Stranger of Sword City is a turn-based dungeon-crawler game developed by Experience and published by NIS America. The entire game revolves around hunting elusive boss monsters and searching for loot within perilous, maze-like dungeons. It has a wide variety of equipment types, classes, races, and the possibility of perma-death. I have trouble deciding on how much I actually like this game. It requires dozens of hours of grinding for EXP and treasure, and it is extremely time consuming. That said, it is stuffed with gorgeous art, a beautiful soundtrack, satisfying combat, and interesting boss hunting mechanics.
The story begins with the blank slate protagonist surviving a plane crash and waking up within the mystical realm of Escario, the Sword City. From there, you’re promptly declared a “Stranger,” that is, a magical outsider who has the power to hunt special creatures, called Lineage Types. These Lineage Types drop Blood Crystals which are central to the story, as they provide Sword City’s leaders with the power to make a difference. Each of the three leaders serves as a vessel for a different god, with widely differing motives. Every character wants to find a way to save everyone from Escario, and the game explores ideas of existentialism and self-interest.
Characters seem to take every chance they get to spill their ideals onto the player. Such scenes can feel very heavy-handed, and some of the wording did not seem to translate too well into English, as many dialogue pieces feel unnatural. The characters can feel very “anime,” so one’s mileage may vary. I didn’t particularly like or dislike most of the characters, but the repetitive preaching of beliefs irked me at times, and I was often annoyed by some of the overlong scenes in which the young anime girl characters act the exact way I expect them to. The story focuses on the dynamic of these characters as the protagonist’s dialogue is mostly inconsequential, while the other party members simply do not play any role in the story.
The main protagonist has a wide range of customizable options including their gender, age, appearance, class, and stats. The only real restriction on the protagonist is that they have to be human. Classes vary from the tanky Knight, to the high-damage Fighter, Samurai, and Ninja. The Dancer and Ranger take up support roles from the backlines alongside the Cleric and Wizard. Characters can multi-class in order to combine a limited amount of skills from the old class with their new abilities. From my experience, the only essential classes in the six-person parties were Knights, Clerics, and Wizards. Every other spot could be filled by any mixture of melee and ranged damage. The player starts with six playable characters, and can immediately fill in the other ten slots at the beginning of the game.
All the classes suit their own purposes and it is highly advisable to keep a wide variety of classes in your party. My only complaint on the classes is that, in an early dungeon of the game, the party needs to have a Wizard for its Magic Weapon buff. Without this buff, the enemies are nearly invulnerable to weapons. However, the Wizard quickly runs out of MP, forcing the player to constantly leave the dungeon to recover. While the Cleric learns a skill which regenerates MP while exploring dungeons, the Wizard does not. I ended up having to make a cleric just to reach that specific skill before multi-classing into a Wizard, which I feel is too troublesome and unnecessary for making such an important class viable for dungeon exploration.
Creating party members from the ground-up can be fun, but I have several qualms with the system. First off, reserve characters slowly accumulate EXP and money. Thus, in order to get the most out of this system, the player should generate all ten of their reserve characters at the beginning of the game. Assuming the player cares about the characters’ identities and abilities, this could take a while. After gaining a decent understanding of all the races and classes, I still took about an hour and a half doing this. Secondly, there is no reason for the player to pick a sub-optimal race. Races weigh heavily on the character’s base stats, and many stat types are simply not useful for certain classes. Bebeck, for example, is a Migmy Dancer. However, a Migmy’s high Piety and low Strength does not contribute at all to his class’ skills. His bad stat spread is immediately noticeable as he deals minimal damage compared to the other default characters. I made the choice to remove him instead of paying the money to multi-class him. The character creation process can be rather fast, but you’ll find yourself wasting time rolling for stats.
A character’s age determines how many minimum bonus stat points they get to start with – the actual number of bonus points you get is randomized and can be rolled infinitely. This leads to an upwards of five or more minutes of rolling for good stats. Given that leveling takes a long time, a single stat point at character creation makes a large difference. This feature is guaranteed to waste your time, and it feels very unnecessary and out-of-place. The character’s age also determines the amount of Life Points they have. Life Points are lost when a party member is knocked out during battle, and can be recovered by placing them in reserve for a long time. If all Life Points are lost, the character dies permanently. Typically, a younger character has more Life Points and less bonus stat points, and an older character has higher stats with the possibility of having only a single Life Point, which would cause them to die instantly from their first knockout. The main protagonist follows the same age rules, but will never lose Life Points upon death. Thus, it is sensible to make your main character as old as possible for the highest stats. I feel like this oddity should have been avoided by simply giving the main protagonist the optimal stats by default.
