One of the most trying experiences that any game can experience is being a launch title. Foreign, untamed hardware, strange, new paddles, and paralyzing fear of doing anything revolutionary often plague these brave creations. Oftentimes, these trailblazers are cast aside as buggy failures, unfit for human consumption, while other games open the eyes of the gaming world to what the industry's future holds. This game isn't one of the eye-openers. Instead, we have a game that seems to have some sort of technical error in nearly every topic that I can reasonably judge. Here's my review.
Long, long ago, there was only Ghuval the Maker of All Things. In his infinite wisdom (or boredom; they never say), Ghuval created the world of Khosos. Urath, god of the Sudani, struck the earth with his sword and split it into many islands and continents. Upon two particular hunks of land, a story took place that changed Khosos forever. Medeva and Orenia would change the world, all thanks to a farmer named Joseph.
Joseph was born in the town of Ciran, a peaceful village of little consequence. He spent his days as most children did, playing in the fields and training with a sword, yet there was something obviously different about him, for on his hand was the mark of the Summoner. His childhood days were over quickly as a strange old man named Yago came to him from an unnamed land, claiming that he could teach Joseph how to use the powers of the Summoner. He gave the boy a black ring, and slowly, Joseph began to grow in the art of Summoning.
The training was arduous, but all knew that those destined to Summon would go on to great futures, filled with battles for the fate of existence. However, Joseph faced a threat too early and misused his skill. An army, spurned by a petty feud between nobles, rode into Ciran to slay the populace for their lord. Joseph heroically tried to summon the most powerful demon of darkness imaginable, and the worst part was that he succeeded.
The beast was hideously malformed and gleefully fulfilled its master's command, devouring the oncoming forces in its looming maw, but after they were gone, the demon craved more bloodshed. In exchange for its task, it razed the entire town and killed all who had not fled, save Joseph, its master. Joseph was horrified and ran off, never knowing what had happened to the beast.
Eventually, his path led to Masad, a small farming village on the Darhu River. For years, he lived there in anonymity, fearing that one of the few survivors of Ciran would find him and take revenge. Joseph had long since thrown the ring into a well and chased off the old man Yago, but his mark remained. Wars broke out in far-off lands, yet Joseph paid the Orenian affairs no heed. He was pale and cursed, but he had managed to seal the ghosts of his past behind him. All was well… until an Orenian army invaded the town and forced Joseph out of hiding.
If I had to describe Summoner briefly, I would have to say that it is really a potpourri of several other games all wrapped up into one sloppy hack-and-slash title. If you're a gamer who prides himself on the diversity of games you've played, chances are that you've seen nearly everything this game has to offer. Let's start with the battle engine, shall we?
Normally, you control Joseph and any of the three friends who accompany him from whatever camera angle you desire using the left analog stick, traveling through the massive levels and searching for treasure, people, etc. However, whenever an enemy is seen or charges at you, either in one of the random battles or permanently set throughout a dungeon area, you can select it by pressing X and then watch as the computer has Joseph chase down the enemy to slash it to pieces or fire at it with whatever long range weapon you have equipped (Reminiscent of Shadowrun).
If you don't actively choose to attack the enemy, the computer will force you to defend yourself and any other characters in your group will charge, guided by the AI and whatever job you've assigned to them using the game's AI script system (Reminiscent of Secret of Mana's and Final Fantasy Tactics' AI systems, to list a few).
If you decide to turn a character into a Caster, they will continually run from physical combat and cast whatever offensive spells they know from a distance, while Healers will fight the enemy physically until someone's health drops to a dangerous level. There are multiple jobs, but several of them are nearly the same.
Once your character is facing off with a foe, battle enters a semi-turn-based system. The enemy will get an attack on you, you get to attack the enemy, and so on. When it's your turn, you will see a small chain appear over your character's head during your attack. By pressing any directional button during this, your character will continue the attack with another special move (Reminiscent of Vagrant Story and Legend of Dragoon). As these attacks add up, the time given to you to perform the next move diminishes and each attack costs you a random amount of AP, ranging from 0 to 9 points. Your AP is basically the game's magic point system, and casting spells also lowers it. While there are no ways to instantly restore your AP, it grows back over time.
If you happen to have multiple characters fighting one enemy, things get much easier. Whoever the enemy is facing will have to deal with the thing jumping out of the way of the attack or blocking, but everyone on the sides get not only an unblockable attack on the enemy but a percentage boost to damage and hit accuracy depending on how far behind the foe he/she is. Height advantages also give this boost or penalty, but sadly, it is an element of the game that is rarely used.
