With opposing trajectories and estranged timetables, Wizardry never got to make the acquaintance of its overseas-residing brethren. While Sir-Tech’s franchise helped to translate table-top tenets into computer role-playing game principal, its reign did not last in the West. Divergence from convention across later entries such as The Return of Werdna and Wizardry: Nemesis alienated devotees, and players ended up departing to graphically richer realms. Meanwhile in Japan, Wizardry slowly emerged as a cult classic, despite a succession of ports with mangled localizations.
Several years after Wizardry 8 became the final franchise entry published in the States, Michaelsoft offered a duo of eccentric spin-offs, with both Wizardry Xth: Academy of Frontier and Unlimited Students framing the traditional dungeon-combing and combat as an academy-based exertion into virtual reality. Despite the modest success of the two titles, Michaelsoft folded, with several of its employees going on to form Experience Inc.
Although the release of Experience’s Stranger of Sword City isn’t a Wizardry installment by name, it certainly is in spirit- capturing the grip of a challenging, gridded, turn-based dungeon crawl. Like Wizardry Xth, the title deviates from from the conventional vaguely medieval context, with a prologue that reveals an airline crash with a seemingly single survivor. After making your way through a robust player creation component filled with selections for appearance, vocation, race, and assignable skill points, your dazed protagonist encounters an enigmatic older man. Speaking ambiguously, the elder suggests that your existence hinges on uniting with other outsiders from the Stranger’s Guild.
One of the first Strangers players will encounter is Riu Tsukisada, who makes an impressive entrance when an enraged Wyvern ambushes the player. Although dressed like a conventional kogyaru, she wields her sword with unexpected strength, easily beheading the beast. Tsukisada explains that gravity is weaker in this realm, endowing Strangers with superhuman strength. She also asks the player to retrieve the blood crystal from the slayed creature, explaining they are only found inside the bodies of Lineage Monsters. Pleasingly, Sword City avoids the front-loaded exposition of most role-playing games, gradually disseminating details about its world and inhabitants, creating a nimble first impression.
Later, dialog imparts the function of those blood shards. Giving these items to any of the three Vessels endow the protagonist with divinity powers- abilities that prove invaluable when your adventuring party is overpowered. One of the first capacities you receive is ‘Flash Retreat’, and Sword City soon makes it clear that you’ll need to play by its rules, and utilize these disbursements. Try to pigheadedly plow your way through the game and your party will quickly become monster fodder.
But inevitably, you’ll make a make an errant decision or be on the receiving end of a callous random number generator. When this happens, you’ll discover Experience Inc. doesn’t want you to one-shot your way through Sword City. Instead, the developers want you to deal with defeat by regrouping, rolling up new adventurers, and testing to see how these members mesh with the rest of the group. To remove some of the sting of permadeath, there are some concessions, with members receiving a specific amount of life points than can be used to revive fallen friends. Once those are expended, replacement characters come into the world with a portion of the main protagonist’s experience level. Given the autonomy of the game’s approach, there’s certain to be vexations. Some classes might not jive with the crew, making them sacrificial lambs, undeserving of even costly resurrections. Even when you do find someone who might fill a vacant role, you’ll have to grind up with your new greenhorn. But the beauty of the design decision is that party management becomes just as crucial as combat prowess.
Although battles aren’t overflowing with innovation, they are engaging. Players will have to account for a bit of unpredictability, as their six-player party will inevitably stumble across high-level adversaries or the expected slam-dunk that gets stymied by multiplying monsters. Encounters, even with pedestrian foes tend to be protracted. Even though the pace of conflict can be measured (holding down the “X” button does allow you to speed through things), peril is never far. On the game’s ‘normal’ challenge setting, that means a gratifying sense of tension as you shift between dungeon reconnaissance and heading back to town to rejuvenate your crew.
The one interesting wrinkle is found in the ability to ambush foes. Utilizing some of the morale points gained by slaughtering enemies, you’re able to hide in certain regions, waiting for a pack of foes carrying a treasure chest. Naturally, the prospect of purloined gains conceals a number of risks, from enemies that can counter your plans to treasure chests that are trapped. Since morale points are also used to constrain your divinity abilities, players are taught to play it prudent. Much like Experience’s Demon Gaze and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, this is no subterranean folic. Relentlessly, you’ll be struggling to keep your adventurers from leaping into their graves.
If players can get past the shortage of character animation, Stranger of Sword City is a visual pleaser. Choosing between a more traditional Japanese style and a version with more of a Western influence, there are two distinct type of character art. Choosing between the two might be hard, as both are aesthetically adept, and deliver an impressive amount of detail. Unfortunately, this splendor doesn’t apply to battle animations, where the flash of on-screen sprites is supposed to simulate the strength of hard-fought conflict. Similarly, the game’s environments don’t fare too well, with a fidelity that’s that’s too low. Sonically, Sword City employs a variety of melodic tracks that repeat a bit too quickly, but often edge on exquisiteness. The game’s Japanese voiceover doesn’t extend to every bit of dialog, which is disappointing, as the talent do a great job and bringing the roles to life.
For those seeking to enjoy Stranger on a Windows-based machine, there’s plenty of good news. First, the port isn’t a resource hog. You should be able to run it on almost any machine put out in the last seven or eight years. On a humble Bay Trail powered Dell Venue Pro 8 and an Asus T100HA the title operated with nary a hitch. Players with burlier rigs might not be happy with the game’s 720p native output, but on the upside, you can dungeon crawl with little impact on a video render.
Undoubtedly, Stranger of Sword City’s trek can be daunting, punishing players for every errant decision. But sadistic dungeon skulkers are bound be delighted, between the Wizardry-esque exploration and combat and an emphasis on party management and experimentation. Sword City is a shining example of the virtue of persistence; not only with tenacious players but by a developer who seeks mastery of the genre.
Stranger of Sword City was played on the PS Vita and PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Please note: All screenshots are NISA assets. The appearance of
descenders and ascenders in the game’s font have been corrected.
Platform: PS Vita , PC (also available on Xbox One)
Developer: Experience Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: April 26th, 2016 (PS Vita), June 6th (PC)
Price: $39.99 via PlayStation Network, $29.99 via Steam
Language(s): Japanese voice, English text