The first time I fired up Stranger of Sword City, I was immediately hit with a wave of apprehension: Experience Inc.’s latest dungeon crawler is built atop the same engine as last year’s Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, a game of which I share an opinion with our own Derek Heemsbergen. I gritted my teeth and prepared for a bumpy ride, but I soon found myself surprised that, despite shared DNA, Stranger of Sword City rarely stumbles over any of its predecessor’s pitfalls, which makes for a much more enjoyable experience.
Set in Escario, an island floating between dimensions, you play the titular Stranger, a person from “our” world who found his/herself transported here after a plane crash. Quickly inducted into the local guild by schoolgirl-cum-warrior Riu, you assemble a party of premade or custom characters and embark on a quest to find a way to return home. Riu suggests the best way to go about this is to hunt down special elite monsters; called Lineage Types; that drop magical Blood Crystals. However, this isn’t exactly selfless advice; a Vessel for the God of Neutrality, Riu receives a power boost from her deity whenever you turn in Blood Crystals to her. Her guild isn’t the only faction in town, either: Church leader Marilith and black market dealer Alm, the Vessels for Law and Chaos, respectively, also vie for your Blood Crystals with the promise to return you home when they’ve had their fill. Caught in a three-way tug of war, who should you trust, if anybody?
No matter who you prefer to help initially, you’ve little recourse but to dive into the nearest dungeon and get to work. Unlike Operation Abyss, a game content to throw you headlong into the abyss, Stranger of Sword City takes a more elegant approach to dungeon design. The first few dungeons are relatively straightforward in nature; traps are introduced gradually and corridors slowly become twistier, allowing you to become acquainted with hazards at a steady pace before the game eventually throws the kitchen sink at you. Each plot interval usually grants you access to three dungeons at a time, which can be categorized as easy, normal and hard, and tackled in any order. Unlockable shortcuts are numerous in each, which drives home the point that these dungeons aren’t meant to be marathoned, but rather explored bit by bit with regular trips back to town to heal and identify loot. Town also happens to be the only place you can save, unfortunately — it’s back to the title screen if your party gets wiped, so regular pit-stops are a necessity.
Any dungeon worth its salt isn’t complete without a host of nasty creatures, and Stranger of Sword City delivers in spades: Enemy encounters occur both randomly and at set points, the latter of which must be cleared to proceed. On the whole, encounters are pretty tough! Any given battle can contain between one and nine monsters, some of whom have the ability to endlessly invite more friends to the fray. This isn’t a game in which you can veg out and hit auto-attack, you generally have to be on top of your business at all times, buffing your agility while lowering the enemies’, and paying close attention to elemental vulnerabilities. This might make it sound like each encounter is a time-sink, but as long as you strategize appropriately they tend to fly by.
There’s a third way to initiate encounters, and that’s at will via the Ambush mechanic. Ambushes are your top method to acquire new weapons and gear: Certain parts of dungeons are designated Ambush spots, in which you can hide to get the jump on an enemy convoy. Convoys contain a number of enemies, one or two of which are designated as the leader, who must be defeated before they have the opportunity to escape with their goodies. The Ambush-Town-Ambush-Town loop feels pretty satisfying and fun when you’re in the midst of it, but I rarely found any *great* gear, mostly lots of vendor trash that I could sell for a pittance. If the ratio of great items to garbage was a little more even, Ambushes would easily be one of the game’s strongest points, but the fact that most of my efforts lacked a useful reward left me feeling a little hollow. Be that as it may, Amubushes still provided a very fun diversion when I needed a break from the main quest.
