Let’s face it, if I’m going to spend ten dollars on an iOS game, it better be awesome. There are too many middling or average games available for the platform, and many of them cost less than five bucks. Joe RPGFan may see a game like Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore in the App Store, with a $10 price point and Square Enix pedigree, and think that this means that it is a quality title. Sorry, I’m here to disappoint you. Song Summoner may have a premium price tag, but beyond the cost it is just a below-average strategy RPG with one decent gimmick.
Oddly, strategy RPGs are a rarity on the iOS, so fans of games like Shining Force, Disgaea, or Final Fantasy Tactics may jump at the chance to pick up a new portable SRPG. And Square Enix can turn out elite RPGs; just look at the PSP remakes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. But Song Summoner doesn’t deserve to be categorized with these great games. As a simple conversion of a game originally developed for the old school scroll-wheel iPods, it lacks depth, style, and fun, while retaining some of the more irritating characteristics of many strategy role-playing games. The result is a game that is hard to control, senseless, boring, and lame.
When talking about Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore, the discussion must begin and end with music. Why? Because music is the whole point of the game. From narrative to game mechanics to the audio, the idea of music dominates Song Summoner. The protagonist, a young man named Ziggy, is a Conductor. Conductors can use the power of music to create warriors called “Tune Troopers,” and these make up the player’s party of heroes. Ziggy and his compatriots battle a sect of oppressive robots who are bent on eliminating humans (and music) in order to create an orderly world. While this plot is fairly ho-hum, the interesting mechanic here is that in order to create these Tune Troopers, the player uses the songs from their iPod to create these warriors. It is a gimmick, but an artful one, and it provides most of the game’s fun.
Inside the game, there is a building called the “Hip-O-Drome” where Ziggy can summon Tune Troopers from the player’s playlist. Pick a song, listen to a brief snippet, and voila! The party gains a new member! I’ll admit, there’s more fun here than I’d have expected. Since there are about eighty or so types of Tune Troopers in the game, it is exciting to see which one will come up when a song is chosen. The Tune Trooper for each song is chosen randomly, and some of the art for the Troopers is pretty great. However, after about fifteen to thirty minutes of screwing around at the Hip-O-Drome, the player invariably has to go back to the rest of the game. And, unfortunately, the rest of the game isn’t that much fun.
Gameplay is much like most other SRPGs: the player deploys four to six characters on a grid-like battlefield, and then the characters take turns moving and attacking. Aside from Ziggy and a handful of story characters, the Tune Troopers do much of the heavy lifting. The Tune Troopers fall into five classes: Knight, Soldier, Monk, Mage, and Archer. Attacks and abilities for each Trooper vary slightly by class, and each trooper has individual skills such as a spell or healing. In addition to these abilities and typical RPG attributes like strength and intelligence, Troopers also have ranks. These ranks ascend from Bronze at the lowest, up through Silver and Gold, to Platinum being the best rank. If a character has a higher rank, his or her stats increase and new skills are acquired. But, there is a catch. Tune Troopers can only be deployed a certain number of times, and the higher ranking for the Trooper, the fewer times they can be deployed. Platinum Troopers can only be deployed once or twice before they disappear forever, while Bronze Troopers have seven deployments before they return to the music from which they came. While there are “Rewind” items that give an additional deployment to a Trooper, these items are rare enough that the player will constantly need to create new Troopers or advance their existing ones. This will be the easiest way to replenish their ranks with high-quality Troopers.
Aside from the Tune Troopers, there is Ziggy, his friend the robot Z.E.R.O., and a few characters called “Superstars” resembling famous musicians. These characters have unlimited deployment, so they can be used more often. However, these characters only advance in ranks at certain points in the story; using them means that the party can be a bit underpowered at certain points in the game. In total, the system for creating and deploying characters is uneven in practice. While it is fun to create characters at first based on your favorite songs, there’s very little connection to the characters, because they are either weak, or used up quickly and then discarded. Add to it the fact that many of the different Tune Troopers seem redundant, with identical powers and abilities, and what we find in the end is that party development just seems like a cycle of wasted opportunities.
