By Daniel Lein Stranger of Sword City is one of those rare beasts that has an amazing core concept, but does so much wrong in delivering that concept that is becomes hard to love. Stranger of Sword City was originally released on the Xbox 360 back in 2014 and has now made its jump to America and the Xbox One. With that being said it brings with it a lot of problems as well as some really good ideas.
Let’s start with the story which is strange to say the least. You begin in modern times with a news broadcast talking about an airplane that has disappeared. Cut to this fantasy world that looks a bit like an apocalyptic version of our own. Broken down buildings, crashed vehicles, and destroyed appliances everywhere. After a bit of wondering you are recruited into the Strangers Guild located in Sword City. Strangers are people from our own world who are transported (by some weird Bermuda Triangle type portal) to that world of Sword City, and, due to gravitational differences, are much stronger than the normal people of Sword City. As a stranger, it’s your job to protect the city from Lineage monsters who are stronger for some unexplained reason. The story is just as strange and outlandish as it sounds, which is fine, but only if you have the characters and tone to back it up. Sadly the game latches onto this depressing feel, full of poor people and a city constantly in danger. Match that with the dark art, which we’ll get to later, and you have a game that feels like it is taking the ridiculous story a little too seriously. What’s worse the characters are poorly written. With a wealth of characters to fill your party with and use to go out fighting Lineage baddies, Strangers of Sword City had a huge opportunity to offer a really diverse and interesting cast of characters. Instead what you get are the stereotypical rival/best friend type character, the caring high school girl, and the bossy nerd. There are a ton of other stereotypical characters throughout the game, but those are perhaps the most prominent. Again, much like a quirky story, stereotypical characters don’t have to be bad if they are delivered well, but again Strangers of Sword City misses its opportunity. Most characters are dead-pan, giving nothing more than information. And on the rare occasion that characters do show a bit of their personality it’s in one awkwardly delivered joke that falls flat among the monotony. Overall, Stranger of Sword City fails in both storytelling, and writing.
Presentation however is a little more diverse of a situation. It’s not all bad. For example the art is stunning. Hand drawn images are spread throughout the game to represent significant locations, characters, and enemies. On top of having such a well done art style it has a whole other art style that you can select from the options menu. One is a bit more anime inspired, while the other captures the western fantasy vibe. Though both are good, the western fantasy is a better match for the gritty tones of the world. The only downside to this art style is the fact that all images are pre-rendered, meaning they were drawn outside of the game’s engine and then reinserted. This gives everything an awkward paper-cut-out feel. Everything is paper thin and slightly disingenuous. It’s not a major draw back, but it does keep you from being truly immersed in the world of Stranger of Sword City.
The music is…less than the best. It’s not bad by any means it’s just not memorable. It takes a lot of the classic JRPG music beats and sticks to them without ever really impressing. Then again it never really took away from the game either. It’s truly un memorable. I couldn’t pull out a single song for you and tell you whether or not it was good or bad. Honestly most of the music just blended together in a hodgepodge of mediocrity.
I know it sounds terrible so far, but this game isn’t all bad. As a matter of fact the gameplay is pretty excellent. Essentially Stranger of Sword City introduces a unique blend of Diablo loot hunting and JRPG combat. Once you’ve gotten together your team of Strangers and prepped them for combat with armor, weapons,potions, and spells, you can run head long into a labyrinth, which is essentially just a dungeon. In these dungeons you travel first person and do combat in first person. I really like the parity between perspectives, because in old RPGs, like Dragon Quest, you’ll be traveling in third person and then fighting in first person, which always gave me a weird and disconnected feeling, whereas in Stranger of Sword City it flows just right. As for the combat itself things are pretty simple. You select the moves of each of your characters, of which you can have up to six, and then play out the turn. Then rinse and repeat. In the beginning I had an issue with how many times I had to click. I know this sounds weird but hear me out. You have to select the attacks for every single character. Then you have to confirm your actions. Then you have to click through a text description of every action during the animation. It’s really cumbersome and annoying. Thankfully there is a way to both repeat character move selections and skip through combat animations. This way you can get through random fights more quickly, which really comes in handy when you’re looting or grinding. On top of that the boss fights with the lineage monsters are so hard and the consequences of perma-death so intense that you really do want the meticulous clicking through your moves to be sure you have it all right, making the slower form of turn based combat useful as well.
I mentioned looting a second ago and this game really does a good job of making it center stage. Loot is rarely a significant feature in JRPGs. Most of the time you just buy whatever from the local store. But in Stranger of sword City you have many opportunities to get the loot you need from the dungeons themselves. Though it’s possible to pick up loot from a random enemy encounter, your best bet is to use the game’s innovative hiding mechanic. Hiding allows you to wait in certain rooms and “watch” as enemies with loot pass you by. As you watch you can check how powerful the enemies are and you can see what type of loot they’re carrying. So , for example, maybe you need a new helmet. So you go into one of the hiding rooms laid out throughout the labyrinth and you wait. The first group of baddies you see doesn’t have the loot you’re looking for so you wait for the next one. Maybe the next group is too powerful, so you wait again. And now, maybe on the third time it’s just right so you attack. You can pass up on loot caravans up to 5 times while hiding, but know that as you wait, your chances of meeting more difficult foes will increase. This makes for a nice give and take, do you wanna wait for the right item, or get out of the hiding room alive? I should also mention that the hiding ability uses morale. Morale is a sort of energy bar that fills up as you win battles, and if you have enough morale you can use it to perform many abilities, one of which is hiding. However there are tons of other abilities as well. These abilities are called divinities. Divinities are special moves that can really change the course of a tough battle and are acquired by giving a bloodstone to a certain person. Different people give different abilities, making it a challenge to choose the right divinity that will best help your team. It should also be noted that bloodstones are acquired by beating lineage type monsters. I’m sure all of this sounds like a lot to take in at first, but the game does a pretty good job of making sure you understand the functionality of the combat. When you do understand and really start working on the quests it’s easy to get sucked into the addictive game loop of looting, powering up, and fighting big bad monsters.
Strangers of Sword City is a weird game, that is perhaps made even more weird by its appearance on Xbox One. Among all the shooters and action games, Stranger of Sword City sets itself apart by being a unique and deeply engaging JRPG. Even though the story is ridiculous and the music easily forgotten, the beautiful art style and addicting gameplay loop make it an experience worth trying on Xbox One. The looting and boss fighting is just so engaging that I didn’t really care what was going on in the Bermuda Triangle fantasy world. I was just concerned with how beefy my team was, how much sweet loot I grabbed, and how many tough bosses I beat. Stranger of Sword City is a challenging JRPG made for hungry fans of the genre.