Stranger of Sword City Review – PS Vita
+ Cool character building system
+ Two beautiful and selectable art styles
+ Ambush system
- Localization that leaves storytelling lacking
- Unforgivingly hard with cheap deaths
- Permadeath if not careful
I’ve played some tough RPGs over the years including the Souls series but Stranger of Sword City, the newest entry from developer Experience Inc., was an unexpected adventure on the PlayStation Vita. While this is the third title to be released on the Vita by the folks at Experience this is by far the most challenging yet enjoyable one to date. A lot of this is due to the fact that Stranger requires your full attention and isn’t really a title that falls into the short play session fare that one would expect to find with the Vita.
The Vita however is also home to some of the coolest RPGs on a portable device and Stranger of Sword City is awesome in its own way with a few issues that subtract from its overall enjoyable package. While using the same basic engine from Operation Abyss, Stranger takes things in a more cohesive direction for a more immersive presentation. Speaking of presentation, Stranger of Sword City is a bit darker in its overall visuals and story. The story kicks off with you awakening after your plane disappears from the real world during its flight and crashes into a fantasy world where you are the only survivor among the wreckage.
Turns out you aren’t the only human to get sucked into this world of monsters, elves, dwarves and others as you find your way to the titular Sword City. See you aren’t the first “Stranger” to find your way here if the visuals of the Mausoleum of Metal (or M.o.M.) are any indication. You’re quickly shoehorned to the Strangers Guild where others like yourself have gathered with the common goal of finding a way home. Those from Earth, like the player, are special among these adventurers though as they are the only ones capable of defeating Escario’s most unique and extremely deadly enemies called Lineage Types to harvest their Blood Crystals found throughout each of the dungeons.
Sword City serves as the main hub world of the game which is where you do everything from progressing the story to learning new Divinity Skills and managing your party and gear. The Strangers Guild is your main base of operations and the only place you can actually save in the game. At first glance Stranger of Sword City definitely takes after Experience’s other titles in its design but after sitting down and investing more hours than I care to admit into it it’s something quite special. This is largely due to the way the combat, character creation and story elements all come together.
Stranger of Sword City is an adventure where its inhabitants and factions are just as mysterious as the circumstances that landed you in the world of Escario in the first place. I really enjoyed how you never really knew the true intentions of the respective leaders of the Strangers Guild, Kingdom and Medell Co. They play an important part in which ending you get but before you get one you have to actually get through the game’s challenging if not brutal difficulty. Much like in Demon Gaze, you are going to a need a full party at all times as the enemies in Sword City will wipe the floor with you with no remorse what so ever.
Luckily you get to gather a full party nearly right off the bat after the mandatory tutorial of your base and how basic combat works. Here is one area where I think Sword City really shines as a dungeon RPG. When you created your character you got to choose your characters avatar, class and even your age. While choosing your character’s age seems like a seemingly innocent feature it’s actually one of the coolest and very important aspects of Stranger of Sword City. The age of your party members actually determines how many times they can be defeated in battle before they are dead…PERMANENTLY! Your main avatar however, while they can be defeated, is immune from permadeath, but that doesn’t make having your team wiped any less painful or costly.
Each member of your party is assigned a certain number of Life Points, separate from Health points, based upon their age with younger members having more and older ones having less. The tradeoff is that older party members have higher stat points so constantly finding the balance between the two is just as important as what classes you bring to the fight. It is immensely important to keep an eye on your party members Life points and switch party member often to ensure that you always have a backup plan that doesn’t require starting the game over from the beginning due to poor choices. Once a party member loses all their Life Points they vanish for real. Sorry no return home for you, fella.
You can revive your available defeated party member but again age plays into how long it will take for them to recover so you may be without your heavy hitters for a while. It’s also important to note that characters with only one Life Point to start are permanently dead after one defeat. Added to the fact that some monsters/bosses can one hit party members it’s clear that Stranger of Sword City doesn’t mess around. This really stings when you get hit by some of the game’s brutal cheap shots where you never had a chance in hell of surviving the attack which is one of my biggest issues with this title.
