Experience inc have released a number of dungeon crawlers on the Xbox platforms in Japan over the years. A number of titles on have also been released on the Vita and were localized and published by Nippon Ichi of America–most notably Demon Gaze. Stranger of Sword City on the Xbox One is Experience’s first self-published game they’ve released in North America.
Its very hard to judge Stranger of Sword City without looking at other Experience titles that I’ve played in the past. A lot of core ideas found in their previous games like Demon Gaze return in Sword City albeit tweaked for better or for worse. Its regrettable in some ways because I think Experience released this in North America maybe to introduce dungeon crawling to an audience that may not be accustomed to this genre and as someone well versed in this genre its hard for me not to compare it to other games–especially other games developed by Experience.
The general set up to Stranger of Sword City is that the airliner you were on crash lands on a mysterious fantasy world and its explained to you that you are now a “stranger” and being not from this new world–the difference in gravity has allowed you to wield powerful weapons you couldn’t possible have been able to carry otherwise. Your job now is to collect Blood Crystals with other strangers and find a way back to the real world. So the setup is kinda like that TV show LOST but with a lot more cutie anime girls and horrifying monsters.
I love the fact that they actually give you an in-world explanation as to why you’re able to fight alongside seasoned warriors despite being some normie with no background in combat. Its a nice little touch. really adds to the world building.
The original Xbox 360 version only had one style of character portraits that were done by Yoko Sukamoto whose style is very dark fantasy. Her monster designs are always just amazing and nightmarish. I think Miss Sukamoto’s designs suit the game’s tone more than other artist’s designs who were added to the Xbox One and Vita versions. Adding Oxijiyen’s art to Sword City makes sense since they’ve worked on a number of other Experience developed games like Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss. Its a nice extra bonus but I really don’t think they fit this setting as well as Yoko Sukamoto’s designs. That being said, being the hypocrite that I am, I tended to gravitate towards Oxijiyen’s designs anyways.
One thing I really don’t like about the character portraits across the board is that the main NPC character’s portraits are actually selectable when creating party members. Going into this game blind I didn’t realize this and I accidentally gave my main character the same design as one of the major NPC characters. You can even choose the main antagonist’s portrait too. So even though it may look like you have pages and pages of portraits to choose from when making characters, there’s at least 10 to 12 designs that are established characters in the game. Stuff like this breaks my immersion.
While we’re still on the subject of art for a sec, I did some basic research on some of the other Japanese only experience games and what I noticed is that a number of the enemy designs from their Japanese only Entaku no Seito: Students of the Round were reused in this game. There were even designs I recognized from Demon Gaze in Sword City. Its not done to a tremendous degree or anything but Miss Sukamoto’s designs are just so unique that its bothersome in retrospect. This might sound very nitpicky–I know– but bare with me for a sec: I do understand this is indicative of basically every rpg ever, but after noticing it in Sword City I began to have this odd sense of deja vu with almost every aspect of Sword City.
The music in Sword City–thankfully isn’t ripped from previous Experience titles, but its style of Vocaloidy tracks might fool you if you didn’t go back and check Demon Gaze’s music just in case. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Vocaloid-like music in Experience’s titles–I think they worked well with Demon Gaze partly because that game just feels like you’re playing an anime that it just kind of works. The overall dark atmosphere in Sword City really doesn’t mesh with music that sounds more suited in a place like the streets of Akihabara. I seriously had to check to see if the music was reused from Demon Gaze, its that similar sounding.
The third similarity to previous Experience titles is Sword City’s battle system and its dungeoning mechanics. I don’t actually mind how similar this was to Demon Gaze partly because I found Demon Gaze to be an impressive and refreshing dungeoning experience. More of the same is the best you can ask for, really. Sword City is turn based, as you’d expect, but theres a counter on the left side of the screen that acts as a pool for your Divinity Moves.
Divinities work as their own type of move not to be confused with magic or skills. Divinity moves usually are passive buffs you can activate in a bind like healing your health 10% per round or raising your hit and avoidance percentages. There are also Divinities that are full-out attacks that cost more points to use which may end up being detrimental since expending a large amount of points may lock you out of using a passive ability when you need them. Using the all-out attack works–especially in early in the game, but I suspect that believing that you can brute force bosses with it will be more of a crutch than anything.
In Demon Gaze, abilities like this were earned by killing the major bosses of the game. Sword City follows in a similar suit, but instead of gaining divinities from defeating a handful of bosses, it broadens the scope–the amount of bosses has increased to a stunning degree but now when you beat a boss, or a Lineage, as they’re called in Sword City— they don’t impart a divinity. Instead, they drop Blood Crystals which you trade into one of the three NPCs in the game for Divinities.
