For starters, you should know that I haven’t played too many games of this genre before: that genre being the anime inspired dungeon-crawler with turn-based combat. Probably the closest I’ve gotten was Final Fantasy X. So, as is to be expected, Final Fantasy X became my point of comparison for Stranger of Sword City. And there’s two problems with that:

a) In terms of critical perception, Final Fantasy X is one of the best games of all time; and

b) In terms of my personal perception, Final Fantasy X is the best game of all time.

Needless to say, Stranger of Sword City had some big shoes to fill.

sword city pic 3

Honestly, I haven’t finished Stranger of Sword City. But the progress I’ve made is progress enough to know that the story is weak. Essentially, your plane malfunctioned after leaving Japan, and somehow managed to crash-land in a different dimension. You learn quickly that this new dimension is fairly different to Earth, with its fiends and traps and dungeons. And when things get dangerous, you’re rescued by Riu – leader of the Strangers’ guild. You pledge your allegiance to the Strangers, find out you’re a ‘chosen one’ and spend the foreseeable future hunting down monsters and collecting ‘blood crystals’. And so commences hours of plonking through terribly rendered dungeons, one step at a time.

The whole ‘stranger’, ‘chosen one’, ‘monster hunter’, ‘guild member’ thing is interesting enough, but it’s criminally underdeveloped. And after a while, you realise that the story is merely a guise under which the developers could wrap however-many hundreds of dungeons together and call it a game. That’s not so much a criticism; the dungeons are interesting – for the most part. But the thread that’s used to stitch them together is thin at best.

Another big problem with Stranger of Sword City is that it doesn’t draw you in. Games that require intense attention – as this one does – really need to hook the audience. Final Fantasy, for instance, gave you the means to succeed early in the game. And when the game got tough and grinding became a necessity, you were so enticed by the story that grinding wasn’t a problem. Stranger of Sword City doesn’t do this. Battles are hard from the get go, and you have to grind. Even before you’re properly introduced to the characters or the world, you’ve got to learn and concentrate. The game demands your commitment before it gives you a taste of reward. The problem with this approach is that it’s the same one Jehovah’s witnesses use. And we’re all familiar with their success rate. See, when a stranger intrudes and demands your devotion, it’s an instinctual response to shut the door in their face. Now that stranger might have a higher chance of being accepted if they were super good-looking. But unfortunately, this game is not.

sword city pic 2

Now, the game’s artwork isn’t bad – in fact, it’s quite good. But, again, Stranger of Sword City is let down by its execution. You’re offered a choice between two styles of artwork. Both paint magnificent pictures of NPCs – in traditional fantasy or Japanese style. The issue is that these pictures are all you get. Characters and enemies are presented as 2D pictures; they aren’t animated and they don’t move. Combat animations are nothing more than crude swipes across these pictures; they don’t change between characters or between weapons. Environments differ enough that each area is unique, but there’s little variation within the maps. You don’t so much adventure through an area, as stumble through poorly presented stretches of the same scenery. Obviously these graphical decisions were an effort to hold true to the traditions of the dungeon-crawl RPG, but in 2016 they really only hold the game back.

On a more positive note the turn based combat works well. You’ll need a concrete strategy to beat most bosses. You’ll need to organise your party and you’ll need to update the equipment. You’ll also learn attacks and skills as you level up, but there’s no prior indication of what skill you’ll learn or when you’ll learn it. Remember how I spoke about grinding and a lack of enticement before? Well, this is what I meant. It’s difficult to spend hours working on something when you don’t know what you’re working for.

I found it strange that the game offered the ability to fast-forward combat, but insisted on taking the long way round in every other aspect of gameplay. And the permadeath mechanic is savagely unforgiving, especially in a game that’s already quite hard. A proper tutorial would have been a welcome inclusion, rather than the ten-minute lecture from Anna. Realistically, you’d need a pen and paper to actually retain half of the information that’s initially thrown at you. When faced with poor instruction, I generally resort to a trial and error approach to learning the game’s mechanics. But Stranger of Sword City is so cruel in punishing error that this approach didn’t serve me well. Lo and behold, here’s the notion of accessibility and incentive again.

sword city pic 1

I’ve got to wonder if Experience Inc. actually wanted people to play Stranger of Sword City. It’s inundated with so many questionable features that, as a game, it’s difficult to enjoy. And that’s a shame because all in all Stranger of Sword City is fairly good. But with the time it requires, the game needs to be more than that. See games that succeed with the grinding approach – The Division, Final Fantasy X and, dare I say it, Dark Souls – all feature densely packed, awe-inspiring worlds. And as nice as the artwork in Stranger of Sword City is, there’s only so long you can look at stationary pictures for. I also don’t want to spend twenty hours milking experience from a dungeon where every square metre looks the same. That’s way too boring, way too bland and has way too much in common with my working life for me to derive any proper sort of fun from it.

Look. I’m not saying this game is bad. But I am saying it made some bad choices, especially if it intended on appealing to a wider audience. Stranger of Sword City is a distinctive taste – perhaps a masochistic one. I don’t like oysters, but to some folk they’re a delicacy. Many of my sea-food loving friends have called me crazy, but try as I might I just don’t like the taste. And it’s a similar story with Stranger of Sword City. With what it does, it does well. But it’s tried so hard to uphold a formula that it’s sacrificed playability and accessibility.


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