"Summon Night 6 is a slow burn that rewards patient gamers."
Summon Night 5 was perhaps my most pleasant gaming surprise in the last few years. In RPGFan's 2016 Game of the Year proceedings, I named Summon Night 5 my "Best 2015 Game I Finally Played in 2016." Strategy RPGs are normally not my thing, but Summon Night 5 greatly appealed to me. Not only was it a solidly refined game without pretension, but I appreciated that selecting the female avatar for my protagonist adjusted the dialogue scripting so everything made contextual sense. How refreshing it was to have NPCs acknowledge my avatar's gender and not just assume I chose the boy. It is with this positive impression in mind that I jumped at the chance to play Summon Night 6: Lost Borders and write about it for the site.
Summon Night 6 is available for both Playstation 4 and Vita, and I played the Vita version. Both versions look very similar when comparing screenshots. I am told, however, that the Vita version's load and transition times are longer than the PS4 version. That makes sense, given the differing hardware specs, but I did not find the Vita's load/transition times intrusive at all. Speaking of hardware, though the sound on the Vita is quite good (especially with quality headphones), it is surely more compressed than the PS4's. In other words, the game is properly optimized for its platform no matter what version you get, with the added bonus of a cross-save feature. Regardless of version, the default volume levels for voice, music, and sound effects are not balanced very well. Adjusting them to taste is not difficult, but it is something to note.
Visually, the game looks clean and features a vibrant color palette for both environment and characters. Most graphics are displayed in a visual novel style with nicely drawn and crisply rendered backdrops featuring expressive character portraits layered on top. The character portraits during visual novel scenes are slickly shaded polygons with expressive faces and smooth motions. The visual novel backgrounds have a sense of depth and a few have some motion in them, giving the entire game a more organic look than more typically flat or static visual novels.
Enhancing that organic look are the polygonal battle maps that, while mostly consisting of squares, look smoother than the blocky chessboard maps characteristic of the genre. The game looks fine and there is nothing to complain about, really, but there isn't much flash to the graphics beyond the few vivid anime FMV cutscenes and special summon attack animations. Summon Night 6 may not be a supermodel stunning game, but it is easy on the eyes and pleasant to look at during lengthy play sessions.
The story takes place in a cocoon dimension called Fillujah that seems to be connected to Lyndbaum and all its eras and timelines. Lyndbaum is the world that all the Summon Night games take place in, and each game envisions Lyndbaum in its own particular idiom. Fillujah itself is a complete mystery, and the Fillujah natives serving as protagonists are a boy named Raj, a girl named Amu, and a man named Ist. Players switch between the three at certain junctures, creating a breadth of scope.
The adventure starts with Raj and his creature familiar Patch. They've called Fillujah home for as long as they can remember and believe they are the only residents there. They eke out an existence through scavenging anything and everything that falls from the sky and want for nothing. But one day, while out with Patch, Raj encounters something he has never seen before. A person has fallen out of the sky! That has never happened before, but Raj is up for anything and his idyllic life is about to become a million times more complicated. Amu's adventure with her creature familiar Quilt starts out in a similar fashion to Raj's, but it is very clear that her personality drastically opposes his. Where Raj is ready to invite every person he meets over for a slumber party, the less gregarious Amu does not welcome these intrusions at all. Later on, we meet the enigmatic Ist and his creature familiar Linen.
I dare not say more about the protagonists so as to avoid potential spoilers, but all three form entourages with various characters from the Summon Night universe who have fallen from the sky. At the end of each chapter, Raj, Amu, or Ist has twilight chats with one of their companions to get to know them better. Raising affection with party members influences which of the game's several ending possibilities will be seen, giving the game a lot of replay value. These delightful twilight chats flesh out the characters and remind me a bit of the Grandia series' dinner scenes.
Patch, Quilt, and Linen are more than just cute little mascot creatures. They are, in fact, pocket dimensions that open gates to their respective protagonists' houses and a semblance of a town hub. Indeed, Summon Night 6 stuffs us in pocket dimensions within a cocoon dimension connected to the main series' world and its iterations like some sort of Eldritch turducken. When flummoxed characters try to wrap their heads around all this, the answer is usually, "Yeah it makes no logical sense, but that's just how it is here, so go with the flow and don't break your brain thinking about it."
This game is as much a visual novel as it is an SRPG, what with the lengthy cutscenes driving the plot along more than the battles. I rather liked the abundant slice-of-life and expository cutscenes, since they're par for the course in visual novels. However, gamers who aren't into visual novels may grumble about characters saying a lot without saying anything at all. Summon Night 6 is a slow burn that rewards patient gamers because the more interesting plot and gameplay elements only open up at or beyond the halfway point. I certainly needed to let the game marinate before I got into it.
A big reason for the exposition is because the plot is highly dependent on nostalgic connections that only series fans who've played all the games can viscerally understand. The only Summon Night games released in English besides this one were the mainline Summon Night 5 and a few spinoff action RPGs, making my own nostalgia limited. Sure, Summon Night 6 has extensive lore glossaries to get players up to speed on the notable characters and events throughout the myriad games in the series' 15-year history, but it's not the same as having played those prior games firsthand. The more I play Summon Night 6, the more I envy gamers who've had full exposure to the series.
I commend GaijinWorks for injecting as much personality as possible into the character dialogue. Even though I didn't know these characters firsthand from their respective games, I still got a strong sense of who they were. The series also has several recurring characters and I like how Summon Night 6's fabric cleverly incorporates them. Meeting these various characters makes me want to experience their storylines in their respective mainline Summon Night installments, putting Summon Night 1-4 on my ever-growing wishlist of Japanese games I wish we could get in English. I even appreciate the characters that grated on me because their personalities induced a strong emotion from me; they were not just dryly apathetic pieces of cardboard. With so many characters to meet, players can find at least one they resonate with, and even the more disagreeable ones may eventually grow on you. In fact, one character who was a total crybaby at first actually became one of my favorites by game's end, both in and out of battle.