Whenever you target an enemy to attack, the computer rushes over to slay it without any real concern for terrain. Because manually moving your character to a better position is unresponsive and slow, doing so often gives the enemies a few free shots at you and generally makes the game all the more irritating. This battle system starts out interesting, but due to the small list of enemies and the pitifully teeny list of Chain abilities, it eventually gets boring.
Magic and skills are also weak links in the game. At each level (Gained by collecting enough experience points), you are given a boost to HP, AP, and defense, as well as some new skills and skill points. The skill points can be assigned to your different skills in the Status menu, and depending on how many points a skill has, its power changes (Reminiscent of Diablo I and II). For instance, raising Sword skill increases accuracy with bladed weapons, raising Block skill increases your chance of blocking attacks, etc. Some skills are available to all characters while others are only given to one or two party members.
Magic is gained in the same manner. As you level up, new element skills (Fire, Dark, Holy, Energy, Ice, and Heal) are gained, and by pumping points into those skills, you gain new spells. Normally, this system wouldn't be so bad, but there is one little problem with it. Over half of the skills you gain are worthless. Sure, being able to pick locks is extremely useful in the game and vital in a few areas, but how often are you going to stop attacking the enemy for a moment to use the Push skill on him to send him back a few spaces? All that does is lengthen the battles, waste AP, and use up extremely valuable Skill Points that could be used to improve something worthwhile.
As the Summoner, you have the power to use your rings of Summoning to create various ghouls and creatures to assist you in combat. Once there, these creatures will act just like any other character in your party, but the risk that accompanies Summoning is high. When you create the creature, Joseph loses the amount of HP that the creature has from his maximum HP. For example, if you were to Summon a Hellfire Elemental which has 30 HP and Joseph's maximum HP was normally 100 HP, Joseph would wind up with 70 HP, making him that much easier to kill. If Joseph dies while a Summoned creature is around, it will go berserk and try to kill the remaining party members.
Summoning is not really that useful, so I stayed away from it for the most part. However, there are four Dragon Summons that you gain later in the game. These Summons simply appear, perform a specific attack, and then disappear, lacking the potential for raging destruction.
When you aren't out slaughtering opponents, you can always head into a nearby town and find a quest or two to perform. These quests are found by talking to villagers, animals, freaks, or whatever, and usually consist of you looking around the world for a certain person to give something to or killing a rare enemy. These quests range from the mundane (Help the pirate find his lucky earring) to the strange (Find a blank piece of paper that contains the magic ice spell in invisible ink that is hidden somewhere in the Orenian continent) to the morbid (Help a bum find the thief who stole his eyes when he was sleeping).
The prizes for these quests are equally varied. Whenever you make any sort of breakthrough in a quest, you are given a decent amount of experience, but once you completely finish a quest, you'll receive anything from 5 gold (I really didn't like that quest) to the best equipment in the game. There are countless quests and you hardly ever have only one to take care of, so you are given a quest journal to keep track of them all (reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask). Very few of these side quests are required, but they make the game much easier and provide nice breathers from an otherwise repetitive game.
The PS2 is a system that obviously has quite a bit of graphical muscle, yet very little of it was tapped for Summoner. Level designs are huge and contain decent levels of detail such as birds flying by and corpses littering areas, as well as some nice weather effects like snow and fog. However, the praise stops there.
While major characters have beautifully designed facial animation and lack the blockiness of older games, non-vital characters are given smudged, hideous faces that look as if they were wrapped around the guy's head. Rather than using FMVs, cut-scenes or unimpressive stills are employed to show major plot points, and while the cut-scenes are wonderful (I mistook my first for an actual movie), the stills are dull and sketchy and add little to the game.
Enemy design from distant camera angles is nice and the battles play out at a pace that isn't quite exciting, but bearable, but when the camera zooms in, creatures become blocky and the battle becomes slightly ridiculous. Upon closer examination, sword swings that seemed normal from a distance pass over the enemy's head, blood squirts out of mummies and skeletons that by all logic should be dry, and axe blows harmlessly pass through creatures that managed to dodge the attack. Even the world map is awful, consisting of a blurry landscape that seems like it belongs on a globe and has scarcely any recognizable details.
Spell effects are woefully inferior to those of the Playstation. Most are simply too small and lack any gusto at all, but others are crude flashes of light that aren't only ugly, but often distract and confuse you. For instance, when casting Lightning, it appears as if the Caster and the target are struck by the same spell when a pair of bolts strike the two targets, plus the white flash makes it nearly impossible to see the Chain Attack symbol over your character's head and has often broken a combo of mine. The Dragon Summons have casting cut-scenes to accompany them, but these are so boring and plain that I had trouble believing that this game was made almost four years after Final Fantasy VII, a game which has summon effects you could be proud of.
