By William Haderlie / June 27th, 2016
That is about all I’m going to say regarding the character creation and stats. Although I could go on for pages about it, that would be writing a strategy guide instead of a review. But if you thought that was where the complexity ends, you would be sorely mistaken. Just check out a standard battle screen above. Your characters are arrayed in formation on the bottom, the three on the left are your front row characters, and the three on the right are back row. The rows affect how common it is for an enemy to physically attack them, and it also drastically affects the reach of your weapon. If an enemy is out of reach of your weapon, you cannot physically attack them. There are only two types of spellcasters in this game, Priest and Wizard, and the Wizards are not nearly as powerful as in other dungeon crawlers. So, almost all your attacks and abilities will be physical and weapon range becomes a huge concern. Also, by having a Knight in your party (my main character to the far left, Persephone, is primarily a Knight), they can also protect the back row from receiving physical damage. Between the two rows is a group of symbols that stand for magical buffs that you can apply to your party for general dungeon crawling. The upper right shows your current Hit and Avoidance numbers, which you can buff up using your casters, and some abilities can cause them to decrease. Hit and Avoidance management is one of the primary differences between success and failure in this game. In the upper left is your Divinity Gauge, which I will address now on its own.
The chart you see above is kind of a skill chart, of a sort. After you gain Blood Crystals, you need to choose one of the three vessels to give them two. The three vessels are seen at the bottom; Marilith of Light, Riu of Neutral, and Alm of Darkness. The numbers you see above are how many Blood Crystals it will cost you to unlock that ability. Those abilities are used in battle in the form of Divinities. Those symbols that you saw in the battle screen will light up depending on which Divinity ability you activate, and many of them can last multiple rounds, so it’s a huge help to have the visual representation. You also gain five Charm points per skill that you unlock. These Charm points are used up to either cast a Divinity or to Ambush (more on that later). The story progresses, for the most part, by how many of these abilities you unlock. And there are three different endings, the choice you see above is where I chose which ending I would see. While normally for a game I would try to see all endings before giving a review, that would have taken too long in this game due to its length and difficulty, so I only saw Riu’s ending. But managing your Divinity skills and your Charm meter is integral to completing this game on any difficulty level. If you don’t use the right skill at the right time, you are going to wipe. And even then, you will still likely be restarting often.
The only way to gain Blood Crystals is to hunt Lineage creatures. With each cycle of this world, the vessel’s power gets disseminated among the world itself and new powerful monsters arise that hold that power in crystal form. It’s your job as a Stranger and a Chosen One to collect these crystals and restore them to the vessel. What that means in practice is that most of your time in the game is not just spent clearing the maps to get to the next level. Your purpose for exploring the maps is to find and kill the Lineage monsters. Some of them can be rather difficult to find, needing you to meet certain conditions for them to appear, and some of them are just located in a certain part of the labyrinth that you need to reach. Thankfully for the hard to find ones, you are given a hint in the hunt menu, and if you ask questions of the various denizens of the Stranger’s Guild, they can offer you hints to ones that you are hunting. It should be noted that they are rated by stars with difficulty, and you can actually get ambushed by 5 Star (the highest rank) ones even when you are 20-30 levels below them. Get used to running, Forrest.
One way that you will find very powerful enemies, and often even Lineage ones, is by ambushing. Ambushing is another addition to this game that I’ve never seen in another title. There are certain regions in a labyrinth that you will be able to investigate and determine they are ambush points. By using a certain amount of your charm meter, you can disappear and wait to ambush a powerful enemy group. That group will have a boss, and if you can defeat the boss within a certain number of turns (before they run) you can gain the treasure chest that they are guarding. You do have to be careful, though, because the enemy group can often be far higher levels than you are. You can pass up to five times if you want to get a different group or a different potential treasure chest, but the more often you pass, the more likely they will turn the tables and ambush you instead. It’s a fascinating mechanic for taking on those major bosses, but also for gaining loot. The shop in this game is almost useless compared to other shops, I almost always only used it to sell off loot that I did not want. The Dwarf merchant sells a very limited selection of items, and for absurd prices. Almost 100% of anything you want to wear you will need to gain by ambushing. So get used to doing so, even from the first dungeon. The number of Charm points you need to ambush grows with each ambush at a location until you can no longer afford it, so when you want to reset the point value you need to return to town.
There is a lot to go on about regarding the battle systems and the character building systems, and that would be enough to recommend the game to anyone who is into hardcore dungeon crawlers. But there is even more to this title that will keep you coming back for more. And that is the story. To be frank, this genre is not really known for having great stories. Dungeon crawlers have always been more about the challenge and the character building then they have been about the world story. But that has been starting to change, largely due to the Japanese titles I’ve previously mentioned. This one is a lot more serious than Demon Gaze, Dungeon Travelers 2 or Moe Chronicle, but it’s still a good story and a great world. Not only is the story good, but the art aesthetic really matches the tone well along with a really good soundtrack. Spending over 60 hours on a dungeon crawler can be quite the slog, you will need to do a holy crap ton of grinding in order to complete this one. But the art style stays interesting and the music doesn’t grate on the nerves even after all that grinding. Thankfully, there are also some great quality of life additions to help that go faster, with a fast running system by using the map and a fast repeat of previous battle commands. Without those things, my save file would be well over 100 hours.
Here I do need to mention the handling of the PC port. This has been a rather contentious issue as of late, with many Japanese games coming out with sub-par PC ports. Thankfully, this has been a much-needed exception to that rule. Perhaps part of it is because of its release on the Xbox One, along with the PS Vita, but this was an almost entirely smooth translation. The Xbox 360 controller that I use on my PC worked perfectly, even having some shortcut buttons that were fantastic to use, and the keyboard and mouse support was very good, as well. The one hiccup that I had with the port was that the sound would occasionally go quiet before jumping back to normal levels. But I never had any freezes or crashes or issues with controls. There was a bit of input lag at times, but for a title like this that is very unimportant. The price is $39.99 on Steam, which is the version that I played, and I can definitely recommend this title for that price. My save file ended at a bit over 60 hours for one play through, but considering all the restarts it would have been easily over 80 hours in real time. You should be warned, even on Beginner difficulty this is not easy. On Normal (I was able to switch off between by purchasing a rare item for 1000 credits), this game is as tough as most dungeon crawlers are on their Hard difficulties. So be prepared for a lot of grinding and a lot of strategy, and even some trial and error. Even without the three different endings, you are getting a ton of bang for your buck with this one. Stranger of Sword City definitely joins the ever-growing list of great games in this sub-genre. If there is a sequel to it in the future, I will be first in line. Now time to find out what those other two endings have in store for me.
Review copy provided by publisher
Stranger of Sword City is available on Amazon:
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