As expected, all of this lends Summon Night 6 a library's worth of text to read through. The font is clean and legible, but the letters are sized too small for my liking. This is one of my biggest complaints about modern gaming and I am still surprised that most games these days still lack menu options to increase font size.
Several of the cutscenes are voiced, though the voice acting could have been much better. The cast here features actors who have done anime and video games before along with fresh talent, but only a handful of them smoothly and consistently delivered their lines with believable emotion and phrasing. I also felt that some roles were miscast. For example, the voice actor for a cocksure pirate captain sounded more like a wet-behind-the-ears high school freshman. I would have preferred a more mature and boastfully resonant voice for him. Another inconsistency I noticed was that several actors pronounced character names differently, including those who portrayed their cohorts. The voice acting improved somewhat as the game progressed and actors got better beads on their characters, but it does not compare to the dub/voice acting quality we see today. The days of "You were almost a Jill sandwich" being acceptable are long gone, with lower budget indie games utilizing talented unknowns to have voice acting on par with popular animated TV shows.
The English version of the opening song is performed by one of the US voice actresses; something I don't experience too often in dubbed games. Having listened to both the English and Japanese versions of the song, I actually prefer the English version. The Japanese version was nicely sung but somehow felt less organic than the English performance. I liked the velvety timbre of the English singer's voice and the way she tightly enunciated lengthy strings of words during the parts of the song where she had to say a mouthful in a split second.
The rest of the music is just as pleasant to listen to. Some of the musical themes were familiar to me, having heard them in Summon Night 5. The game also features some new tunes; they are nicely composed, if not very memorable initially. Just as some of the voice acting improved over the course of the game, so did the music. For example, I found the music characterizing Ist's domain more engaging than the music for Raj's and Amu's domains, and the battle themes during the latter half of the game are more intense. The mix of new and familiar tunes ties into the game's themes of being lost in a strange world and bolsters the overall experience.
Summon Night 6, like its predecessor, features enjoyable but flawed gameplay. I would describe the overall gameplay as meat 'n potatoes strategy RPG play with that distinctive Summon Night flair. Although fairly robust, Summon Night 6 is not bogged down by ridiculous layers of micromanagement or overly large battlefields that slow the game's pace to a crawl. In addition, the in-game tutorials explain things quite nicely. SRPGs are not the kinds of games I typically enjoy playing, so the fact that I've had more fun playing Summon Night 5 and 6 than genre bastions like Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Disgaea is not faint praise.
The game's interface is usable, if somewhat cluttered. I found the prior game's interface more streamlined with smoother menu navigation both in and out of battles. Summon Night 6 features button presses to change the camera views on the battlefield, but the available views are limited. There is no way to do full 360-degree panning on the battlefield, which is something I find essential in SRPGs. The battlefields themselves are not overly huge but do have varied heights and terrain that I really want to see around to plan out strategic maneuvers. Sadly, I could not. Some of the button presses in the battle interface are not immediately intuitive and moving characters around on the battlefield is more slippery than expected, but at least the patient nature of SRPGs makes navigating menus and prepping my battalions less tense.
One thing to watch out for during battles is friendly fire. Area attacks and area curing spells don't discriminate between friend and foe, so make sure your deployed troops are not in the wrong place at the wrong time. My careless mistakes with area attacks resulted in fainting some of my better troops and denying them the ability to gain levels post-victory. Summon Night is not Fire Emblem, where characters slain in battle remain permanently dead for the game's remainder, but it's important to keep characters alive in battle so they don't miss out on level gains. Only characters who actively participate in battle gain levels, so it's not always easy to keep the crowded cast evenly leveled. In a crossover game like this, it's all too easy to overplay favorites, and that can lead to disaster when a lowbie character you never really used becomes a forced participant in battle.
Several minigames and side activities are present to break things up and even offer some nice rewards. Summon Night 5 featured my favorite fishing minigame of all time because it had elements of Whack-A-Mole and Simon, two games I enjoy. Summon Night 6 has a far more simplistic fishing minigame, and though it's easier to catch lots of fish, it wasn't as engaging as Summon Night 5's fishing. Another minigame that opens up later on is called Dispatch Quest. These quests operate akin to a mini-RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game. Those were rather fun distractions and more enjoyable to me than fishing.
Summon Night 6 has selectable Easy-Normal-Hard difficulty levels that can be changed on the fly and fit their nomenclature better than in Summon Night 5. What I mean by that is that Easy is truly easy, Normal is average, and Hard is challenging. In Summon Night 5, I felt like Easy was normal, Normal was hard, and the difficulty spiked dramatically during the latter portions of the game. Unfortunately, Summon Night 6 suffers that same series flaw of sudden late-game difficulty spikes, though they're not as drastic as the prior game's. Despite the series' balance still not being fine-tuned by this point, the games remain a charming bushel of fun to play, and the gameplay kept me coming back to Summon Night 6.
In spite of its imperfections, I enjoyed playing Summon Night 6 because it displayed traits that reaffirm why I'm into this series. I'm not the biggest SRPG fan, but I've enjoyed playing Summon Night 5 and 6 enough to venture calling Summon Night my favorite SRPG series. Unfortunately, the charm that initially won me over couldn't completely save Summon Night 6's storyline from its dependence on nostalgia for something largely unfamiliar to Western gamers. That being said, spending time with Summon Night 6 makes me want to play the Summon Night games we did not get in the West more than ever before.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.