Over the decades, RPGs have evolved into an entirely different beast. Whereas epic stories, stylish characters, and breathtaking cinematics are now the norm, the concept of carving your own path in a mysterious world is much harder to come by nowadays.
I grew up obsessed with grid-based first-person dungeon crawler RPGs such as Moraff's World, Might and Magic: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum, and Wizardry. The genre obviously isn't as popular as it once was, but it still remains enjoyable. Over the years, these types of games have become increasingly popular in Japan with many modern titles popping up like Demon Gaze and Dungeon Travelers. I enjoyed these games immensely, so when I saw that Stranger of Sword City was coming soon, I jumped at the opportunity to review it. Now that I got my hands on it and played for dozens of hours, I'm nothing short of impressed. It starts with you waking up in a mysterious world after a plane crash. Exploring this world while mapping each area, battling loads of unique foes, and meeting a handful of helpful folks had me immersed almost immediately as it reminded me just why I love the genre. What makes it even more alluring is the phenomenally moody soundtrack and gorgeous artwork with every character and environment hand-crafted in painstaking detail. Overall, everything about Stranger of Sword City makes me delighted to be an old-school RPG fan.
Considering you're reading this review, I'll assume that you have some experience with RPGs. Therefore, I'll get straight to the exciting details. Stranger of Sword City puts you in command of a team of six warriors. You create the leader upon starting a new game and the rest are either created or recruited soon after you begin your adventure. None of these characters really have stories or personalities as they're all blank slates that you train into monster-slaughtering machines, but I'll talk about configuring your party later. Anyway, many twists to the classic formula help make Stranger of Sword City stand out. You hunt powerful monsters known as Lineages in order to receive Blood Crystals. Tracking down these foes is tough enough and beating them in battle is a whole different story. Once you do, using the Blood Crystals to unlock Divinity spells simply feels awesome. These spells allow you to increase your offensive and defensive capabilities so you can take on even bigger and badder Lineages. Meanwhile, accomplishing an ever-changing list of quests will put you in the various NPCs' good books. However, if a party member dies, the recovery process is long. Also, if they happen to run out of lives then they're gone forever. Seeing as death is such a devastating occurrence, emerging from the dungeons unscathed is incredibly satisfying.
As you defeat enemies, you obviously level up. Doing so awards characters with points that you can assign to their various attributes. Choose carefully because maximizing everyone's potential is key. One component that I love is that the shop isn't very useful. Sure, you can buy basic equipment and heal items, but if you want decent stuff then you have to ambush unsuspecting enemies while they're transporting their treasures. You do this by hiding in certain locations, waiting for the ideal enemy and item type combination to stroll by, then attacking to claim the goods for yourself. You don't know exactly what you'll get but finding out makes it all the more fun. Besides the expected levelling up and equipment optimizing, there's a lot to do when it comes to whipping your party into shape. You can assign skills, change classes, create new party members, and even receive bonus money from resting allies. In the end, uncovering a vast armory and honing each character's skills within the in-depth customization system is one rewarding endeavor.
Although I have a lot of good things to say about Stranger of Sword City, it's quite evident that it isn't for everyone. If you're the kind of gamer who wants to breeze through an RPG and doesn't find it rewarding to figure out where to go next then you'll probably get fed up within a few hours. Of course, if you love a good challenge and find it fulfilling to discover how to progress on your own then you're in for a treat. As a side note, I don't fully understand how the gaming community embraces the brutal difficulty of games like Dark Souls while condemning games like this for being too hard. Honestly, I love Dark Souls and I get the exact same feeling from playing it as I do with Stranger of Sword City. Anyway, the only legitimate complaint that I personally have is that the NPCs are rather unmemorable. Most other JRPGs boast casts of colourful characters while everyone here doesn't really have much personality to offer.
Stranger of Sword City is not only a fantastic reinterpretation of old-school RPGs; it's also one of the most gratifying games that I've ever played. It may not be for everyone, but if you fit the bill then you need this in your gaming library.
- + Incredibly satisfying dungeon crawling RPG gameplay with awesome unique mechanics
- + Beautiful artwork and soundtrack
- + Rewarding in-depth party customization
- - May be a bit too hardcore and old-school for modern casual RPG fans
- - Unmemorable cast of characters