It seems my love for first-person dungeon-crawling RPGs is starting to wear thin; or rather, it’s begun to be tested by some relatively mediocre, recent ventures in the genre. One such being Stranger of Sword City Revisited. It’s not a terrible game, no — having been developed by Experience Inc., a company with a pedigree of releasing DRPGs on the Vita and now Steam (e.g. Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss), they’re certainly experienced in their craft. But perhaps my issue with SoSCR lies in just how sound the game is, how uninspired it seems in comparison to its contemporaries and how it never really improves upon their tried-and-true formula (which seems to be recycled at this point).
Now, one of my main factors of critique for SoSCR is the story. While seemingly inconsequential to the genre (and a rather polarizing perspective), I can’t help but criticize it for its wasted potential and haphazard attempt at one — especially after games like Demon Gaze, Dungeon Travelers 2, and even Etrian Odyssey’s Untold series have begun to break away from the genre’s shibboleth of narrative slack. I suppose you have to revert to the mindset of games like DnD — the adventure is yours and what you make of it — but the game lacks personality otherwise. It’s very ‘safe’ and minimalistic, there seemingly only to give you context for your next adventure or encounter. And it’s that lack of depth that makes those moments when the game halts your progress to tell some transient micro-story or present you with some monotonous dialogue between the ‘story-relevant’ characters even more frustrating, because it betrays the expectations preliminarily set.
If you’ve played any of Experience Inc.’s other games or Wizardry, that should be telling enough of what to expect out of the gameplay of SoSCR (though, with very few differences between them). If you haven’t, their games may come across as complex and daunting, a slew of customization in the way of your party, and a number of systems or intricacies to pay attention to inside and outside of battle. You’ll be constructing your own party from a variety of classes and at your complete discretion as to its composition (there’s no limit to the number of Samurai or Wizards you can have), choosing from an assortment of beautiful portraits, and even selecting what talents your characters have that can either influence their stats or give you an edge while exploring a dungeon. Of course, it’s always good to be mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen classes and to build a party around those faults so as to avoid any headaches later. However, if you do find yourself struggling in a dungeon and lamenting your class choices, you can always reclass them for a hefty price (but money’s hardly an issue in SoSCR).
Now, while I love the idea of having the liberty of forming my own party and giving them faux-personalities through the intricacies of the customization system, your choices are ultimately inconsequential to the narrative and you’ll never interact with them outside of giving them directions in battle (through the impersonal use of menus, mind you). There’s hardly a sense of camaraderie amongst your party members and you’ll only ever know them by their names and portraits — which doesn’t make up for how insipid those ‘interactions’ are. If you don’t have the mind for making up your own backstories and creating a narrative for each character (I’m much more forthright in that regard), you’ll struggle to even remotely care for your hired mercenaries save for how much time you invested in them.
Which brings me to my biggest grievance with your party members in SSoCR: they can die if they run out of Life Points (or faint one too many times). While I can understand that the game wants to come across as difficult (and difficult it is) and make you work for your hard-earned cash and loot, I can only see the choice as arbitrary. It hardly lends itself to the theme of the story (or perhaps the story just does a poor job of conveying said theme), and really only served to further discourage my exploration if not already for the odd difficulty curves found in some of the earlier dungeons, seemingly in place to pepper my wounds — being the cause of a majority of my losses (may my forgettable Wizard and Dancer be missed). It halts progression in an already slow and deliberate genre, and can make getting to the later, hopefully more interesting parts of the game all the more, if not already, arduous. If you don’t have the spirit for slowly, and believe me when I say slowly, grinding out another character (albeit, with some level bonuses; though not plentiful), this may be a huge deterrent from SSoCR.
While I previously mentioned that I found the portraits in Stranger of Sword City beautiful, I couldn’t help but find the odd disparity between the available portraits for your characters and that of the main cast rather jarring. The original version of the game offered the ability to switch between a much more typical anime artstyle (a la Demon Gaze), and the much grittier, Western-esque style only found on display here. It’s an odd omission, and one especially irksome when you compare the leftover anime portraits to that of the singular one the game now boasts. It doesn’t lend itself well to a game of a genre all about becoming a part of a world when your leads don’t even remotely resemble the stylings of your party (or your party can’t keep consistent in design).
As for the music, all I can say that while what I heard was pleasant, it’s not remarkable. I found myself dazing in and out of certain scenes because of the forgettable, melodic, orchestrated tracks — and a bit confused when I heard similar leitmotifs to Demon Gaze, almost like the team was trying to recapture the magic that made the first game such a praiseworthy success (that or they really love synthesized instrumentation and Vocaloids).
I honestly have a hard time recommending Stranger of Sword City Revisited to anyone. If you’re starved for a DRPG, and don’t mind the odd mechanics, detached story or characters, or odd challenge, or conflicting artstyles, the game isn’t terrible.
It’s a fairly safe option to go by, and you may even enjoy it more than I did and found all those quirks endearing, and more power to you if you do. The alternatives are just more enticing, or far too similar and this one lackluster. Though, I’m eager to see whether Operation Babel does anything new with the company’s formula, because otherwise, that fresh coat of paint on Experience’s games is soon to wither.
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