Games on the PlayStation Vita often fall into one of two camps. Either you have a title that's suited to short-bursts of with a pick-up-and-play mentality, or a title that has a lot of complexity to it that demands your full attention for hours on end. Experience Inc. and NIS America's latest title, Stranger of Sword City, falls into the latter camp. And for good reason, as not doing so means you can"¦and will die.
If you haven't played any of Experience Inc.'s previous releases before, they're a Japanese developer who was responsible for the niche hits Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, two other Vita dungeon RPG entries that NIS America helped localized and bring over to western audiences. Operation Abyss in many ways felt like an extension of Demon Gaze with its similar anime-inspired visuals and mechanics, but Stranger of Sword City feels very different as it has a much more darker Western-inspired tone and feel, making it feel much more unique.
In Stranger of Sword City, you take the role as the nameless player who's on a flight to Alaska when suddenly it crash lands into strange fantasy realm inhabited by elves and other similar fantasy creatures. After realizing you're the only survivor of the crash, you end up getting rescued by a person who leads up to a guild of people who also turn out to be people from Earth who were transported to this unfamiliar new world.
It turns out that you and these other "Strangers" have the special ability to defeat special enemies called Lineage Types, which drop Blood Crystals. These special crystals allow you to use them to enhance your abilities, and it's with this newfound power that you need to save this unfamiliar world and figure out a way to get back to your own world. But things aren't quite that simple, as there's multiple different factions in the town that are vying for said crystals and promise to return you back to your home. So who should you trust, if anybody?
I found the idea of the narrative interesting, but the localization tends to hold it back a bit in my opinion. Compared to the dialogue you'd find in a NIS America localized title such as one from the Disgaea series, while a completely different series in form and tone, Stranger of Sword City's dialogue feels by-the-numbers if nothing else. While I can't say if the same was to be said about the original Japanese dialogue, if that was the case this game could have had a bit more character added to it. It's not anything of "Engrish"-type quality, mind you, but considering the quality we've seen from the publisher before, it's a bit of a disappointment.
That said, most players going into a dungeon RPG are playing it for the dungeon and battle mechanics, which is where the core of the game focuses on. Unlike Operation Abyss, you're introduced to smaller, more straightforward dungeons with traps and corridors introduced gradually before the full monty is thrown at the player.
The game then generally falls into a cycle where you have access to three dungeons at a time (easy, normal and hard). Each dungeon has multiple shortcuts hidden inside them as they're meant to be played through in chunks instead of all in one go, due to the fact that you'll need to heal and identify the various mysterious items you come across in the dungeons. And of course, towns are your only save point, so going back every so often is a wise decision as one wrong move will cause a major setback.
Of course, besides dungeons there's also fighting monsters. Enemy encounters take place both randomly and at set points in the dungeon which must be cleared to proceed, which can range from one all the way up to nine monsters (and sometimes they can even call for backup!). There's also a third encounter mechanic, Ambush, which is way to acquire new weapons and armor. At designated spots in the dungeon, you can attempt to get the jump on an unsuspecting monster group. There will be one or two of them designated as the "leaders", which must defeated otherwise they'll make off with the items you're looking to obtain. In my experience I tended to not get much use out of this mechanic, but it's a unique approach from most other dungeon RPGs if nothing else.
Any good dungeon RPG lets you create your own party, which Stranger of Sword City keeps alive and well. You can have up to six characters in your party, with three in the front as attackers and three in the back as supports. You have your typical classes like the fighter, knight, mage and cleric, but there's also some other unique classes like the samurai, dancer and ranger. Rangers are useful for their ability to attack from either row, while dancers can disarm traps found in the dungeons. There's also the ability to change classes while also keeping their learned abilities, so you can keep a Dancer's ability to disarm chests while converting the over to a knight if you so wanted.
Stranger of Sword City also has a unique character generation system in the sense that characters have limited amounts of time that they can revive after dying, usually maxing out around three deaths normally. So once that limit is reached (excluding the main protagonist), they'll die permanently and you'll need to create a new character. Luckily newly characters get bonus experience based off the protagonists's current experience, so it makes leveling up a newcomer not that bad of an experience.
Earlier in the review I mentioned the game's special "Lineage Types", essentially Stranger of Sword City's boss enemies. Unlike other games where the boss waits at the end of the dungeon, the Lineage Types need to be coaxed out to be fought against. This can range from different kinds of triggers such as holding a special item, completing a specific side-quest, doing a specific Ambush in the dungeon, etc. There were some really unique encounter mechanics later on that I don't want to spoil, but it's safe to say it really helped elevate the game beyond the typical Vita dungeon RPG title for me in the mechanics sense of things.
Graphically, like it was previously stated earlier in the review, Stranger of Sword City goes for a more darker Western-inspired vibe than the anime-influenced tone that the developer's previous titles had. This also carries over to the character creator's presets, although oddly about a fourth of them don't really vibe exceptionally well with the new look and feel like they're meant more for the older titles than this new entry. But if you're a fan of the previous anime-inspired looks, you can switch over to anime-inspired character art if you so wish.
Stranger of Sword City tries a lot of new things, which after their previous titles generally staying pretty similar is a welcome decision. Not all of them hit the ball out of the park, but ideas like the Lineage Types are a nice deviation from the typical "rush to the end of the dungeon to fight the boss" trope most dungeon RPGs employ. If you're looking for a good dungeon RPG to fill that void in your Vita's card slot, this game is a good pick.
|The unique ways you need to hunt for the Lineage Types made for rewarding time spent.|
|Due to the perms-death system for your party members outside the main character, it makes you think twice before taking actions.|
|The Western-inspired design aspects are a welcome touch, considering most of the Japanese-inspired designs the Vita normally receives.|
|Some of the character presets clash badly with the new Western-inspired design aspects.|
|The Ambush mechanic is a nice touch, but outside of a few key uses it's not that useful.|
|The localization seems a bit lackluster when compared to previous NIS America works.|