The Summon Night series, a small but attractive bunch of Japanese RPGs, comes from a development studio called Flight-Plan. In Japan, the games in the series have regularly been published by Banpresto, the group known for the Super Robot Taisen series. With four main-series installments, it was a surprise to see that the first game in the Summon Night series to reach the United States was actually a relatively small spin-off for Game Boy Advance called “Summon Night: Swordcraft Story.” What’s not a surprise is that the company to break US soil with the series was Atlus. What would we do without them?
Unlike the regular series, which was turn-based, Swordcraft Story is an action-RPG with random encounters (a’ la the “Tales” series) along with a weapons synthesis system that drives both the gameplay and, strangely, the plot. The game in question is the first of two for GBA (the second having been released in October 2006), and it was something of a pleasant surprise for me to play.
In the world of Lyndbaum, in the town of Wystern, a legendary tower descends deep into the ocean. Wystern, known as the “City of Swords,” is home to the Craftknights- people who use Guardian Beasts to create weapons that no normal forge could make. You play as the child (son or daughter, your choice) of Shintetsu, a Craftknight known as the “Craftlord of Iron” who died three years before the opening of the game. A comptetition is taking place to determine which Craftknight will replace the Craftlord of Iron, and you, the son/daugher of Shintetsu, have every intention of winning. When you begin the competition, you are assigned a Guardian Beast of your own (you receive any one of four beasts based on how you answer some questions). Of course, plenty of other folks also hope to win the competition, each for a variety of good and bad reasons. The tournament, strangely, requires that entrants must be children. The stakes are high, and the competitors are small.
Craftknights do just what their compound name suggests: they craft, and they…umm…”knight.” They forge their own weapons and then they fight with them. You are sent into the labyrinth, a many-floored underground tower, to train and collect materials to make better weapons. If you’re thinking “oh no, a plotless dungeon crawler,” you’re wrong. There are plenty of lovable characters, including a few cameos from the Summon Night series (that US gamers won’t recognize). Dialogue is just what you’d expect from Atlus: a little lax on the translation, but enjoyable dialogue nonetheless. The game is divided into ten “days” (not necessarily subsequent days, just ten major days with different events). At the end of each day, you can choose whom you want to talk to from among about five different story-relevant NPCs (including your own Guardian Beast). These talks do not significantly affect the game’s story, but they give you a chance to learn more about each particular character. I liked this system as it reminded me of the events in Star Ocean: The Second Story or Final Fantasy IX. I just wish the game had more of them!
The to-be-expected climax, along with its predictable plot revelations, aren’t impressive. They’re hardly even good storytelling. But the character interaction and dialogue do tend to make up for what is a weak overall plot, though the fantasy world within which you work also has its charm. Story earns a 79%.
Like so many Japanese RPGs with a cartoon-style artistic base, the cute and colorful characters and environments of Swordcraft Story are enough to make you smile, or possibly, make you nauseous. It’s not all bright pastels, as the majority of the game takes place in a many-floored tower (that’s right, it’s a dungeon crawler). The gray and white of stone contrasts nicely with the uniquely dressed characters and their standard bright, atypical hair colors. The character sprites are nothing to get excited about, but the hand-drawn stills for nearly every character are a big plus in my mind.
I was pleased with the quality of battle animation. Enemy design is pretty basic, and there are only so many enemies created in general (with plenty of palette swapping as you dig deeper into the main dungeon). More work could have been put into the graphics for the weapons synthesis process, seeing as it is a central component to the game’s entire concept.
It’s difficult to put grades on a handheld title’s graphics, considering the hardware never touches the quality of its full console peers. I can hardly imagine myself giving a very high score for a GBA game’s graphics (though I’ve done it before), but this game kept me satisfied in the visual department. A low “B” sounds right, so let’s go with an 82%.
The Summon Night series has traditionally featured one, and only one, composer: Chiaki Fujita. The Swordcraft Story games, however, use a team of three composers: Kiyohiro Sada, Kouhei Matsuoka, and Minako Adachi. The last of these three names should be familiar to Atlus fans. Adachi composed the music for Riviera and Yggdra Union, both being excellent soundtracks (Adachi also contributed a few tracks to other Summon Night games). What I have to say about the music in Swordcraft Story is mostly positive, but some won’t take this as good news.
