"Summon Night 5 is more like the wholesome girl-next-door than the stylish uptown fashionista."
Summon Night is a series that I, and most non-Japanese gamers, know next-to-nothing about. I assume, however, that it holds decent popularity and some clout in Japan. I make this assumption based on the fact that Summon Night not only has 5 installments in its main SRPG series, but also spawned some action RPG spinoffs, a few of which flew under the radar here in the US. Basically, I walked into Summon Night 5 blind and can say with confidence that I delighted in this game and believe others should check it out too.
When starting a new game, there are two difficulty levels to choose from: Easy and Normal. Easy is noticeably easier than Normal, but it is no cakewalk and the more challenging battles still put up a fight. After the difficulty level is chosen, it's time to choose whether to play as the male protagonist Folth or the female protagonist Arca. Unlike Kartia where the two optional protagonists follow completely different, yet intertwining, adventures, Folth and Arca both follow the exact same storyline and could be interchangeable. Both also have fairly neutral, positive-thinking "JRPG everyman" personalities for audience identification, but their dialogue is distinct and the other characters they interact with have unique dialogue depending on the protagonist's gender. I chose Arca for my playthrough.
The story begins during Arca's childhood, when a Summoner named Erst comes back to their hometown for a brief vacation. A talented Summoner, Erst, accompanied by his robo-demon familiar named Gaudi, is able to communicate with otherworldly creatures from different dimensions, be they friendly or hostile. Gaudi is referred to as a "Cross" — an otherworldly creature with whom Erst works symbiotically with due to a pact they contracted when he was younger. Summoning is a rare ability that people are either born with or not, so not everyone can become a summoner and the path to become a summoner is requires rigorous study at the Eucross Resonance Academy in the city of Savorle.
Erst's younger brother Ghift is a childhood friend of Arca's and has gotten lost in the woods trying to prove his mettle, prompting Erst and Arca to retrieve him. They find Ghift who, through an ancient family spellbook, has summoned some hostile netherbeasts from an otherworldly dimension. Unfortunately, Ghift is too weak and unskilled to control these netherbeasts, so it's up to Erst to save the day. Arca pulls Ghift to safety and they try to run out of the woods, but they get separated. In an effort to find Ghift and hopefully get everyone back home, Arca accidentally stumbles into an interdimensional vortex, called a Gate, and is about to drown in a sea of black goo when she is rescued by a light that calls out to her. She then offers one of four tokens to the light to show her gratitude, and the token the player chooses to give determines which of the four Crosses will be Arca's constant companion. There are two potential male and two potential female Crosses to bond with and all four of them have colorful, if archetypical, personalities. Dialogue between protagonist and Cross differs greatly depending on the genders and personality types of each, allowing for different perspectives on similar happenstances as well as multiple endings.
Due to the strange and unusual circumstances of this event, Erst covertly enrolls Arca at the Eucross Resonance Academy to become a summoner. A few years pass, Arca has just graduated as a full-fledged summoner, and Eucross Commander Zinzelah has summoned her for a very important mission. Arca is to assist special agent Yeng-hua in a top secret mission to locate and bring down a mysterious person of great import. Yeng-hua has a rather brusque and icy demeanor which does not endear her to anyone, so this is going to be a long mission. In true JRPG fashion this is only the tip of the iceberg of something far greater than anyone imagined. The story steadily improves as the game progresses and the ending, of multiple, I received was plenty adequate.
The anime action-comedy story is not high literature by any means, but it kept me engaged enough that I wanted to push through the battles that gave me difficulty. I grew attached to the oddball characters and their world, and always wanted to know what would happen next over the 15 chapter course. The vibrant dialogue injects a lot of personality into both heroes and villains, making their adventures and misadventures enjoyable to experience. The game is as much a visual novel as an SRPG, so there is more dialogue and lengthier cutscenes between battles than in the average SRPG. At the end of each chapter, Arca has the option to spend an evening conversing with one of her teammates. This not only influences the ending received, but also provides a nice way to flesh out the characters, somewhat like the Grandia series' dinnertime conversations. As great as the dialogue is, though, there are a few instances of improper syntax. It's nothing that would detract from the game, but is something careful readers will notice.
The turn-based SRPG gameplay does not reinvent the wheel. I liken SRPGs to multidimensional games of chess and Summon Night 5 certainly fits that bill. The battlefields are generally not super large so battles don't take forever. There are also fewer stats and gameplay systems to keep track of, unlike NIS or Idea Factory SRPGs that can get overly bogged down by them. Tweakers will enjoy myriad ways in which to pump characters' stats and skills between battles, but there are no needless, confounding, and/or cumbersome gimmicks. Between battles, players can walk around town, interact with its denizens, and do standard RPG housekeeping like shop for items and upgrade weapons at the smithy. This reminds me of the first two Shining Force games where players can walk around, explore, and enjoy some downtime breathers between battles, rather than be thrust into battle after battle after battle.
