I wonder if the creators of 1981’s smash-hit, dungeon-crawler Wizardry knew exactly how incredibly influential their games were going to be on the future of RPGs and Japanese-developed RPGs in particular. There are so many dungeon-crawler-focused RPG games that have stuck closely to Wizardry‘s winning formula, albeit with their own unique flourishes and subtle tweaks to give them a life of their own. Nevertheless, the core formula of dungeon-crawler RPGs has pretty much remained the same for the best part of three-and-a-half decades, for better or for worse. If it ain’t broke!
Experience Inc has a deep heritage and thorough understanding of the DRPG formula and it’s new ‘crawler Stranger of Sword City is one such game that doesn’t necessarily re-invent the wheel, but gives it enough tweaks, charm and polish to help breathe life into a blueprint that has astonishingly withstood the test of time.
You awaken after a plane crash and find yourself in a dark, dank cave with the soft sound of meandering droplets dripping from the time-worn, rocky crevices surrounding you. You are alone, confused. Out of no-where, a mysterious old man approaches you. From here, things get even stranger. You discover that you are the lone survivor of the plane crash and you have crash-landed into an alternate dimension, a place where you have unusual, special powers and are affectionately referred to as a “stranger.” Just as you are putting on your first set of ropey, old armour and are just about ready to set off on your adventure, a colossal snake and an angry wyvern appear abruptly and attack you. However, just in the nick of time, a sharp, glinting sword flashes from the shadows and decapitates the angry wyvern. This is a pretty cool introduction of a bad-ass female character called Riu and your first, introductory tutorial battle to help you get to grips with the game’s combat system.
Combat-wise Stranger of Sword City is a pretty classic, turn-based affair with a 6-party team, made up of 3 offensive members on your front-line and 3 support members on your back-line. The members of your party can, sadly, be killed… permanently. Thus, the game really encourages you to create more party members, which is surprisingly a lot of fun. You roll the dice (like classic Wizardry) and distribute stats accordingly and it’s cool to build party members the way you want them to be.
Age also plays a unique roll in Stranger of Sword City. When you build your party, you get to choose each member’s age: the younger the character, the more opportunities you will have of reviving that character, which is communicated in-game as Life Points. However, older characters do get bonus stat points to distribute at the creation screen, but take longer to revive when downed and have less Life Points than their younger counterparts. It’s a really thoughtful and well-implemented system of experience vs. constitution and really encourages players to balance their approach, with a mixture of experienced, older characters fighting alongside younger, quicker-to-revive whippersnappers.
Another important mechanic in the game is Hiding. Some parts of the many, diverse dungeons that you will explore in Stranger of Sword City are places where the player’s party can hide and ambush the enemy. It’s a fairly similar system to placing gems within the shrines in Demon Gaze, but this time you use Morale Points to ambush larger swarms of enemies to capture those all-important new pieces of gear that the enemies are transporting. This can prove a little troublesome, as there is a chance that enemies will counter your ambush or escape the battle early, leaving you without that vital treasure chest. Thus, Hiding can be both a blessing or a curse and the game can often do the old switcheroo as the enemies can sometimes ambush you. You will also have to think about safely unlocking certain treasure chests that the enemies drop as, more often than not, the chests are trapped with poison, spears or random teleportation traps.
This leads me onto a final thing of note about the game mechanically: it’s tough. Not overwhelmingly difficult, but yes Stranger of Sword City can be, at times, pretty damn challenging. The enemies don’t scale, so it’s pretty common to stumble upon swarms of high-level enemies randomly or wander into nasty pre-set enemies placed within the dungeons before you. The game refuses to hold your hand and often encourages you to retreat from encounters that look like impossible odds. It is, however, a hugely rewarding experience to snatch victory from the jaws of death, with your team battered and bruised with only a sliver of health.
The presentation within Stranger of Sword City is, like many of Experience Inc’s previous games, stellar. It’s the first time I’ve found the monster designs within Experience Inc’s incredibly realised worlds to be genuinely creepy and nightmarish. They’ve always had a flair for designing memorable, striking enemies (creeping drills from Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy and the numerous Demon Gaze bosses come to mind), but Stranger of Sword City’s enemies are some of the most eye-catching and downright disturbing enemies I’ve seen from them yet. The J-Pop tunes infused with a beautiful, classical, choral score is preposterously good and is also a joy to listen to.
At its core, Stranger of Sword City is a game that is very similar to Experience Inc’s previous DRPGs Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy and Demon Gaze; a lot better than the former, though not quite as great as the latter. Ultimately, it’s a pretty hardcore DRPG with enough charm, polish and challenge to get fans of the genre fired up and chomping at the bit. It may not be a great entry point for newcomers to the genre, due to its unforgiving difficulty, but those with a penchant for punishment will be satiated by, what is, Xbox One’s newest and best DRPG.
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