The turn-based dungeon-crawling RPG, once a Western creation but long ago co-opted by Japanese developers, is a genre that often prides itself in its insular stances. It builds out these worlds and systems for the already-faithful, making anyone attempting to approach it for the first time feel like a, well, stranger.
For the past decade, the team behind Experience Inc. has been the standard-bearer for this approach. It cut its teeth on obscure Wizardry releases before branching out with its own original projects, but all the while, it’s been about delivering more of what die-hard fans want at the expense of, well, basically everything else. Their games aren’t accessible or particularly polished, but they’re incredibly deep and reward huge time investments.
That brings us to Stranger of Sword City, which may be the most concentrated version of this ideal that the company’s ever managed.
Stranger of Sword City sees you crash in a plane on your way to Alaska, somehow ending up in a fantasy land. The idea, I suppose, is that you’re supposed to be this peculiar outsider, because otherwise this plot device doesn’t lead anywhere particularly interesting. It just sets up that you have no idea about any places or people in the game’s world of Escario, then has you rectifying that over many dozens of hours.
It’s a small team, recycling everything that works and changing out only the parts it deems necessary to creating a new and different overall flavor.
If you’ve played Experience’s previous efforts, especially Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, a lot of the moment-to-moment way of taking that on will feel very familiar. It’s a small team, recycling everything that works and changing out only the parts it deems necessary to creating a new and different overall flavor. Anyone expecting frills took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll navigate incredibly barebones menus to get into and through the dungeons, because the idea is that you’ll spend an hour or two learning the less-than-ideal ways these work and then spend the remaining hundred-or-whatever hours without any issues. And that’s largely correct for the audience being targeted here.
The dungeons in the game aren’t exactly designed to be done in one shot; rather, it’s a chip-away-gradually strategy that works best. Saving can only be done in the base, which… well, isn’t the most convenient thing for a portable title, as it’s not so easy to pop out and stop when you need to, but it’s all in the service of making the difficulty as exacting as can be managed. Enemies often sneak in one lucky shot that delivers a surprising knockout to a party member, and though they’re not dead for good the first time this happens, they’ll need to rest up for weeks to recover one of their quite-limited Life Points — usually two or three — or else they’ll be goners the next time.
As a result, you’ll use stick-and-move tactics while you map out areas, and when you feel like you can handle a good fight, you can use the game’s Ambush system. There are rooms within dungeons that let you use Morale points, accrued while delving, to hide and surprise a traveling band of monsters for a chance at a reward of some kind. It’s a shame that normal battles don’t get anything of interest like this, but it can still be fun to devise a plan to lie in wait to snag, say, a new piece of armor for your Knight. Harder enemies often mean better stuff, but again, you’re fragile and anything can happen. (Oh, and don’t expect consumable items to help you: you’ll always have about a fifth of the money you really need at any point in time, and it’s really too important to buy armor and weapons to waste it on anything temporary.)
Your ultimate goal while exploring these dungeons is to defeat “lineage” monsters, the game’s bosses. They’re not just at scripted encounters at the end of dungeons, though, and this is what may interest longtime players most: it tests the bounds of just how to handle these fights. What if you have to wait around for it? What if it seeks you out before you’re ready and you have to keep running? It’s… well, it’s not always fair or nice, but it’s the sort of cutthroat that genre die-hards like to see.
It’s… well, it’s not always fair or nice, but it’s the sort of cutthroat that genre die-hards like to see.
The real aspect of Stranger of Sword City that I think drew most of the attention the game currently holds is the aesthetic, a dark, detailed one by Yoko Tsukamoto. Apparently it didn’t go over quite as well in Japan, as joining it is a lighter, more pastel take from En Okishiji. Or, well, half of one. The environments themselves are static, and really only match Tsukamoto’s work; there’s some real cognitive dissonance when other styles are in play. This gets… a little more muddled still when you factor in the character creation. All portraits, in both of these styles and also about a dozen others, are options when making a new party member. To keep the game’s aesthetic intact, your options will be limited to only a fraction of the choices, but nevertheless it’s our recommendation: so much of this game’s appeal is about its look, and that’s ruined when it’s not consistent.
Stranger of Sword City is a long, arduous trek that doles its rewards out sparsely and entices you to do the whole thing over again to explore the other paths in the game’s light-vs.-dark skill system and see the various endings. It’s not the sort of game to check out for a few hours, or an entry into the genre as a whole. What it is, though, is an old-school experience wrapped in a package that’s very nice-looking as long as you color within the aesthetic lines. There are some who are ready for exactly that, and you likely know who you are.