However, as bad as all of that is, you must realize that all of it is so buggy that you'll wonder if the testers actually played through the game themselves or not. Lighting effects appear in areas where they clearly shouldn't be, illuminating sections of walls and stopping for no apparent reason. Sudden changes in the terrain often go unnoticed, allowing you to walk over pits or to pass through solid walls. When large numbers of enemies appear, the game slows down. When certain spells are cast, the game slows down. When you enter certain areas of the game and have absolutely no objects on the screen that could possibly cause the game to slow down, the game slows down.
Mix all this buggy entertainment with the fact that certain Summons, any random encounters, entering villages, meeting bosses, seeing cut-scenes, or moving from one section of a town to another leads to 5-30 seconds of loading time and you have to ask yourself if it's all worth it. I suggest you bring some sort of side project to work on or else you will quickly find yourself dreading every one of those "Loading" scenes.
The PS2 also is obviously capable of producing wonderful quality sound and music, and here the game shines a little more brightly. On one hand, none of the music is overly repetitive or overbearing, and there were a few gems in it that I appreciated such as the Overworld theme. On the other hand, most of the other songs were bland and forgettable, or in some cases, nonexistent. As you travel through dungeon after dungeon, it will occasionally dawn on you that there is no background music for large portions of the game. I was wandering through the Ikaemos Ruins, slaying one Bacite after another when I noticed that this was probably the first RPG I had ever played that lacked battle music. This music void appears almost at random throughout the game, but most of the music is so ignorable that you probably won't notice.
Sounds were done well enough, but I think more could have been done with them. Swords swinging, arrows firing, enemies grunting, and all of those other noises we all know and love are believable enough, but don't expect anything out of the ordinary. The game's voice acting was superb though, more than making up for a dull slash noise.
When dying, characters each have their own phrase to yell as well as a few battle cries in combat, but the best stuff is in the cut-scenes. I don't think there was a single part of it that was either over or under acted, and I doubt I have ever seen funnier cut-scenes in any other game. Be warned though, for as with everything else, the sound effects have a few problems as well. Although rarely, I've had sounds get stuck and wind up repeating for rather long periods of time, and although it doesn't really affect much, by that point I had had enough of the game's glitches.
If you hoped that the game's storyline would make up for the lackluster gameplay, think again. The game begins with a young man, destined for great struggle and disaster, and sends him out into the world to find his future. Things begin to get shaky as major characters appear and hastily explain large portions of the plot to you through the game's dialogue, but things are easy enough to follow as long as you remember the names that people mention and pay attention to the cut-scenes.
The plot is so predictable and (dare I say it?) almost plagiarized that you really can't lose track of things. The entire first half of the game is basically a tale of a young man who travels with his friends to find some magic rings and end the reign of an evil emperor (Reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of The Rings" Series) and the second is a "Save The Kingdom From The Evil Monsters So That The Princess Can Rule The Land" deal (Reminiscent of, well, a lot of things).
Finally, the lack of character development forces me to say that the only good thing about the game's storyline would be the countless side stories told by villagers and the fact that one angry old sea captain quotes my favorite prime time cartoon series. "Arr, I hate the sea and everything in it…"
Last and definitely least, we have controls, and I am very glad to announce that these were horrible. While exploring levels, I found some of the worst collision detection I had ever seen. Perhaps Joseph's Summoner aura made it impossible for him to come within two feet of certain objects, but I say it's just sloppy craftsmanship. In battle, selecting enemies occasionally has no response and your character just stands there as your partners rush into the fray.
Of course, that's only when the game doesn't decide to make it tricky to target certain objects or opponents. Once you manage to get into battle, the controls are fine unless you decide to change targets. If you do, you often wind up waiting for an uncomfortably long amount of time before your guy actually does anything. As the old saying goes, "You can control one of your people some of the time, but you can't control one of your people all of the time."
Before I finish up, I'd just like to mention that as soon as you pop the game into the system, you are given the opportunity to see the better part of the game's ending by selecting Credits. By actually beating the game, you see a brief extra sequence that isn't available from the start, but there is really no reasonable value to it to make beating the game worthwhile. I suggest that if you are considering buying the game or are a fan of D&D (or a foe of it), you should rent it, watch the credits, enjoy a nice skit, and return it post haste, for that is pretty much the only thing about the game that is really worth seeing.
All in all, I think that this game is a botched attempt at a launch title RPG that might've been much better had the developers waited for a few years. There are countless better games out there, so unless you are extremely desperate for an RPG fix or want to collect every quirky title out there, I'd have to say that this one isn't worth it and that you should rent it first no matter what.