inhabit the land.
So, after some crazy old man tries to kill you and a lady in a school-girl outfit saves you by decapitating monsters, the player character eventually finds themselves in "Sword City." It's basically a sanction for Strangers because they are in high-demand for their combat prowess and can easily find work. The most common work for Strangers is hunting powerful foes known as "Blood Lineages" in various dangerous labyrinths.
Even though the art style could not be more different... well, for the one art style that matters (there are technically two to choose from), Stranger of Sword City strongly feels like a spiritual successor to Demon Gaze. If the directly lifted assets such as certain audio effects did not tip one off, some of the familiar dungeon motifs will. Not that either aspect were by any means bad, far from it, it is just that I got around to finishing Demon Gaze recently so it certainly stood out.
Thankfully, Stranger of Sword City manages to not only distinguish itself but it also refines upon Demon Gaze in many ways. For one, Stranger of Sword City is much more challenging on the standard difficulty. The biggest factor for this is through the threat of permanent death (except the lead, though they can be injured.). This may sound like a contrived mechanic in nature but it actually smartly encourages the use of different party formations rather than forcibly sticking to one party through thick and thin like most in the genre. It works even more because inactive party members gain experience (unlike Demon Gaze...), and you can simply try something different with another character while others are knocked out and recovering, or... replace "vanished" characters (i.e. dead.).
Like most good first-person dungeon crawlers, customization is a strong component of the experience. Creating characters and allocating stats from scratch D&D style are all there and then some. What is different from Demon Gaze in particular is that you can reclass characters, like Final Fantasy Tactics, and transfer skills. While it is unlikely that you will fully level multiple classes to complete the game, it can be hugely beneficial to steal some early abilities and transfer them to one's likely primary class for that character. For instance, I made my main character a tanky Knight. But, before committing her to the would-be Knight profession, I had her learn the Counter skill from the Fighter class, which I found very valuable for someone who's destined to get attacked so often.
In addition to the abilities you get from various classes, you can also gain unique abilities from the various faction leaders in the main story. By giving "blood crystals" that you get from killing the "Lineage" bosses, you get the choice to earn powerful skills that consume "morale," which will be the key to survival against tougher encounters. Of course, with something as ominous of a name as "blood crystals," this mechanic helps decide the fate of the world in a classic Shin Megami Tensei style (with some obvious Law, Chaos, and Neutral narrative counterparts) based on which leader you favor too. Unfortunately, neither the characters or the storytelling seem to be very deep (or as philosophical as SMT tends to be), but it is still is a neat concept and a fun take on skill trees.
Though it has its unique elements, Stranger of Sword City just plain feels like an all-around solid title. What it lacks in likely budget (considering some familiar Demon Gaze dungeon themes) it makes up for in the developer's clear experience with the subgenre. Useful tools one should expect modern dungeon-crawlers like the ability auto-move to places you've been, various clean interface options of combat, and the satisfaction of learning the lay of the land are all certainly there. I even dig the original art style and music (though, you do have to option to make it more... anime, with the less detailed character portraits and adding a vocaloid accompaniment to the soundtrack, if you so choose so.). Most importantly, however, the moment to moment dungeon-crawling is enjoyable and addictive despite its fairly mean, old school feeling difficulty at times.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect that Stranger of Sword City even has is the varying requirements to encounter certain "Lineage" enemies. Many of the requirements are inoffensive with their scripted events associated with them, like carrying an item on you that they like, paying attention to shopkeep rumors, or simply going far enough into a dungeon to stumble upon them. That said, the most obnoxious Lineage types tend to be entirely luck-based to encounter when you are "hiding". While the "hiding" mechanic itself is cool, as it is the primary means to getting random loot as you ambush enemies in specific parts of dungeons, having to rely on luck in order to have the chance to encounter the boss you want to find is far less compelling (especially since defeating them is required for the main progression.).
Stranger of Sword City is one of those bizarre games where I actually don't really have many strong criticisms against it. It generally sets out and achieves what it intends to do with an addictive, well-made first-person dungeon-crawling formula that also allows for a lot of party flexibility. The game is certainly challenging, and sometimes the progression can be needlessly obtuse, but that often comes with the subgenre's territory. At the end of the day, if you want an enjoyable first-person dungeon-crawler without too many unnecessary frills, or possibly an improved spiritual successor to Demon Gaze, then Stranger of Sword City is a great example to check out.
+ Rewarding character progression that allows for a lot of control over your party composition
+ Addictive, well-made dungeon crawling gameplay
+Provides a satisfying challenge despite the threat of character permadeath
+ Great (original) character art and solid music
+ Shin Megami Tensei-ish approach to endings
- Some entirely recycled assets from Demon Gaze from sound effects to even certain dungeon motifs
- Encountering certain "Lineage" bosses is basically random, which can needlessly slow down progress
- Main story/characters are unremarkable
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
Stranger of Sword City does not attempt to reinvent first-person dungeon-crawlers by any means, but it manages to stand out amongst others in the genre with the sharp execution of its addictive gameplay.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.