Unfortunately, my biggest gripe with characters is that they really play no role in the story. The characters I fight with are the ones I grow attached to. They’re the names and faces that I can remember. I don’t care about Alm’s medical condition and her rampant Machiavellianism; I care about how Hachi’s damaged sense of leadership after letting Mamoru nearly die under his command. These dynamics exist only in my head, as these characters never get to have any real personality. Since they can die permanently and be removed and created at the touch of a button, their entire existence means nothing to the plot of the game. I feel like this could have been slightly off-set by the relationship mechanics we are seeing in other RPGs such as Fire Emblem. Your party members are really just soulless faces containing a set of numbers that determine their usefulness. Perhaps if party members gained affinities for each other by fighting together, and this gave them stat bonuses, they would feel more alive. If they had any chance at all to engage in dialogue, even for the most mundane events, they would be more significant.
The dungeons themselves are actually well designed! Each area has its own self-contained style expressed through the monsters within it as well as the quests and gimmicks experienced when exploring. A magical temple includes walls that close behind you; a dense forest contains intersections which turn the player’s vision around; a mine has overheated metal doors and dangerous floor blocks which hurt you when you walk on them. While the dungeons can sometimes feel detached from each other, it’s only because their individual themes are so well-painted.
The primarily goal for most of the game is Lineage hunting. Lineage Types are unique bosses which drop the ever–important Blood Crystals. Some of them require you to fulfill certain conditions, such as carrying a certain item, while others simply wait for you in a specific position. Lineage Types are located with clues given on their bounty descriptions and advice from NPCs. Their Blood Crystals are used as upgrade tree points for Divinities, which are godly abilities that affect the whole party. These Divinities draw from the party’s Morale Points, which are gained from combat. The player’s maximum Morale Points actually goes up every time they spend Blood Crystals on an upgrade, so basically, the more Lineage Types you get, the more powerful your Divinity usage can be. Divinities cover all types of effects, from elemental attacks, buffs, status effects, and recovery, and they add an element of empowerment to a game that often hits hard and fast. Lineage hunting gives the dungeon crawl an element of flavor and purpose. Instead of just running through an area from A to B, I find myself constantly observing the environment to see if any of it matches up with the information I’d been given.
Aside from seeking Lineage Types, the player will have to do a lot of ambushes. In certain parts of the map, the player can spend Morale points to perform ambushes. With ambushes, the player finds groups of enemies protecting a chest labeled with a specific item type. After choosing a chest to steal, the player must defeat the squad leader to loot the chest. The chest can also be booby-trapped. The player must choose one type of trap to disarm and if they pick incorrectly, they will fall for the trap, which can teleport you to another location, poison your whole party, or simply explode, among other harmful effects. Hunting for loot can be fun and satisfying, but the game can often be frustrating because almost all of the useful items are only obtained through sheer luck. I’ve had points where I’ve grinded ambushes for hours upon hours with very little to show for it. Since the loot is often obtained exclusively through ambushes, dungeon crawling can feel unsatisfactory as you are rarely ever rewarded with good items for uncovering more of the map. If the player doesn’t grind EXP for a hours upon hours, these ambushes can be very tough, yet give very little. I found that, overall, gameplay can feel like it consists of moments of high risk and low reward.
The high risk comes with the aforementioned perma death and recovery elements. If a party member is knocked out and loses a Life Point, you have to hospitalize them, leaving them inactive for a certain amount of time. The game states that the recovery time after a knockout is one “day,” but the exact amount of time can vary depending on your activity; time seems to be based on exploration steps and battles. Most players will also want to recover the lost Life Point, which will cost a whole seven days of hospitalization. During this time, the hospitalized character does not gain EXP over time and will thus be underleveled by the time you get them back. This is why it’s useful to have your back-up characters ready. I played with three Knights, three Clerics, and two of every other class. The seven-day wait for a Life Point often had me completely abandon characters as they were quickly left underleveled after they had missed out on a dozen hours of grinding. This mechanic is neat, as it gives combat an element of consequence. However, this game is not afraid to be brutally difficult. I’ve experienced random battles in which both of my backline mages were knocked out almost instantly. This fear generates a desire for over-preparation, causing me to commit ludicrously long amounts of time to grinding levels and loot instead of actually progressing in the game.
