Stranger of Sword City ReviewJoe Shaffer
Imagine if a bad day had a child with an old school, first-person dungeon crawler. That's Stranger of Sword City.
Your rotten luck starts with a doomed plane flight. Not only does the craft slip into a bleak, nightmarish dimension, but it also bursts into flames, slams into the ground and kills everyone but you. You dust yourself off and notice you're in the middle of a labyrinthine junkyard. You can't even tweet "FML" before a gigantic hydra bursts from a pile of rubble and tries to eat you.
Bad news: you're not equipped for battle. Good news: a woman clad in a school girl uniform combined with a dark knight's armor leaps from shadows and annihilates the monster.
The young lady, whose name is Riu, leads you to a hub town called Sword City. There, she tells you about herself and her two allies (who preside over two different cities). They're what you call "vessels," as they contain one of three gods. They also require stones called "blood crystals," and as it turns out you possess the talent for extracting those gems. All you have to do is scour several complex dungeons, pick fights with special bosses called "Lineage Types" and survive the carnage that ensues.
Lineage Types have perfected the art of being pains in the ass. They eschew the age old boss standard of waiting for you at a stage's exit point, opting instead to either hide or send you on a string of simple tasks before attempting to off you. Of course, they also have a habit of appearing at awful times and dishing out cheap shots. For instance, while searching a fiery tunnel midway through the campaign, you might stumble upon a hideous evil spirit and its spectral ninja underlings. Unfortunately, these pricks excel in one-hit kills, with each blow they land possibly resulting in instant death. On top of that, the boss itself gets multiple licks per turn. If you're not prepared to deal with insta-kills and heavy physical damage, then your bountiful exploration may come to a screeching halt.
That sounds unfair, but bear in mind that you learn to cope with Sword City's uncompromising challenge factor as you power up. Also, later run-ins with more powerful Lineages put the aforementioned boss encounter into perspective:
Needless to say, the campaign is daunting, and rage-quitting sounds like the rational thing to do. However, if you're like me, Sword City's combination of desolate environments, horrifying creature designs, retro elements and a stiff challenge will only beg you to "git gud." As you advance, you uncover new methods for taking out Lineage Types, including devastating spells, helpful passive bonuses and sick advantages gained from dual-classing. Before you know it, your accolades stack up and you soon feel like a veteran hunter. However, Sword City knocks you down a peg or six by occasionally opening new crypts featuring stiffer stipulations (e.g. no magic in battle, must have magical weapons do damage foes, etc.) and more menacing Lineages. Regardless of the added adversity, though, victory is never out of reach for those who're willing to put forth the effort needed for improvement.
Thankfully, you won't be flying solo through Sword City's journey, because up to five other combatants join you via character creation--not counting those you put on the bench in case of emergencies. The game offers a handful of familiar classes to boot: wizard, cleric, fighter, samurai, ranger, etc. More bad news, though: your odyssey still won't be easy, and having a group of six sometimes means you get to witness multiple frustrating deaths instead of just one. Also, managing your troops is a tad overwhelming, albeit rewarding. Think about it: with six warriors in your command, that's six builds to maintain. However, the numerous character sheets also keep the experience engaging and thought-provoking, as you must consider wisely how to allocate skill points, when to dual-class and how to best distribute your loot.
It also doesn't help that perma-death is possible. Whenever a cohort croaks, they lose a life point. When their life points reach zero, they perish. Sure, the local hospital revives dead folks and restores life points, but doing so either costs a pretty penny or requires you to win scores of battles to advance a teammate's recovery time. In other words, Sword City punishes your inability to keep your soldiers alive by jamming combat down your throat until you almost hate random encounters.
Unlike many RPGs, Sword City focuses on hit and avoid rates, so creatures tend to dodge your strikes while landing heavy wallops in return. By the time you reach a Lineage, you might considering returning to town to lick your wounds. Grinding proves tedious because gaining a single level takes ages, and item shops provide high cost/low output equipment. Luckily, you're completely not without advantages...
For one thing, swapping blood crystals with the vessels nets you "divinities," which are techniques that bestow buffs and debuffs unto you and your foes, respectively. For instance, the Sky Dragon divinity bumps up your hit and avoid stats slightly, and granting your party initiative for a certain number of rounds. For the opposition, Dragon Fist cripples their avoid and may prevent them from escaping.
On top of that, each dungeon holds areas designated for ambushing enemy transport squads. With each victory, you earn a treasure chest containing quality weaponry and gear. However, since this game loves to screw with you, most of the chests contain traps that explode, stab you with needles, poison you, teleport you to a random location or pit you against a skull-crushing mimic. On the bright side, it is possible to disarm these devices, assuming you're able to guess which one is in the chest.
Hours go by and you watch your party grow from frightened wimps to Lineage killers. Stranger of Sword City's difficulty spikes eventually fail to thwart you, as you learn to roll with its punches. Your wizards acquire devastating magic that nuke whole battalions, your knights provide such staunch defense that once-terrifying adversaries become nothing but gnats, your ninja and samurai score blows with such deadly precision that four and five star Lineages seem more like two stars at best. That's what makes Sword City a great, yet frustrating project. It's such an uphill struggle that it forces you to consider statistics games like Final Fantasy all but ignore, while requiring you to work hard for future victories. It requires you to painstakingly build an small army, consider and question each move you make, and learn to deal with the adversity it presents. It's a portable trial by fire, but one that's so wicked and captivating that it's addictive.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.