Stranger Of Sword City Review – A Gorgeous, Rewarding Retro-Gridder

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Since we now have a robust selection of gridders on the PS Vita, those craving old-school dungeon crawling can afford to be a bit selective when it comes to picking the next game to spend their PSN credit on. While there’s nothing preventing you from buying them all (and you probably should), they all vary greatly in what aspects of the genre they focus on.

Demon Gaze is very flashy and modern with a very funny storyline and characters, Elminage is a straight up oldschool crawl, Mind Zero is the “casual” one, Class of Heroes is for min/max’ers, and Dungeon Travelers 2 is all about massive (sometimes maddening) dungeons.

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The NIS America-published, Experience-developed Stranger of Sword City fits nicely into this crowd by being the kind of game that stands somewhere in the middle of these games; incorporating mechanics from each and occupying a sort of “Goldilocks zone” of dungeon crawling.

First of all, Stranger of Sword City is an extremely gorgeous game with some very high production values for a portable title. Not only are the monster designs all beautifully hand-drawn, but the NPC portraits – which come in different visual styles even – are good enough to warrant publishing this on the PlayStation 4, not just the Vita. Perhaps that’s why an Xbox One port is available via Experience themselves.

The music is also worth mentioning as well, with bits of vocaloid-esque lyricism mixed in with the background tracks. Though you can turn off those synthesized voices, I personally enjoyed them and thought it separated the game from the usual “spooky” kind of tunes you hear in every other dungeon crawler.

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Unlike other genres, graphics and sound aren’t why we buy these games…complexity and the ability to collect loot are. In that respect, Stranger of Sword City is mostly competent.

I may seem a bit nonplussed with the loot distribution because Stranger of Sword City isn’t always fair when it comes to doling out gear. In most gridders, your equipment drops from monsters. While that works and is completely acceptable, Japanese gridders tend to want to mix things up and create some alternative mechanism for gaining new gear.

Like Demon Gaze’s summoning circles that allow you to fight difficult monsters for items of your choosing, Stranger of Sword City cordons off gear accrual to only certain areas of the dungeon. In these specially highlighted areas, you must enter a “hiding” mode where you are shown several sets of enemy mobs that each carry with them a treasure chest.

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A comparison between the game’s two art styles

Once you choose which mob to engage (usually because the chest they carry has an item type you need), you must defeat their leader within a certain turn limit or else risk them running away with the treasure.

It seems simple enough, and though I would rather have a less obtuse system, it’s still acceptable. There is one very annoying problem with it though, and that’s the fact that the items you *really* want, such as heavy chest armor and swords, rarely pop up. Every part of the dungeon where this “hide mode” can be entered into has its own set types of gear that will appear in chests.

Unfortunately, most of them are devoted to “trash” gear like thrown items, staves, and minor accessories. I didn’t even start finding “real” armor in hide zones until the 4th dungeon, roughly 20 hours into the game. Until then, I was wearing magically enchanted rags and the occasional piece of store bought leather.

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I shouldn’t nitpick, but I do feel the loot distribution in these special areas leaves a lot to be desired. I also think it’s more than a bit annoying that most of the boss monsters in these groups that guard chests will leap behind a row or two of enemies and require you to use spells or long-reach weapons to hit them.

Of course, longer reach weapons are notoriously weak and you’ll probably find yourself cursing the game out more than a few times because of an enemy running away with an important item before you could kill it with your ninja’s throwing knives. Now sure, a skill opens up later that has a chance to prevent monsters from switching rows, but it isn’t 100% effective.

Due in part to that sometimes tiring way of gaining equipment, you’ll spend a lot of time grinding. This is probably why another small problem exists in the game’s design: your characters gain levels far too slowly.

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Though it’s understandable that your party would start slowing down in their progression as they hit the middle part of the game, I noticed that even when fighting monsters more than 5 levels above me, I was barely getting any experience. Getting a level-up after I hit 15 started to seem impossible, with the experience meter appearing to not even increase after battle.

Once again, this isn’t something I should complain about in a gridder, but one thing you’ll notice in most *portable* dungeon crawlers is that they are built for short spurts of play. They let you go into a dungeon, grab some gear, gain a level, and then quickly head back out to save.

Stranger of Sword City doesn’t facilitate that style of play. Instead, you have to spend a significant amount of time to see any real progress, so playing for less than an hour at a time won’t leave you feeling very satisfied. At least not later on, when the transporter gem out of the dungeon is far away and the desire to return to town with your newly acquired gear is too tempting.

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Most gridders also have a bit of a strange curve to their difficulty, meaning they start off hard and around the mid-point, fall off and become laughably easy. Stranger of Sword City doesn’t have this problem, since the slow leveling progression and the reduced likelihood of finding the specific gear you need prevents you from ever being TOO well armed.

Now, once again, this wouldn’t be much of a problem for a PC Wizardry clone where you’re expected to kick back at your desk for hours at a time plugging away at a gridder…but for a portable game, it’s a bit of a stretch. Though to the game’s credit, it actually works. Unlike a lot of gridders (like Elminage), you’ll never get to the point where enemies are worthless and you can just hold down the fast forward button all the time. Battles stay fresh, fun, and often times chaotic.

