Stranger of Sword City Review
Posted by Adam Ducker
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, that's a stranger!
The Xbox 360 made a hard push at tapping into the Japanese market with the likes of Blue Dragon and The Last Remnant. Stranger of Sword City - a dungeon role playing game - was a lesser-known title that also came to the platform. The Xbox One has seen nowhere near the same level of support in terms of Japanese releases, which makes Stranger of Sword City something of a unique prospect. It's also somewhat unique in that it takes place in a modern setting, rather than the classic fantasy RPG trappings we are accustomed to.
You play the survivor of a plane crash which, rather than completing its route from Japan to Alaska, has found itself crashing into an alternate dimension which houses the titular Sword City. This exposition is brushed past pretty quickly with a nice anime-style intro movie. Within the opening parts of the game you are basically led to believe that you are a stranger to this world and essentially are what Superman is to Earth in terms of being granted super powers. Following on from this, you begin to realize just how in-depth the game is when you're presented with the character creation screen.
It's not immediately obvious what you're doing to begin with. Firstly, you're presented with multiple screens of character art for selection to represent your main character. None of these seem to particularly match. It's almost like how popular RPG creation software such as RPG Maker has a variety of art styles from which you can base your game on, but here all of the styles are bundled together. Another slightly odd part of this is that you can end up with the same character model representing more than one character, which can lead to confusion. Another aside is that you're given the choice to pick sounds for your character, more than a fair share of which sound oddly familiar to those made by Link in Nintendo's Ocarina of Time. In fact, that's not doing it justice, since they sound exactly the same and anyone who has spent time with that game will recognize context specific sounds. Finally on this note, there are two different choices when it comes to the game NPC's character models, with "Type A" more closely resembling the original versions and then a "Type B" that has been altered slightly to appeal more to western audiences.
The game gives a good selection of classes to choose from, with Warrior, Samurai, Healer and even Dancer being available. Each character has a Class, a Talent, and a Race. Oddly, people become different races when entering the this alternate dimension. Each class comes with a brief description, which may not be enough for some in that you don't get real feel for a classes range of moves until you actually play as them, meaning that you can find yourself without a balanced party if you're not careful. You can also make basically useless characters by mismatching classes with certain races and not applying the "correct" stats. However, this can easily be corrected as there are options to register new members to your party later on.
Following on from this, you're taken to Stranger City and have a ton of information thrown at you. This is presented in the form of static character models in front of static backgrounds, which is an exposition form players will have to get used to as it's prevalent throughout the game. It's not all just walls of texts, with some dialogue choices being made available that help to players choose how they receive the drip-fed info. A lot these early conversations do seem somewhat meaningless as they're overly complicated and towards the end of each, of a lot of the conversations amount to characters basically saying "but you can learn all this out in the field". Where these conversations do come in handy though, is by providing more context to the world you find yourself in beyond the already mentioned lavishly animated intro. That starting movie does unfortunately mean there is some disappointment that it's never really revisited and the storytelling as a result sometimes falls flat.
The core gameplay outside of your Stranger's Guild/Palace hub (along with other kind of hubs that become available as the game progresses) involves walking in a first person view around cunningly-named labyrinths which are dangerous areas populated by monsters that each have a quest toward the end. Combat takes the form of both random battles that spring from nowhere, along with others that the player can instigate themselves. Playing out in a traditional turn-based system, combat does have a couple ways to speed things up, since you can repeat a previous attack or item command, as well as take the option to apply all of the selected moves in a chain and speed through the round as opposed to having to repeatedly tap the A button all the way through.
Whilst these options are a great way to speed through easier randomly-generated battles (and ultimately are great time savers over the course of the game's lengthy playthrough) it can be too easy to simply whizz through battles with an almost carefree nature that results in unpredicted failure. This is where newcomers to the genre will start to find their time with the game unravel, since despite these tweaks, it's simply not possible to speed through the game. A slow and methodical pace is the order of the day. Numerous trips back to the palace in the opening hours of the game help to show the general ebb and flow of things, as you'll be battling through as safely as you can before heading back to purchase new health items as well as identify and equip any new loot that may make you stronger. There's is also a character by the name of Mumic who can be fed items so that their stats can be re-rolled, potentially allowing you to spend to be able to make an item more compatible with your chosen character build.
Once this is all settled, a welcome feature is the auto move, which this enables you to pick an area on an already explored map and your party will automatically travel back to that point, ready for you to continue exploring. A major part of your battling is fighting super enemies and bosses known as Lineage types. Killing them rewards you with blood crystals which can only be used by strangers, given that they're part of a select group known as being "god's proxies in the world." You are identified as one of these chosen ones and as such, a large part of the game's motivation revolves around beating these Lineage types who both take the form of unique bosses and super charged version of regular enemies.
Another stat you have to keep your eye on whilst exploring is the morale system. One such use for which is the hiding mechanic, which allows you ambush enemies who - upon defeat - will drop treasures boxes. This can offer up some great loot drops and sitting and hiding to wait out more powerful enemies and more lucrative loots offers a nice split in the gameplay as opposed to just exploring and making standard progress through a particular dungeon. The depth to the dungeon exploring continues on, too, with traps which can be investigated and removed in order to open up new paths. This, coupled up with the depth offered by the variation of different classes, talents, and the ways in which they can affect your party means that there's an almost bewildering amount of depth and versatility to get to grips with.
Stranger of Sword City is an extremely solid dungeon crawling RPG. Fans of the genre will likely lap this straight up due to a lack of options on Xbox One. However, whether it deserves a place up with the genre leaders such as Etrian Odyssey is open for debate. Newcomers will still find plenty to appeal to them even if at times the game does sometimes come across as a little inaccessible in spite of its attempts to make things easier. You'll need to make a serious time investment if you want to get to grips with all it has to offer.