Each expedition into the unknown is fraught with peril, and a well-rounded party is essential to survival. You can venture forth with a group of up-to-six characters, split into three front-line attackers and three back row support roles. There are many options to choose from, which can feel slightly overwhelming, but the game’s robust tutorial and manual are there to give the lost a push in the right direction. The melee-based fighter, knight and samurai are obvious choices to manage the forefront, propped up by magicians and clerics as they cast their spells from the rear. Bow-wielding rangers can attack from either row, as can the versatile ninja, who can equip a wide range of weaponry. Last, but certainly not least, the speedy dancer is the lynchpin of any successful party, due to their expertise in disarming trapped chests, which are encountered 90% of the time. Individual characters have an innate talent that you can pick during creation, which includes robust defense or extra attribute points, but some have more specialized uses, such as the Wild Eye ability that uncovers secret passages. Each character also has a set number of class-changes available, which also allow them to keep their learned abilities; changing my weak dancer into a deadly ranger who specialized in traps was definitely a turning point for my party.
Staying on top of party optimization is key to hunting down Lineage Types, which not only function as the game’s boss encounters, but also happen to be Stranger of Sword City’s strongest aspect. However, unlike most RPG boss encounters, Lineage Types aren’t simply found at the end of any given dungeon — each has their own behavior and a little detective work is required to even find them. Sometimes this means activating an Ambush in a key part of a dungeon, completing a certain side-quest, or holding an item the monster desires so it finds you. One Lineage Type found in a mid-game dungeon appears if you spend more than five turns in any given battle, and far outpaces you when it appears. You can run away, but at the cost of any experience you’d gain from the enemies already killed. This effectively introduces a new mechanic in which efficiency is required to gain the experience necessary to beat the boss. The entire process of hunting Lineage Types is an absolute blast, and it elevates Stranger of Sword City above its Vita contemporaries into something quite unique.
With the exception of the protagonist, your characters can (and will) die, and depending on their age, have between 1-3 KOs in them before death becomes permanent. Early on I’d reset when I permanently lost a character, but as the game went on and boss encounters became more of an ordeal, I learned to stop worrying and love the character creator. New characters receive bonus experience dependent on your main character’s level, so it’s easy to swap in a newbie who’s not too far behind the curve.
Stranger of Sword City’s weird concept is complimented nicely by its uniquely gothic character and monster designs. Many of Escario’s human population are kitted out in costumes that combine modern streetwear with battle armor, while several monsters fuse with everyday appliances to make for a disquieting appearance. I previously stated in my preview of the game my love for the television and subway car-dwelling hydras, while a later dungeon featured killer robots comprised of repurposed car parts. These were great to just look at, and I spent a lot of time in the bestiary admiring its gorgeous art. The game offers you a choice between two art styles for its NPCs; the default more realistic dark fantasy style, and a moe anime style in line with Experience Inc.’s last few games. It’s nice that the choice is there, but with moe dungeon crawlers increasingly becoming the norm on Vita, I was more than happy with the attractive default art. The character creator also offers a wide range of portraits, but only a fourth of those were in keeping with the game’s style; the other three quarters each drawn by a different illustrator in the style of the developer’s previous games. It’s nice to have options, but I would have appreciated a little more consistency here.
Stranger of Sword City’s mish-mash of the magical and the mundane worked very well at enticing me into its world, but I was disappointed to find this setting a bit underutilized: The game is front-loaded with its most unique designs, but these elements soon drop off in favor of the usual high fantasy trappings. Riu stands out sharply with her fusion of school uniform and battle armor, but later NPCs are the usual bunch of fantasy archetypes, with little flair to set them apart from the crowd. The presence of elves, dwarves and other races are hand-waived by “mysterious bodily transformations”, a potentially terrifying concept that ends up sadly unexplored. I really wish the game leaned into its strong concept harder, because it feels like it was only half committed to its worldbuilding.
It took me awhile to really get into Stranger of Sword City; early dungeons see you operating at limited potential and the game takes its time to get going, but when you’re finally let loose, it becomes an arduous, but very enjoyable ride. The concept of the Ambush is a very smartly-realized risk/reward system, even if the rewards weren’t up to snuff, and seeking out Lineage Types really made me feel like a bounty hunter in a bizarre world. Although the game would have benefited from a little more narrative ambition, Stranger of Sword City is one of the better dungeon crawlers available on Vita, and one that will surely scratch the itch of fans of the old-school tough-as-nails RPGs of yesteryear.