The combat system plays like your typical dungeon crawler, with some elements that require addressing. The party is split between a front row and a back row of three. Enemy hordes also follow this rule, with encounters having any number of rows. Weapons like spears can actually pierce into the second row of enemies, while bows and magic can reach to the third row and onward. This gives you some flexibility when assembling your party. For example, if your backline Ranger is hospitalized, you can replace it with a lance-wielding Fighter, who will be in range to hit the enemy’s front line. The game plays with this by disrupting the lines with certain attacks; if one of your front line characters is stunned, this will temporarily switch their position with a backline character, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Certain enemies have the ability to completely flip your lineup. The enemy’s lines also play a tactical role in combat, as certain skills target horizontal rows, or a narrow strike hitting a single space within every row. While this mechanic feels inconsequential, it does well to bring a degree of freshness to a rather aged RPG genre.
Despite being rather plain in presentation, combat can be extremely satisfying. As each turn can spell life or death for every character, many turns will contain “big plays” that feel great when they occur just as planned. There are some minor issues regarding this, as the player has no way of viewing turn orders. I often make my Ranger use healing items because I worry that a low-health character will be killed before a Cleric’s Cure spell comes in. Maybe this was intentional in the game’s design, but turn order just feels like a piece of information that should be visible in a game that tells you exactly how your characters function.
Stranger of Sword City is immediately very clear about which stats are important to which classes. Though I have quite a bit of RPG history, I often wondered about the exact effects of each stat. Piety is described as effecting Cleric spells, but to what degree? Damage scaling is visible when looking at weapon stats, but nothing is really explained clearly. I am 40 hours into the game and I still don’t know what Luck does. I would assume it effects critical hit rates, but I find that useless because only a few specific weapons even have the ability to perform critical hits. Agility determines weapon accuracy, but does it determine magic accuracy? I’m not sure. I just find this lack of clarity frustrating as stats make such a huge difference between life and death, yet I often find myself mindlessly putting my Knight’s stats into Vitality because I don’t know what else he needs. Intelligence could affect magic defence, and I wouldn’t even know it.
The dynamics of combat often feel lacking. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses, which can be viewed in an in-game encyclopedia, but there’s no in-battle indicator of these things. If you use a super effective element, you will just deal extra damage, but the game will not say anything particular about it. There’s no way to scan for enemies’ weaknesses while in the midst of battle. You’d either have to keep a reference outside of the game or just guess with your attack types and hope for the best.
Combat can actually feel mindless at times. Certain skills can only be used after being prepared by a skill called Concentrate. However, timing doesn’t seem to really play a role in how the enemy attacks, and so this mechanic just feels dull and meaningless. Enemies don’t switch between stances or states, and there aren’t any short-term status afflictions which would ever deter me from using Concentrated skills.
I also found that, once I had the right skill setup, I could take out many tough bosses and encounters with the same tactics. I would use my Cleric and Wizard to debuff the enemy’s accuracy whilst buffing my party’s evasion while my front row just defended until the enemy was too inaccurate to pose a threat. From that point, I would use the Samurai’s Carnage skill, in which both parties repeatedly trade blows, only stopping once the Samurai takes a hit. With these buffs in place, my Samurai would systematically execute each enemy one by one. This tactic sterilized a few tough boss encounters, but it didn’t quite work on magic users.
Overall, Stranger of Sword City does well in bringing some fresh elements to a classic genre. The world will likely intrigue you with its breathtaking high fantasy art and existentialist storytelling. Its brutal difficulty may be loved by some, and hated by others. The grind can be both very satisfying yet extremely dull at times. If you go in with some patience and an open mind, you’re likely to find a robust JRPG experience in your adventures in Sword City.