The sound quality of the soundtrack is comparable to old Game Boy Color games. There was no attempt to use any sort of impressive sounds. In addition, the game had been originally released in 2003 in Japan, so the soundscape is rudimentary. However, unlike other GBA scores (like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance) that come out “tinny” by trying to use more lifelike sounds on the dinky speakers, the music actually resembles a more crisp and clear sound because it doesn’t attempt to outdo the system’s sound production. Take it as a good thing.
The compositions are top notch. I desperately wish a soundtrack had been released for Swordcraft Story, but alas, it’s not going to happen. All of the songs are bouncy, fun, and uplifting; it was akin to one of my favorite game’s soundtrack: Atelier Iris. Seriously, I was impressed by the music.
My only issue with the music was that there really wasn’t much of it. There may have been more, but I can’t remember more than about fifteen songs played throughout the entire game. Considering the game’s length, that’s not a terribly low number of songs, but there ought to have been some more diversity in music as you traversed the main dungeon.
And, of course, sound effects get the job done. There’s a frequent “earthquake” sound that happens unexpectedly, and it’s a pretty loud noise… but it doesn’t exactly sound like an earthquake. That’s just one example; the point is the sound effects aren’t so hot.
Great music, not enough of it, and some annoying sound effects: put ’em all together, and what do you got? Bippity boppity 84%.
As I mentioned earlier, Swordcraft Story has a combat system that strongly resembles the Tales series. Battles occur by use of random encounters, but within the battle it’s all real-time action with no menus. The battles were never severely challenging, but I saw the “Game Over” screen a few times when walking into boss fights unprepared.
As a craftknight, you do create plenty of your own weapons. There are five categories of weapons (sword, axe, spear, knuckle, drill), each with over 30 recipes for different specific statistics and designs. The recipes are obtained through subquests, defeating bosses in a particular way, and by asking for them from your guildmaster “Bron.” Weapons are forged from a variety of elements that are made from items (many items exist for the sole purpose of being broken down into elements). Gathering these materials comes very easily as you level grind and hunt for treasure in the labyrinth.
I’m happy to say that the game does not take place entirely in the labyrinth, which is a total of 100 floors (50 for the main game, and another 50 after you finish the game for extra challenges). There are various towns and dungeons you can visit by boat throughout the game, and these do help to break up the usual action of the game.
About one third of the “boss fights” are matches in the tournament to help bring you closer to becoming a craftlord. The others are usually story-driven, and they are excellent battles. In battle, you can instantaneously switch from one weapon to another (up to three weapons can be equipped in battle), and your Guardian Beast can have four magic spells assigned. In arena battles, however, you must choose one weapon and stick with it for the entire match.
I never got bored playing this game; I actually had difficulty putting it down. As a result, it only took a few days for me to clear the game’s main storyline, with a total of 12 hours logged at the end of the game. Of course, I cannot fault the game on its brevity, since they offer plenty of post-game fun for a true completion of the game. There wasn’t much to praise outside of battles, and they could have included some sort of mini-game or other feature to make weapon synthesis more interesting; but again, the battles are lots of good simple action-RPG fun! That said, I’m giving the gameplay an 88%.
The control scheme was excellent. In battle, running was done by double-tapping in a direction, and jumping was done by hitting up on the D pad. Attacks are executed with A, and guarding (or using magic) is done with B. L is used to switch weapons, and R switches from “guard” to any of four spells from the Guardian Beast.
Menu navigation was also simple with plenty of informative and helpful guides at the game’s beginning to help you figure everything out and put all the game’s features to use.
All in all, it’s the best control I’ve seen in an action-RPG for a handheld game. I’m serious. Let’s go with 95%.
After playing this game, I was immediately prepared to go on to its sequel, also released by Atlus. Among short little “gaiden” games out there, Summon Night: Swordcraft Story sets the standard. However, I cannot in my right mind give a fantastically high score to a game that is meant to be a little side-story distraction from a much larger series. Summon Night: Swordcraft Story gets an 84%.