"In the mold of Wizardry, but... a more accessible experience without sacrificing the difficulty that fans expect."
It's not an exaggeration to say that Experience Inc. are master dungeon architects. Formed out of the ashes of Michaelsoft, a developer best known for their Japan-only Wizardry Xth spin-offs, Experience have spent the better part of the last decade slowly defining their take on the quintessential rough and ready dungeon crawler. For a long time their output was limited to Japan, but thanks to a partnership with NIS America, the studio has released a game worldwide every year since 2014.
Stranger of Sword City is the latest release from this pairing, and I've spent the past couple of weeks coming to grips with its hostile world. Stranger sees players awaken in a dank dungeon following a plane crash; they are aided by Riu, a powerful young woman wearing a schoolgirl outfit combined with heavy armor. Riu explains that a phenomenon has caused planes and ships to disappear, Bermuda Triangle-style, to Sword City: an extra-dimensional continent floating in a dark void. Riu, sensing a certain power in our hero, escorts him/her from the dungeon and convinces them to join her guild in an effort to hunt wanted monsters. These monsters, called Lineage Types, are notable for dropping Blood Crystals, which are mysterious artifacts that may pave the way back to our world.
Once they become guild members, players can form a party of six pre-rolled or player-created characters for their deep dive into the bowels of Sword City. Starting classes include the usual gamut of fighter, mage, cleric and so forth, but Stranger mixes things up with the speedy samurai and technical ninja classes. No party is complete without a dancer, a highly agile — yet highly fragile — trickster adept in disarming traps. Parties are divided into two rows of three, with front-line attackers protecting the more delicate squadmates in back.
Lineage Types are essentially the boss monsters of Stranger of Sword City, but hunting them down isn't always as simple as reaching the end of any given dungeon. NPCs give important information on Lineage Type behavior and what action is needed to track them down — sometimes it's a matter of obtaining an item the monster wants to goad it into tracking you
down. Lineage Types pose a formidable challenge, so chasing after one unprepared (intentionally or not) is sure to spell certain doom.
Stranger of Sword City boasts a Gothic look that happens to be as attractive as it is mysterious. Monsters designs in particular feature a cool cargo-cult aesthetic, in which everyday objects are repurposed in perverse ways. Babydras, which are baby hydras, live inside smashed cathode ray tube televisions as if they were snails' shells, while the oversized Lydra brand of hydra does the same with an overturned subway car. Monster sprites aren't animated, but they are beautifully drawn and richly detailed. Occasionally the level of detail makes them a bit hard to parse, but that just allows you the treat of examining their art closely. These eye-catching and grotesque designs are one of my favorite things about Stranger of Sword City so far.
Make no mistake, Stranger of Sword City is a moody and tough dungeon crawler in the mold of Wizardry, but with several modern concessions that make for a more accessible experience without sacrificing the difficulty that fans expect from the genre. Etrian Odyssey it ain't, but Stranger of Sword City looks set to provide a lengthy and substantial quest for would-be spelunkers on the go this April.