You can’t learn all the divinities this time around and instead you have to choose from an intersecting Skill tree. Learning one divinity from a row locks you out of the two others. You have to decide which move work best for you and hope the one you chose has the most use for the Lineage fights ahead.
Lineage fights are the real meat of the game as you can probably surmise since you’ll need their blood gems to acquire new abilities as well as progress through the story. What can make lineage battles both refreshing and sour is how they’re implemented in dungeons. Sometimes they lie in specific areas and you’ll have to draw them out by hiding. This is the standard way lineage fights are handled, however, there are also fights that seem random in how they’re triggered.
One NPC in town tells you that you that one lineage fight requires you to have some Black Candy in your possession in order for the Lineage Monster to appear. It took me about 5 runs in the dungeon before this sucker finally showed up. Despite annoyances like this, Sword City always has multiple dungeons for you to check out so if you’re not having any luck in one area you can break up the monotony by exploring another dungeon. Because you can tackle dungeons in whatever order you like, its possible to complete main story quests out of order–something I actually really liked. Recently coming off of playing Etrian Oddyssey, this change of pace was welcome and appreciated. Its a major reason why I really enjoy Experience inc dungeon crawlers.
How Stranger of Sword City deals with player death might deter even the most grizzled dungeon crawler veterans and its utilization is what I would say is the most glaring flaws I’ve experienced in a game in a while.
When a party member dies in battle, there are two ways to revive them: You can either shell out an enormous amount of currency to revive them automatically–so much currency that its seemingly impossible to even attempt this until the late game– or you can rest the character for a set number of days. Since there are no inns established in Sword City, time only progresses when you’re out dungeoning.
On top of that, theres really no way of seeing how much time has passed unless you head back to the base and check on the resting character. In a game like Etrian Oddessy time is show to progress thanks to a nifty timer at the bottom of the screen. Sword City doesn’t do this and the game actually goes out of its way to explain that the world of Sword City is always in a constant state of dusk. I think this is one of the most annoying explanations I’ve ever heard in a game. I can’t help but think that this was done just to annoy players. The rate at which time passes is also painfully slow. I’ve run through entire dungeons only to come back and find that six to eight hours have passed and that I still needed two days and four hours for a character to revive.
Another challenging aspect about death in Sword City is that players have Life Points: when a character loses all their health and dies, they also lose a life point. Characters can have one to three of these points and they’re determined by how old the character is. The older the character, the fewer life points they have. If a character loses all of their life points, they die permanently. On top of this, reviving life points is also done by resting a character for an ungodly amount of time.
Its clear that the developers made these design choices so that you would be constantly creating new characters as you progress through the game . That you were supposed to have a large reserve of back up characters just in case something happened. Personally, I found this to be a waste of time–why go off and train six or so backup characters instead of just reloading to your last save if someone died? You’d waste more time getting new characters to the levels they needed to be than just reloading a few minutes to your last save point.
The entire revival system is probably the only issue of the game that will actively deter players from continuing. A system like this was designed only for the most masochistic at heart.
At the time of this review I got to this boss before having to call it quits for the sake of releasing this review. Like in Demon Gaze, Stranger of Sword City has a number of insanely steep difficulty curves that will make you wonder if a boss is really vanquishable. This Wyvern is technically a ten hour tutorial check which I found pretty hilarious too. You get a new ability and they tell you to use it when he telegraphs a specific attack but it didn’t matter because he was one shotting my party with his regular attacks.
Will I still be playing Sword City and should you?
Full disclosure and complete transparency: I received a digital review copy of Stranger of Sword City 20 days in advance of its official release from Experience inc with the agreement that I would review it. Before I received this review copy, I had already pre-ordered the Japanese Xbox One version and will still be purchasing that copy .
I bring this up for one reason: I appreciate the lengths at which Experience inc has promoted and published Stranger of Sword City across the board. The last dungeon crawler that received a home console release in North America was Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls around five years ago. This genre has found its place on handhelds and has firmly stayed there for years and in spite of this, Experience released one:on the Xbox One of all consoles. Granted, you can still get Stranger of Sword City on the Vita if your heart desires it, but having the option to play on a console? I love it and I hope Experience inc finds a hardcore enough audience that they continue to release these types of games on the Xbox One. Is Stranger of Sword City my favorite game that Experience inc has worked on? No, but in spite of its flaws I will be seeing this game to its end and while its edges are more jagged than rough, Stranger of Sword City is a game I would cautiously recommend to those in dire need for some console dungeoning. There is a rewarding game in here somewhere if you have the patience to weather it through.