Ziggy travels from battlefield to battlefield on a world map, just like many other SRPGs. And like other SRPGs, the combat that takes place on each map can be a bit long. Unfortunately, Song Summoner lacks much of the customization, complexity, and dynamic playing of many better SRPGs, and the battles are laborious and painful. To make matters worse, it is impossible to identify your Tune Troopers’ skills before entering battle through any sort of menu or status screen. Selecting the right Trooper for the battle comes down to memorizing rank and attributes before battle; occasionally you could be stuck with no healers, or mages that can’t cast effective spells, depending on your Troopers. Nothing is worse than long and slow battles – except for having to repeat these battles because you didn’t know that your deployment team was terrible for the job at hand.
Keep in mind that while the game seems lethargic and boring to me, there’s nothing in Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore that is deliberately broken, and the game is far from unplayable. To be fair, I can see how SRPG-savvy gamers may find the deployment constraints and battlefield layouts interesting and challenging. For strategy loyalists other than myself, perhaps the game’s constraints could also be gameplay strengths. Personally, I just don’t find myself enjoying the battles, and once past the Hip-O-Drome squad selection is more of a chore than a benefit.
The controls in Song Summoner are an artifact of the game’s previous life as a title for the “classic” iPod. Originally developed to take advantage of the scroll-wheel found on handheld Apple devices without touchscreens, Song Summoner’s controls still have the player use a wheel-like interface to cycle through menus. This is a clunky way to get things done, and while there is also a mechanism for using touch control, the touch responsiveness is not as crisp as many other titles. I often found the game selecting a different character on the battlefield than the one I touched, and this slowed down an already-slow game.
Circling back to the game’s story, it is important to note that this game’s plot, dialogue, and whole verve is cheesy at best, or childish at worst. Gratuitous use of words like “jam” and “beat” in the writing is done to evoke rock and roll panache, but the whole thing winds up sounding corny. Snippets of famous musical songs or albums are stitched together like an ugly patchwork, signifying nothing but the game’s own self-awareness. The town of Electric Ladyland offers nothing remotely associated with Jimi Hendrix’s classic record outside its name. It is simply there, one faceless town among many faceless towns. The characters have this same “simply there” quality, with Ziggy being completely without personality aside from the motivation to find his brother. The combination of boring gameplay and silly, simple story keeps the game a chore, no more fun or immersive than washing dishes.
Song Summoner features simple graphics with a hint of detail, and is about par for the course for iOS games. Sprites are small but colorful and distinct. Backgrounds are a bit bizarre, as if the world in which the game takes place is a mashup of styles and archetypal images with no rhyme or reason.The hand-drawn character art could be a little more detailed, but all the elements come together to create a world that looks alien and just a bit fascinating. In this one area, the game could be considered slightly better than average.
As I mentioned before, Song Summoner is a game designed around music. There are a couple of worthwhile background tracks, and obviously some care was put into developing peppy, upbeat songs for the world map and the Hip-O-Drome. But I expected more from a game so focused in theme on music. In my opinion, there were two worthwhile directions the developer could have taken the game. One would have been to spare no expense or time in developing truly awesome tracks for the game. There should be dramatic background tracks that really immerse the player in the game, ranging from dance, to rock, to orchestral majesty. Unfortunately, Song Summoner doesn’t have this quality of score. The other, equally interesting path would have been to simply let the player create their own soundtrack for the game while rocking out to their own iPod tracks. Especially considering these same tracks are used to build Tune Troopers, this seems like a logical path to take in its own way. But again, Square Enix failed here. When playing Song Summoner, it is not even possible to multi-task and listen to your iPod tracks, and this basic feature is included in almost every game available for iOS. This is completely unacceptable. Music should be the strength of this game; instead, Song Summoner’s audio component comes across as average at best, and lame at worst.
Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore just falls flat on too many levels. The only level it succeeds on is as a gimmick: the ability to transform the tracks from your iPod into Tune Troopers. Beyond that, even the most hardcore SRPG fan would probably find too many faults to make it through the game. And if you’re not a hardcore SRPG fan, best stay away entirely. In fact, it’d probably be more fun to crank up your iPod and get lost in the music than to get lost in Song Summoner.
This review is based on version 1.3.0 of the game, and was played on a first-generation iPad.