Speaking of chaos, that brings me to another feature: permadeath.

Now permadeath is nothing new in the genre. Some games even have a chance to fail your resurrection roll and will wipe a party member out for simply being unlucky. The secret ingredient in Stranger of Sword City’s formula is that every character has a pre-set number of lives, and when those are gone, it’s over. Depending on their starting age, it could be as low as 2, though generally, you’ll probably make them young enough to get 3.

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This created an artificial reason for me to reboot the game whenever a character died, since I was so frightened of losing them that I would rather lose a half an hour of work than be forced to replace them. Though you can make a new character that is brought up to your main hero’s level, it hurts when the one party member you counted on is wiped out after only 2 resurrections.

My time on the game’s forums seems to point to gamers not being phased by the permadeath, but for me it was a major sticking point. I suppose I grow too attached to my characters and hate seeing them die, even if they never talk or interact in any way with each other. Regardless, I wish the lives your characters get were double than what they are.

Now it may sound like I’m picking on the game for being a user-unfriendly bastard when this genre is known for deliberately being exactly that, and I probably shouldn’t. Though I do believe portable-based gridders should be somewhat streamlined to facilitate smaller bursts of play, Stranger of Sword City isn’t as irritating as I may make it sound. Especially if you’re playing this on the Xbox-One and have a fully charged controller on your lap. In fact, it’s actually one of the better gridders you’ll find on the market.

There are several things the game does right, such as the concept of blood crystals and the optional bosses that carry them.

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Stranger of Sword City has you, the player, crashing down to this monster-infested world courtesy of a trans-pacific flight. After being attacked by monsters, a cute quasi-Asian warrior woman saves you and informs you that three different god-like beings called “vessels” (her being one of them) are currently vying for power over the land. The source of their power lies in the blood crystals that are dropped by unique creatures hidden in each of the game’s dungeons.

These “lineage” monsters who hold the crystals have to be coerced out of hiding in some manner, with each one requiring a certain trick in order to get them to attack the party. Some might require you to walk a specific corridor several dozen times, others may only appear if you carry a rare item, some may even seek out a piece of food you have in your backpack…whatever the method, once you get them to appear you enter into an significantly difficult boss fight.

If you win, you get a Blood Crystal. These crystals can then be given to any of the three rulers-to-be whose power is bolstered by them, and in turn they grant you another point to use towards unlocking more abilities in your party’s shared skill tree.

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This skill tree is where the fine-tuning of your party takes place, since its skills tend affect the entire party or augment some aspect of gameplay that favors certain play styles. Abilities that auto-heal you every round, prevent enemies from escaping, and increase your hit rate are all available in that skill tree, provided you listened to the rumors about each dungeon’s lineage monsters and hunted them down for their crystals.

Most of the review may sound harsh, but that’s not to say the game isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a terrific game to waste away the hours while min/max’ing and grinding your way to nirvana. The classes, the graphics, the music, the large amount of varied gear (There are even “sets” of equipment, such as the Butterfly items) and the *always* challenging monsters will keep hardcore Wizardry fans occupied for months at a time. Yes, it’s rough, yes it’s often terrifying, and yes it won’t hesitate to wipe you out for making the slightest of mistakes, but having that kind of challenge to overcome in a genre that has been moving gently towards the mainstream is refreshing.

It’s one of those RPGs where you’ll get wiped after encountering a boss that you can’t hope to beat, then angrily grind levels and gear until you are able to come back and pound the monster into dust. Granted, that scenario will happen quite frequently, but every time you get that blood crystal from that god-awfully unbalanced Lineage beast, you’ll get a rush that will keep you coming back for more.

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To put it another way – if you’re like me and love to “zone out” while mindlessly farming gear as a way to clear your mind after a long day, then you’ve met a very cheap psychiatrist. It’s especially easy to do this when the fast forward button is held down during combat. It’s almost therapeutic in a way.

Stranger of Sword city may be combat heavy, purposefully rough, and require massive amounts of grinding for gear and levels, but if extreme adherence to these “features” of the old-school gridder is your idea of fun, I doubt you’ll find any game on any system in the last ten years that’ll even come close to the challenge and longevity you’ll find here with this.

If you’re instead looking for something a bit more streamlined for portable play or something more plot-focused with a charming cast of characters that interact with each other, you might want to look elsewhere.

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Overall, I was very pleased with Stranger of Sword City and go back to it when long periods of time (and an insatiable desire to work towards max’ing my party) are available to me. If you have a craving for the type of gridder where you change classes five times, grind for hours, and obsess over gear, then you just found your next purchase.

Stranger of Sword City was reviewed on PS Vita using a preview copy provided by NIS America. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict 8.0

The Good

  • Fast, easy to learn combat
  • Deep class/gear/skill systems
  • Gorgeous artwork and music
  • Long quest with lots of replayability/content

The Bad

  • Permadeath may bother some
  • Slow progression
  • Terribly grind-heavy
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Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.

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