When the PlayStation 2 launched back in October of 2000 (hard to believe it’s been out for two years already, isn’t it?) it featured no less than three RPGs. Evergrace was the undisputed dog of the bunch, Eternal Ring was decent (if you were into the whole King’s Field first-person perspective feel), and then there was Summoner.
The baby of Volition (who would go on to make the FPS Red Faction), Summoner was an ambitious PC-styled RPG. Featuring an epic quest and enough text to give Morrowind a run for its money, it was easily the most impressive of the launch games.
However, it wasn’t without its share of flaws as well. Featuring some of the ugliest character models ever, a bizarre fighting system, and the most hideous draw-in ever to grace a next-gen console, the game was easy fodder for the critics.
Fortunately, Volition took the criticism to heart and the recently released sequel, Summoner 2, improves upon the original game in each and every way.
You are the goddess Lahara reborn?
Trying to explain the labyrinthine plot of Summoner 2 would make this review run much longer than most people would want to read. Essentially, the complex and involved plot of the first game pales in comparison to the one featured in the sequel.
The basic gist of the game is that players take on the role of Maia, queen of Halassar and the goddess Lahara reborn. Being Lahara carries quite the set of responsibilities-including the RPG standard of saving the world from a great evil. However, reducing Summoner 2 to such a trite and simple logline does the game a great disservice. Yes, you will ultimately be called upon to fight great evil, but the plot offers up much more depth than that.
Like the first game, which featured some really great writing as its greatest strength, Summoner 2 continues the tradition. The writing is excellent, giving the game an epic tone and feel that most console RPGs can only aspire to. If you like an involved story in your RPGs, then Summoner 2 is worthy of your consideration.
One of the areas of the game that features genuine improvement over the original is the gameplay.
The first Summoner was sort of a funky hybrid of action RPG mechanics merged with PC RPG combat. Players could take control of one character while allies were controlled by programmable computer AI. The inclusion of a link combo system (not unlike the one featured in Square’s Vagrant Story) was a feeble attempt to make the combat engaging, but it was only partially successful as the fights were still little more than controlled button mashing.
Summoner 2 retains the action RPG aesthetics of the first game, but implements them in a much more satisfactory style that keeps the action fast paced and the battles furious.
Players still control only one character, but everything is handled ‘on-the-fly’ meaning that the action keeps running in real-time except for when you pull up one of the game’s menus. The combo linking system has been scrapped, replaced with a much more traditional combo system executed through pushing buttons on the DualShock 2.
In another innovation, the game has added a series of special moves that are executed in the same fashion as fighting games. Utilizing these maneuvers requires inputting a precise code of buttons and directional presses and brings yet another level to what at first appears to be traditional hack and slash combat.
Parties can consist of up to three characters, with the player controlling one and the AI handling the other two. The player can switch between characters with a press of the button, battling with them, casting spells, resetting their AI, or any number of other functions.
Disappointingly, the AI scripting leaves a little to be desired. Setting a character to healer will have that character healing each character who loses a significant portion of their health, but often at the expense of doing anything else-including defending themselves from enemies. Essentially, there seems to be no defensive AI built into the game at all and the end result is a party of characters who have a one-track mind. Your melee fighter will stand right in there and pummel away despite the fact that he has less than ten hit points left-he simply will not heal himself no matter what you do.
Aside from that, the gameplay is solid. It takes the traditional RPG approach of town, dungeon, town dungeon, but that’s not a major problem.
Characters gain experience in battle and eventually level up. Unlike traditional console RPGs, Summoner 2 features a level up system that seems to have more in common with a PC title.
At each level up, the character earns skill points (generally two to three). These skill points can be allotted as the player sees fit, making the characters very customizable. If you want Maia to be a melee fighter, you can beef up her combat skills and weapon proficiency. Conversely, you could make her primarily a magic user, or a ranged attacker, or a combination of skills. This applies to all the game’s characters-each can be custom tailored to the player’s style. Because of this, Summoner 2 features some replay value as well-trying different character types won’t change the story, but it can alter the gameplay experience in some fairly significant ways.
Last, but certainly not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this game is brutally difficult in spots. From around the halfway point onward, the difficulty ramps up quite a bit, making even regular fights a challenge. Part of the challenge comes from the flawed AI, but the rest of it is by design. Monsters attack intelligently, falling back and attacking from a distance when possible, healing injured allies, etc. Plus, the sheer number of enemies in some areas (outnumbering your party 3-to-1 at some points) makes for a very difficult game. It’s not impossible, but I spent a lot of time dying?/p>
The one area where the original Summoner was mercilessly ragged on was in the graphical presentation. The world of the original game was massive-unfortunately, the draw distance was not. It was not an uncommon sight to watch an entire building draw itself in line by line before your very eyes in the original game. Pop-up, draw-in, and ugly character models were found in abundance in the game.
Summoner 2 fixes all of that. Draw-in is nowhere near as bad as it was in the first game (in fact, I barely noticed any at all) and most of the pop-up has been addressed as well. Character models are much more impressive, sporting more polygons per model and more rounded and human looking features.
The game features several CG cutscenes, which are also quite impressive in their execution. The opening cinema in particular is quite stunning.
About the only graphical hiccup the game has is a lackluster framerate. Summoner 2 seems to run at around 30 frames per second, but takes a hit when the action onscreen gets too frenetic. Because of this, the game can get a little choppy in spots, but never so bad that it detracts from the overall experience. Of course, considering all the flaws that Volition has fixed from the first game, living with a little bit of framerate drop isn’t too much to ask.
Nothing much to report here-Summoner 2 handles well, generally speaking. Maneuvering characters both in and out of combat is simple and the controls are tight and responsive. Switching between characters is a breeze, as well.
Summoner featured a decent score that was often just a little too soft to be fully appreciated. Summoner 2 ups the volume of the music, but the overall result left me feeling sort of underwhelmed.
The game features a lot of Eastern-styled music, and it’s good, but it never reaches the level of greatness. It’s not something you’ll find yourself humming after shutting off the PS2, and as I write this, I’m struggling to remember even a single track that was featured in the game.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is memorable-and in a good way. Summoner 2 features a fair amount of voiced text, and the voice acting is quite impressive. It appears as though the voice actors actually read the script in advance and understood the emotional pitch of each scene in the game. Because of this, the voice work has a dynamic quality that’s almost cinematic. Marbazan, in particular, is especially good.
Ultimately, Summoner 2 is a vast improvement over the original. Much like Sacnoth (who made a bad game in Koudelka but corrected their mistakes in Shadow Hearts), Volition has listened to the fans and critics and worked to correct the mistakes.
Summoner 2 is not a perfect game, but it will more than satisfy RPG fans who like a PC-styled experience on a console format. Kudos to Volition for working to improve the franchise.