The Playstation Vita began with grand designs, and it was the first major portable system to have two analogue sticks. But due to expensive memory cards and tough competition from Nintendo, the Vita has lost a lot of its mainstream appeal. But for Vita owners, that doesn’t mean the system is dead. It’s found its place as the home for Japanese RPGs and games that not too long ago wouldn’t have come out in the U.S. at all. This is unfortunate for Stranger of Sword City, a dungeon crawler that opens with an interesting premise, but doesn’t exactly follow through.
Stranger of Sword City is a first person dungeon crawler RPG, with game play somewhat similar to the Etrian Odyssey games but without the map drawing. The player character is the sole survivor of a plane crash and ends up in another world, where otherworldly people are called “Strangers.” They have a special power in this world which makes them better at fighting monsters, so their job is to clear out the dungeons. It’s certainly an interesting premise, and if the game’s narrative dug deeper into it, it could have been a first class RPG. But the plot is fairly bare and clearly not the game’s focus. That there are maybe a handful of defined characters is evidence of that.
In terms of gameplay, there are at least a few unique mechanics that help Stranger of Sword City stand out. First, there is a system that lets your party lay in wait to ambush monsters carrying loot. You can only do this in certain places, and they will be marked on the map when you find them. You can see what kind of loot the monsters are carrying, and choose to either strike or wait for something else to come by, risking a chance of ending up with nothing. It’s an interesting way to make the dungeons a bit more interesting and to give you a chance to determine what kind of loot you’ll find.
The other unique mechanic of this game is something I don’t like so much: its take on permadeath. It is more forgiving than most games with this feature: your characters can die a few times before being gone for good, but each time they do, it takes a lot of in-game money or real world time before you can use them again. Granted, this would bother me a lot more if the characters were interesting at all. But most of the party members are characters you create yourself, with no particular bearing on the story (such as it is). The only aspect of these characters worth caring about is the artwork of them; each character is represented by a portrait that you choose, and they look excellent. In a different game, these portraits would belong to characters as interesting as their appearances. While the portraits can’t be customized, there are a great variety of them, representing all of the game world’s races (humans, elves, and people with the ears and tails of cats or dogs). If only the characters attached to them were worth caring about.
Technically speaking, Stranger of Sword City isn’t a bad game. Its dungeon crawling mechanics are sound, and it adds some unique twists to the genre. But there’s not enough substance to the game for me to recommend it. There are better RPGs for the Vita that tell better stories, and still have similar gameplay. If you’re looking for a dungeon crawl light on story or character, you could do worse, but with its own library of RPGs as well as those from older consoles, a Vita owner could also do much better.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.