Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone

"Repeated as often as is required, combat takes on the drudgery of the most menial labor."

People do many things in the name of nostalgia, but the video game industry seems prematurely nostalgic. The relatively young medium has seen an immense influx of retro games, no more apparent than within the RPG genre. Typically, developers refine antiquated conventions without damaging venerable mechanics, sometimes to fine effect. Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone contemptuously disregards advancements in the genre and technology in general. Combined with bad game design regardless of era, these traits make Fortune Summoners an almost unbearably tedious action RPG.

The most astonishing thing about Fortune Summoners may be that one person had so many awful ideas. Lizsoft is basically one man. Usually, it takes a group of people to brainstorm so much rubbish game design. The most outwardly apparent idea isn't necessarily bad, though. Fortune Summoners belongs to that rare species of action side-scroller RPG. While I'm not so sure this is a good idea per se, the not-bad ideas certainly end there.

Players control one of three girls: Arche, a sword fighter; Sana, a water and ice mage; and Stella, a fire wizardess with a little physical prowess. Each character plays differently, with Arche being the most unique, and computer AI governs those not under the player's control. Aside from hopping about town and exploring dungeons, players engage in frequent combat. Sana and Stella function more traditionally, but protagonist Arche controls as if ripped out of a primitive fighting game. Success with her requires carefully timed combos and precise manipulation. In the context of Fortune Summoners, this is a very bad idea.

In an effort to preserve the beloved broken controls of yesteryear, Fortune Summoners puts players on a perpetual glacier, rendering the simplest tasks, like moving to another screen, tedious. Considering the level of precision required by combat and mandatory platforming, faulty controls go a long way in making the game nearly unplayable. Although an improvement over the keyboard, even the gamepad controls feel stubborn and just plain wrong. Jumping proves to be the most problematic, making any platforming puzzle a descent through madness. That Lizsoft intended such controls makes this no less a gaming sin. Indeed, I find that more unforgivable.

Had the combat been blessed with perfect control, it still wouldn't be much fun. Even the most rudimentary foes on the easiest difficulty setting take too long to kill. Worse, the enemies are legion, they regenerate quickly, and they predict player moves, making each encounter a struggle of tedium. Enemies fly, jump, cast devastating spells, knock characters down and out, and generally cheat their way to victory. Trying to fight properly with Arche is a miserable and hopeless task, and the game is almost unbearable when she finds herself alone. Repeated as often as is required, combat takes on the drudgery of the most menial labor.

When all three girls are present, combat becomes much more palatable (if repetitive and dull), but only if one knows how to work the system. Arche is incredibly frustrating to play and Sana is merely boring. Letting the AI control those two while lighting up enemies with Stella's fire magic is the only way to get to the end with hair left on your head. The computer can control Arche much, much better than the average player, which becomes something of a saving grace toward the end. Although not as smart outside combat, the AI nevertheless makes combat possible.

Unfortunately, the party is full for less than half of the game, and even then, Fortune Summoners loves to split the party into small, easily devoured, girl-sized pieces. One segment involves taking a lone, underleveled Stella into an area rife with powerful monsters that Arche had to struggle through by herself moments before. Filler quests like these make Fortune Summoners a seemingly endless chore.

Other elements compound the miserable gameplay, including clunky menus, unstackable items, and poor level design. Dungeons might as well have been randomly generated. Even the towns are poorly organized amid generic countryside filled with dull enemy encounters. Few terrain types and simple graphics make distinguishing between screens impossible at times, causing players to become hopelessly lost in each nightmare dungeon. The final dungeon is predictably the worst offender, no less because it includes trapped treasure chests that teleport the player to another room, razing that carefully constructed mental map. In keeping with Lizsoft's conservative game design, maps don't exist in Arche's world. Maps are just silly modern conveniences that hardcore gamers don't need, right?

Another relic best left buried: invisible objectives. I dislike handholding, but I also dislike two hours of wandering before finding the one NPC capable of advancing the plot with some tangential, asinine fetch quest involving a character I have never seen. Fortune Summoners includes some of the worst back-and-forthing I've seen in a game. Aside from the main story's gratuitous fetch quest, the individual tasks that comprise the bulk of the game involve absurd backtracking. As with maps, fast travel hasn't been invented yet. Nevermind those horses standing there. They are evidently just for show. Expect to move from one point to another and back again many times before the ending credits. Expect to arrive at a destination after so much tedious combat only to have the girls make an excuse as to why they can't proceed farther that day. Occasionally the game skips travel, but not that time.

I enjoy difficult games, but not games that use every soiled trick to stop the player from reaching that glorious credit roll. Once past the floaty control, the telepathic enemies, the labyrinthine dungeons, the unfair status effects, and the bogus menus, Fortune Summoners pulls something like this: Arche finally makes it to the end of a dungeon by herself after hours of torturous combat only to find a riddle-bearing door. The door wants to know how many generic gargoyle statues are in the dungeon. Oh, you guessed wrong because you weren't counting ordinary dungeon decor between demanding battles? You get to go back to the beginning of the dungeon. Don't forget to count them this time! I'll do you a favor. The answer is twelve.

Difficult games often reward me more greatly than their easier counterparts, but Fortune Summoners gives me a healing herb and another irritating conversation. The story treads familiar ground while remaining awkwardly unfocused until the abrupt and maudlin conclusion. Story threads are dropped, villains haphazardly introduced, and fetch quests carelessly interrupted. The three leading girls will likely give some players enjoyment, partially thanks to Carpe Fulgur's solid localization. I found the cute-for-cute's-sake magical girls cloying and excessively irritating, but those into such things will undoubtedly find some solid camaraderie between the three. Unfortunately, they fit rather archetypical personalities, with Arche the brave, unfailingly optimistic dolt, Sana the sweet little crybaby, and Stella the stuck-up genius. And what trio of screechy brats would be complete without an ugly little floating thing that says things like "wemember" and "yoo"?

Fortune Summoners sports colorful, polished retro graphics and solid animation. Some more environmental variety would have been welcome, but Lizsoft didn't want to take any liberties with the old 16-bit template. Character and enemy design suffers from a general lack of imagination, and unfortunately the game isn't designed for wide-screen monitors. Carpe Fulgur kept the tidbits of doujin voice acting intact, but perhaps they should have removed them altogether. I found myself adjusting the sound effect levels lower and lower as the game progressed. The shrill shouts of Arche, Sana, and Stella are far from cute. Musically, Fortune Summoners fails to recreate that retro scene with its numerous uninspired, if competent, tracks.

I can't even say Fortune Summoners is good for an indie RPG or for a game made by one person. Because it's not. This is a disturbingly conservative action RPG that functions as a museum of bad game design. Nevertheless, Fortune Summoners will find its fanbase. Developers aren't the only ones on a nostalgia trip these days. There are those starving for a JRPG and those drunk on the imaginary golden era of the past. And then there are those that believe everything old is good and that, therefore, everything that resembles something old must be good. They might be able to make enough excuses for Fortune Summoners' complete disregard of proper game design, but I will not.

© 2012 Carpe Fulgur, Lizsoft. All rights reserved.

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