While I’m sure no one ever anywhere has said there is an upside to permadeath, it does allow you to play around a bit with creating new party members to fill your roster outside of key story characters like Riu. If your characters do manage to stick around for the long haul you can end up with some pretty powerful allies. Just don’t get too attached to them. One of the nice things about Stranger of Sword City is that when you do level up and make your characters stronger you can actually do it anywhere as long as you meet the XP requirement so there is no immersion break like what I dealt with in Operation Abyss.
Not that it’s a bad idea to stop back into the base and other city locals often even if it’s just to save your game as every step in a dungeon can be like walking into a death wall with nothing more than a whimper before curtain call. Upon defeating a Linear Type you will also want to return to give your Blood Crystals to one of three vessel, such as Riu, who will grant you more abilities. The tough decision is choosing which of the three to invest your crystals in as that will affect both your play style and the ending you’ll get once Riu, Marilyth or Alm regain their full power as each is the chosen face of a Neutral, Good or Evil god. The true test is that nothing is cut and dry about the inhabitants of Escario so choose wisely.
Much like its predecessors, all of Stranger of Sword City’s combat takes place in dungeons and while there are only a few to start with more becoming available as you progress. Enemy encounters are completely random except when triggered by key locations, holding certain items on you or when using the rather cool Ambush system. One of the standout features of Stranger of Sword City, the Ambush System give players the chance to “hide” and get the drop on enemies that are transporting potentially valuable and rare equipment that can only be gained this way. In fact certain Lineage Types can only be encountered using this system so it’s worth utilizing this dangerous but rewarding gamble.
Combat itself, when not getting trounced, is engaging and some of the most intense that I’ve played outside of Dark Souls as you have to keep an eye on everything. While the party utilizes a two row system for up close and ranged units to which I’ve grown accustomed to with Experience’s titles it’s important to note that so do the enemies. Bosses will often move back out of the range of melee attackers making it so you have to utilize ranged classes to keep damage going on it while the front row focuses on closer targets. Some of the fights in Sword City will take no time at all while others can go on for 20 minutes or more making them worth of console level fights. While normal and boss fights can be long or short as needed to beat them the same cannot be said for Ambush fights. The main monster in ambush fights have to be defeated as quickly as possible once engaged as they will run away which will forfeit your chance to get some valuable loot or crystals.
One thing I really like about Stranger of Sword City, other than getting some sweet loot from monsters, is its visual style which is lot darker than the more vibrant look of Experience’s other works. There seems to be a more Western influence to Sword City and it shows in some of the locations and characters throughout Escario. The monster designs that I encountered varied everywhere from fairy looking creatures to knights to TV monsters and everything in between including a rather adorable but vicious Lineage Type that is inspired by a classic film if there ever was one. For those that want a bit more lighthearted look to their character, party members and NPCs there is actually another visual style available via the options menu. This puts Stranger of Sword City more on par to that of Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss visually.
I really dug the darker look so I stuck with it as the other is vastly different but the option is a nice touch. The darker look also fits better with the music I feel. It’s not invasive to the experience as it blends in well both in and out of combat. The dialogue for Stranger of Sword City is completely in Japanese so expect some reading ahead of you. While there are subtitles, Stranger of Sword City unfortunately suffers from localization problems. There were multiple times where I felt that what was being said just didn’t fit the situation at hand which I feel really hurt the storytelling here. Stranger of Sword City is full of really interesting characters but I just felt that poor localization partially kept the premises of this modern influenced yet high fantasy world of Escario from being fully utilized.
I found that despite its localization and the brutal cheap death moments, Stranger of Sword City is actually a pretty enjoyable experience. I’ve played a lot of different RPGs on the Vita including both of Experience’s previous titles and so far this is not only their toughest but one of the toughest on the handheld. Stranger of Sword City is not for the casual player as it will take every bit of your concentration to stand a chance at seeing it to the very end. If you really love dungeon RPGs and are looking for a serious challenge then you have to check out Stranger of Sword City for the PlayStation Vita.