Stranger of Sword City – Review
The first person dungeon crawler lives and dies by the quality of its labyrinths. Now more than ever. With modern RPGs busying themselves with ever more dramatic settings – spanning continents, worlds, and at times even galaxies – it can be easy to dismiss them as nothing more than elaborate mazes. Place them in the right developer’s hands, though, and the humble labyrinth remains as exciting a setting as any other for a grand adventure: twists, turns and mysterious dead ends are the cornerstones of any great story, after all.
Yet not all labyrinths are created equal. Or rather, no two labyrinths are built for the same purpose. Cinema has a history of crafting them as stages for heartfelt tales; a maze so iconic they named a film after it, and what a film it was. Television? As a challenge to rush through, not for the journey but for the immunity necklace that awaits the victor. And in video games? They puzzle and delight. Who could forget the likes of Etrian Odyssey?! Here is a series that tasks you with charting the very labyrinths themselves, with nothing more than pen, paper, and touchpad in hand.
So for what purpose, then, have Stranger of Sword City’s labyrinths been built?
For one, they serve as both paper thin plot device and your stomping ground in Experience Inc’s dungeon crawler. Here by way of a plane crash, you assume the role of Stranger, unique in your ability to – alongside your party – rid Sword City and the island of Escario of the Lineage Type bosses that threaten its existence. Within minutes you’ll be facing your first, but while Stranger of Sword City later moves onto more interesting locales – the snow-drenched trails of M.o Forests, the grandeur of the Shadow Palace, and the slums of V.O.T Ruined – it’s opening hours spent in the first of its labyrinths quickly become synonymous with drab surroundings and repeated failures.
Ask any of this genre’s fabled developers, and they’ll tell you the magic of a labyrinth is found in some smart trick. A thoughtful puzzle, perhaps? Or a puzzle of an enemy? It’s all mysteriously absent here. Instead, Stranger of Sword City’s challenge is found in a sheer lack of explanation. By now you would expect a faithful NPC to have guided you through these opening hurdles – with a ‘Take a left here’ or a ‘Hang a right there!’ – yet Escario’s NPCs openly, and at times jokingly, struggle to explain just how the systems that power it actually works. It’s a stumble worthy of cries of ‘You had one job!’
That’s not to say ambiguity is inherently a bad thing. Hell, Miyazaki and FROM Software have all but built an entire series – and reputation – on the smart obfuscation of mechanics, items and secrets. But to say the confusion found here is intentional is likely giving it more credit than it’s due. Instead, the game is happy to shrug its shoulders with all the enthusiasm of a ‘Let me Google that for you’, and leaves you to stumble on the game’s Wikipedia-length Member Manual that’s required reading if you’re hoping to successfully navigate its menu-driven combat.
An optimist might shrug this off as nothing more than a misstep. Others might chalk it up to a game intent on distracting you as often as it can from its labyrinths themselves. Because while it may move onto more interesting locales, the designs of these labyrinths never approach the heights and depths – or twists and turns – of this genre’s greats. You’ll find no surprises here. No mind-bending puzzles. Just largely empty corridors and open spaces that boast little more than that standard labyrinth trick of asking you to remember which way is which.
Stranger of Sword City, then, is more preoccupied with the destination than the journey, and in that way it succeeds. Push through those opening hours and its systems begin to make themselves clear. Grind basic monsters, gain levels and seek out better equipment for your party of six – some given to you, others you create yourself from a selection of races and classes that you’ll later swap out to create intriguing hybrids – before returning to hunt more powerful Lineage Types. Meet with failure? Then set out in search of better gear, in what is the highlight of a deep if overly familiar combat system: hide long enough within the halls of these dungeons and you’ll ambush a Transporter with a chest full of loot in tow. It’s an exciting twist on the standard, yet effective, menu-driven fare.
So there’s treasure to be found in these labyrinths, of that there’s no doubt. They’ve been built for that purpose and that purpose alone. Those who set out to find it will find twists and turns in Stranger of Sword City’s combat, and for them this will be more than enough, but for those of us who enjoy the journey as much as the destination, there’s little more to be found here than dead ends.