A few years ago I experienced a game that I did not quite know how to receive. At first it seemed strange and odd, the way it had the first person dungeon crawling, with classic turn based JRPG style battles, but without a battle arena and just your parties avatars up the side of the screen and the enemies centered in the middle, it was familiar yet strange. This was Demon Gaze, and it took me an hour or so to get my head around the weird way of doing things before I fell in love with it. Fortunately Experience Inc has brought a new experience to the PlayStation Vita in Stranger of Sword City and it has so much of what I learned to love about Demon Gaze in it.
Stranger of Sword City starts with your character waking from a plane crash from the world we know, to a dark and strange land called Escario. In this land you discover that you have powers greater than the average inhabitant and are called a Stranger who has the ability to harvest blood crystals from big enemies to halt their regeneration. The story starts strong and is just interesting enough to give the characters motivation, but weakens and strengthens throughout the game.
The reason I used the words your character instead of giving the name of the protagonist is that the game does not really name characters you play as. The first thing you do is create your character in the very versatile character creation system. You choose the name, age, race, gender and class of your character and they together determine the strengths of your character, some abilities and how many times your character can die.I will return to this later. As well as that you choose your the portrait and voice for your character, neither of which have any bearing on any of the other factors, meaning your aesthetically old male looking dwarf may actually be an 18 year old female elf.
As cool as the character customisation works it also introduced my first frustration point. While for the most part the process was simple enough but you get a certain number of points you can assign to your characters stats, but this is random. It gives the option to reroll the number and so you can keep rerolling until you get a higher number, but of course the higher numbers appear less often. So I found myself wasting a lot of time right at the start of the game trying to get a high enough number to give myself a good little boost at the start of the game. It is not hard, just repetitive and boring, not to mention frustrating when you accidentally hit reroll after that rare as hell seven pops up. These they are not good feelings to start the game off with.
Fortunately after this painful misstep you get thrown into the game and the game is great. The dungeon crawling,as fans of Demon Gaze will recognise, involves moving around grids step by step in a first person view. This navigation phase aesthetically is very blocky and basic, but it functions well. You navigate around the dungeons and go through doors or fall into traps as you would expect from any dungeon crawler. Icons appear on squares that are of note for example events, stairs or battles, as well as random encounter battles occurring.
On top of this is an ambush mechanic where in certain areas of dungeons you can hide and ambush enemy convoys. These battles have guaranteed loot so long as you take out the leader first. This mix of variety makes dungeon crawling interesting enough and frustrating enough as you delve deep into dungeons.
The battles themselves are at their core a basic turn based RPG system, which I love as they aren’t too common these days. Their interesting visual style of characters along the bottom of the screen and enemies in the center of the screen is very similar to that of Demon Gaze and takes a moment to get used to, but really the old style of battle fields are not missed once you are used to it, it is just two ways to the same place.
The strange way the battle is set out is hammered home with beautifully drawn character models, enemies and the backdrop which looks really nice. One excellent addition is the use of Fast Apply which means the series of turns are not done one by one, but all done in under a second. This means when you are grinding out battles you do not have to watch the battle hit by hit as once you submit it just does it, making it much faster. But as this has to be used sparingly it means you do not see action by action how one of your characters got damaged and as such cannot adjust your strategy accordingly which can result in unnecessary deaths, which brings me to the next interesting part of the game.
The game introduces permadeath, but not in the way we know it. Normal permadeath means when you die you die, but in Stranger of Sword City a character only has x number of revives and when they run out they are gone. This does not mean you will run out of characters, because you can create characters when you want from the Strangers Guild which involves the character creation screens as used at the start of the game, including so many re-rolls.
It makes sense to create some spares early on as they will level up with your party and if a boss knocks out one of your characters for the last time, you can either restart from your last save, or grab a new one from your party. Your main character cannot permanently die but every other one you create is at risk so running from battle is a good idea at times. This is strengthened by no saves in dungeons, so if you lose a character you will need to weigh up redoing all of your progress to keep them, or recreating them from scratch. It balances in such a way to give you motivation to not go into battles or dungeons without some forethought, but not so brutal as to cause too much frustration.
Ultimately if you have played Demon Gaze you will have an idea of what you are in for and the game definitely does some unique things like its permadeath, but if you have not experienced a JRPG dungeon crawler you would be doing yourself a disservice to not have a dabble with Stranger of Sword City.
Released: May 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PS Vita
Genre: Action, JRPG
Developer: Experience Inc
Publisher: NIS America