The in-game tutorials do a good job of explaining the various gameplay mechanics so I don't feel the need to do so here. All you really need to know is that the manageable number of comprehensible gameplay systems and mechanics in Summon Night 5 all work well together and are important to glean success, especially during the demanding endgame battles in the final chapter. I summarize Summon Night 5's gameplay as no nonsense, meat 'n potatoes SRPG goodness. The same can be said for the game's user interface, which I found clean and intuitive with adequate font sizes and agreeable color schemes.
There is a fishing mini-game to break up the monotony, and it is easily the most fun fishing mini-game I've ever played. I normally despise fishing mini-games, but Summon Night 5's fishing became something I wanted to do. Fishing in Summon Night 5 is not your traditional fishing mini-game and instead plays more like a game of Simon or Whack-A-Mole, both of which appeal to me.
The game does fall into some genre pitfalls. Progression is linear, but the difficulty throughout the game has its share of spikes and drops. Chapter 9 was when I first noticed the difficulty spike sharply, and the final chapter's endgame battles had an even more dramatic spike. Battle objectives are not as varied as those in, say, Wild Arms XF, but Summon Night 5 tries to pepper in the occasional "objective with a twist" mission to break up the usual "destroy all enemies" or "destroy all leaders" paradigms. The game can also be somewhat grindy, but I actually didn't mind it in this case. Normally I despise grinding and never want to do it, but the game, as a whole, endeared me so much that I happily did, and re-did, the special missions set aside specifically for grinding.
A single playthrough only takes about 25-30 hours, so the game never wears out its welcome nor feels too lengthy. The game also has a New Game Plus mode that allows replays, so playing different character paths and seeing the multiple endings is a more motivating endeavor. New Game Plus does not carry over character and weapon levels, but it carries over most everything else, from items and skills to unlocked side missions. In addition, characters gain EXP at exponentially higher rates during subsequent playthroughs, thanks to an EXP multiplier item exclusive to New Game Plus playthroughs. I personally would have liked character and weapon levels to carry over so I could have cushy rides just playing for the story, much like how the Chrono series does New Game Plus. However, the EXP multiplier and other carry-overs are preferable to no New Game Plus bonuses at all.
The clean graphics with their pleasing color palettes are inviting to look at and bring the setting to life. Summon Night 5's world is a hybrid fantasy setting where both magic and technology make the world go around. The graphics don't tax the hardware in any way and load times are minimal, but bear in mind that this is a 2013 PSP game and looks like late-gen PSP game, with smoothly rendered and nicely detailed polygon characters. The character designs themselves are appealing to look at if not the most original. In terms of aesthetics, Summon Night 5 is more like the wholesome girl-next-door than the stylish uptown fashionista. The game is not visually striking upon first impression, but this is the kind of game I can, and want to, look at for long periods of time without my eyes growing tired.
The music fits that "girl next door" vibe as well. I did not find the tunes stuck in my head, nor did I find myself humming them during my commute, but they were rather comforting during gameplay. The music helped this game feel like my favorite pair of well-worn jeans that just feel so right when I wear them. Special note should be made of the opening song. The catchy opening song accompanying the anime intro is in English, which piqued my curiosity — how does it compare to the Japanese opening? Thanks to a tip from Gaijinworks (hold the triangle button when the game boots up prior to the intro), I was able to listen to the Japanese opening song, and quite frankly, I preferred the English opening. Neither the English nor Japanese vocalist put a lot of heart and soul into their performances, but the English singer's performance felt less phoned-in, and her voice had a more distinctive timbre. By contrast, the Japanese singer sounded like every other derivative J-Pop idol singer out there. There is a nice vocal song accompanying the end credits as well, but it didn't make a big impression on me.
There have been complaints that a lot of the voice acting, particularly during cutscenes, was cut out from the game. My guess for that is that Gaijinworks, being a smaller publishing company, probably couldn't afford a dub job or to buy the rights to keep the Japanese VO. You won't hear any complaints from me about the lack of voice acting outside of Japanese battle cries. As someone who grew up during the 16-bit era, I'm okay with no voice acting and would rather have this than a cut rate dub. I like being able to imagine the characters' voices in my head. Plus, since I do voiceover work on the side, particularly in the realm of audiobooks, I like reading character dialogue out loud as a way to practice my own character voices.
If it wasn't clear already, I really liked Summon Night 5 and I feel that it is truly greater than the sum of its parts. No individual aspect is the breakout star of this game, but rather all aspects coalesce effectively to deliver a harmoniously designed experience where the game itself is the star. Felistella and Gaijinworks are sitting with a winner here and I hope Summon Night 5 gets the recognition it deserves.