|Official Site:||English Site|
At first glance, the iPod seems like a very odd choice for an RPG gaming platform, but Square Enix gave it a try anyway with the release of Song Summoner, a strategy game in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics. If sales are good enough, they appear to have plans to release more content, but even with an RPG giant behind the game, sales on an untested platform like this will only be good if the game is too. At only five dollars, it would be hard to be very disappointed–did I manage it anyway? Let's find out.
Song Summoner follows a young man named Ziggy on his quest to save his brother Zero, who is kidnapped in the opening scene. As befits the iPod, Ziggy pursues this quest by training to fight using the power of music. His trainer is obviously the video game version of James Brown, and over the course of the game, he is joined by copies of Jimi Hendrix and someone who I think is supposed to be Kurt Cobain (but I'm really not sure). It comes to a conclusion in a way similar to the end of a season of a dramatic TV show–you finish out this chapter of the story, and at the last second are given the beginning of the next one. It's not an insanely complex story, but I felt satisfied by the ending, and that's always a good sign.
Almost every game is similar to games that have gone before, and Song Summoner is no exception. For example, Ziggy gets his team by creating "troopers" from the songs on your iPod, similar to the way in which the Monster Rancher games create monsters through CDs and DVDs. It's not exactly the same, though, because the same song will not always make the same trooper, although it does seem that each song is limited to one or two different troopers. If you listen to the songs you used to create the troopers in your current team, you get points that can be used to power up your entire team for one battle, which is nice except for the fact that there's no way to know which trooper came from which song unless you wrote it down.
There are only five different classes of trooper: soldier, monk, archer, knight, and mage. However, there are fifty different troopers, and each of them have different skills. One mage might have ice skills, another might have lightning, and another might have fire, which means that there is a lot more variety than is immediately apparent. It's worth noting that all monks come with the ability to automatically counter-punch anyone who attacks them from a square adjacent to them.
Troopers can be created in bronze, silver, gold, and platinum level (although their initial level is not your choice), and they can be leveled up. However, in an unusual twist, they do not level up through gaining XP in battle. Instead, you are awarded Pitch Points after each battle, and can level up your troopers by spending those points on them. You can also take one trooper at a time to the Rehearsal Room, where they fight a series of battles alone against up to four enemies, earning noticeably more Pitch Points than you do in standard battles. Points earned there can be used on any trooper, so if you've earned enough points, you can enter the Rehearsal Room with a bronze level trooper and push them all the way to platinum at the first leveling opportunity you get.The decision of who to level up is important, because each trooper only has a certain number of deployments in them. That is, you can only bring each trooper to battle so many times before they must "return to the music." The number of deployments they start with depend on their initial level: bronze troopers get eight, but platinum troopers only get three. Each battle counts as one deployment, and if the trooper is knocked out, they lose an extra deployment point. There's an item called a Rewind that allows you to give a trooper an extra deployment, but they are hard to come by. Doing well enough in battle will earn you one, and they can be purchased, but they're more expensive than they're really worth. If you have one trooper who you really want to keep around, you'll have enough Rewinds to do so, but that's probably all, and that's for the best. It's just the right balance between keeping the system from becoming frustrating and keeping your team fluid and the experience fresh. The game gives you a warning when you're about to take someone to battle for the last time, which also helps keep things from getting too frustrating.
Once you've created some troopers, it's time to fight. Battles play out in classic turn-based style; the variety where all members of your team have their turn and then all of your enemies have theirs. On their turn, each trooper can move and take an action, in that order. If they take an action first, they cannot move afterwards, which I always hate to see in strategy games. However, if you move them and then find that they're out of range for the action you would like to do, you can cancel the move and try it again, which I always like to see. Actions include normal strategy RPG fare: normal attacks, skills (casting spells and the like), and using an item. In other words, if you've ever played a strategy RPG before, there will be nothing unfamiliar in Song Summoner's battle system. That's not a complaint, though–it feels more along the lines of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
In terms of playtime, it's really up to you. As you'd expect for five dollars, the main storyline is not too long, and if you can find songs that create gold- or platinum-level troopers, you may be able to blaze through it in under ten hours. After playing each battle, you can fight in the same area again as many times as you'd like, and you can go to the rehearsal room until you get bored or your iPod runs out of juice. Playing the battles uses up your troopers' deployment, but as long as a trooper doesn't get knocked out in the Rehearsal Room, it never costs any deployment points.
As always, the save system is worth mentioning briefly. Song Summoner only includes the ability to save in one slot, which I didn't love. However, it auto-saves before every turn in battle, so you can quit and come back later if you need to, which is nice, and saved me on a couple of occasions when my iPod crashed. I have trouble with that from time to time anyway, so I'm not going to blame Song Summoner, but it was nice that the auto-save took care of the system's problem for me.
The trouble with Song Summoner's status as the first game of its kind is that it's really hard to gauge things like how good the graphics are, but I can say that I didn't feel like there was anything wrong with them. Characters are represented in battle by sprites, and the battlefields look like standard strategy battlefields. Dialogue is presented as text with static pictures of the characters. The spell effects aren't anything to write home about, but they also aren't bad enough to truly criticize, given the platform. One thing I thought was a nice touch was that every time you go to a new location for the first time, the loading screen shows a sort of album cover for the location, reminiscent of the iPod's Cover Flow screen.
The sound effects in this game are not great. Fire spells all seem to make the same sound, as do their other elemental counterparts, and there's no voicework whatsoever. Music, on the other hand, is really nice. If you are playing music when you start the game, it will keep playing your music. If not, it'll play its own music. The game's music is good stuff. It fits the mood, isn't intrusive and is enjoyable to listen to when you choose to, but I love that it's your choice.
One of the success factors for the iPod as a music platform has been the simplicity of its controls. That same simplicity was probably a real challenge for Square Enix, because it meant that they didn't have their normal options. I'm happy to say that I think they did an outstanding job. Everything in the game, from choosing troopers for battle to buying items in the store is controlled by the scroll wheel, selecting your choice is always done by pressing the center button, and backing out is always done by pressing the Menu button (up on the wheel). Commands in battle are displayed as a radial menu above the trooper's head, and when you choose to use a skill, your skills appear as a radial menu at the bottom of the screen.
When you choose to move, the game makes a guess as to where you're probably trying to go and starts your cursor there. You then move the wheel left and right to scroll through the spots you can move to, with the cursor moving across lines of possible selections from left to right, top to bottom (that is, the way that you read text on a page). If you choose to attack or cast a spell, it automatically points at an enemy in range, and if there are multiple enemies in range, scrolling the wheel takes you between spots that would hit an enemy, ignoring anywhere that would waste your turn. Unlike some other strategy games, there doesn't seem to be a significant advantage to attacking from the sides or rear of an opponent, which plays into the control simplicity of the controls well.
In short, the controls could not possibly be any easier to use. I love the way it automatically points at enemies when you are attacking, and it generally does a really good job of guessing where you want to go when moving. My only gripe is that the wheel sometimes scrolls one item too far, but that's a problem I have with the iPod in general, so I'm not counting it against Song Summoner.
Hopefully, it's pretty clear by this point that I was not disappointed by Song Summoner. I believe my stats were reset at some point, and my iPod still says that I played the game 56 times. The gameplay is not unique in any way, but the controls are great, the graphics are fine, and the music's as good (or bad) as your own personal tastes. It's not a game that's going to set the world on fire, but if you like strategy RPGs and have an iPod, I cannot imagine a better way to spend five gaming dollars.