I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Summoner. On the one hand, it’s an enjoyable game that I keep coming back to no matter how long it’s been since I last played it. On the other hand it infuriates me at times. I really don’t know. So, let’s try and sort my thoughts out a little.
Summoner was effectively one of the launch RPGs for the PlayStation 2, and as such it took me a long while to work up to buying it – I don’t expect very good things from launch titles, and I’d heard even less in the way of good things about the PlayStation 2’s titles. So it was with some trepidation that I popped the disc in and watched the opening movie. The movie didn’t look too bad, actually. My first thought was something along the lines of “Wow, the locations in this game are pretty,” as the camera swooped through one of the (huge) locations in the game, quickly followed by the second thought, “Wow, all the characters are zombies.” You’ll understand what I mean when you see the main character – pallid skin tones are a common feature of the people of Summoner.
So, into the game I went. You play Joseph, a young man from the town of Ciran, who is this generation’s Summoner, meaning he can use rings to summon ancient beasts and control them. As you might expect, there is only one Summoner per generation, and Joseph has no desire to ever Summon again thanks to the way he attempted to save his hometown, which was being raided by soldiers, when he was young and ended up summoning a demon he couldn’t handle, utterly destroying the town. Having thrown away his Ring of Darkness, one of the 4 Rings of Summoning, Joseph flees, and settles in another town for the next few years, before it, too is raided by soldiers from the capital. At this point you come in, controlling Joseph as he tries to escape the town.
The first location is the now ruined and smoking town, filled with Orenian soldiers and tutorial messages. The tutorial is extremely helpful: it leads you through the first part of this area, giving you all the information you need while also being fairly unobtrusive. It’s also cancelable at any time, in case you’ve played the game before.
Eventually, you wind your way past the blockades and soldiers to the port, at which point you hop onto a boat and head downriver. My thoughts started conflicting as early as this location: It’s a very pretty game, for sure – the resolution of the graphics is high, they’re crisp, there’s nice transparency when the camera moves behind a building, the camera is very easily moved around with one of the analog sticks, and so on.
It all seemed to be very good, until I started moving. Summoner manages to lag the graphics, causing notable slowdown at least half the time, especially when in dungeons or large areas. I don’t know about you, but I expected far more from a new game than lag and slowdown, and it’s very annoying when you’re trying to concentrate on a battle and your character is actually stepping about twice every second.
So, then, let’s continue on to the battle system. The best way I can describe this is Vagrant Story 3D: you get close enough to an enemy that you can target it, select it, and Joseph will run up and swing at it with a sword, or shoot it with his bow.
If you’re using a sword, then at some point on his swing a small little chain will appear above Joseph’s head, at the moment of impact. Pressing a direction on the D-pad will chain the attack into another hit, which may do extra damage or cause status effects, depending on which you choose. During that swing, another chain will appear, and pressing a different direction will add another attack to the string, and so on until you get bored or you miss the chain, an easy task given the time available to you will get shorter and shorter.
This system could have really done with some limiting, however. Say you do the same thing I tend to do – play about 10 hours of a game to learn the system then restart. Joseph is perfectly capable, in the first area, of pulling off 18 hit combos, which as you’d expect decimates enemy soldiers very easily.
While you don’t have all the different Chain attacks available to you at the start – like Vagrant Story, you learn new chains by performing chains, though here there seems to be only two extra chains learnable past the initial 4 – there’s no limit on the number of chain attacks you can string together. While in a game like Vagrant Story this was fine and dandy – after all, you didn’t gain xp per se there, and thus your character didn’t especially change much – here in a game where you level and where levelling provides large bonuses, a limiter on the max combo based on level would have been a good idea.
In addition, no matter how it sounds, the combat is actually very slow – a feeling of sluggishness pervades most fights, hampering any excitement there may be.
Oh, yes, the levelling system. The way it works is this: when you level up, your character will utter a trite phrase and get a little green cross on their character portrait. Going into their Skills menu will reveal you have a number of skill points to put on such skills as different weapon types, magic types, general ‘usable’ skills (such as the thief’s Pick Lock), defense skills, and the like.
Again, there’s major munchkin potential here. If you’ve played through the game long enough to know which skills you use and which you don’t, there’s nothing to stop you dumping points onto the skills you use and those skills alone. The maximum level a skill can be is limited by your level – it can only be less or equal to your level, never above – but since the maximum skill level is 10 and the maximum character level is 28, and given it’s very easy to reach level 10, especially at the start where Joseph’s alone (and thus doesn’t have to ‘share’ the xp) you can get very powerful very fast, breezing through the earlier parts of the game.
Summoning is listed as a Skill, too, but not quite in the way you’d expect. Once you retrieve one of the 4 Rings of Summoning, you’ll gain the Skill: Summon and can start putting points into it just like any other skill. However, your actual skill value does not determine how strong your summon monsters are – instead, it determines what percentage of your xp is accumulated in the rings of summoning you are and aren’t wearing. The more xp in the ring, the more powerful the summoned monster is.
The downside to summoning monsters is that it’ll eat away at your maximum life – Joseph essentially ‘transfers’ a large block of his hit points to the monster, and if the monster dies in battle rather than being unsummoned by you – bang. You’ve lost those hit points for good. Given that the first monster you’ll get ‘costs’ about 80 HP, and you’ll have a max of around 250 at that point, it could very well put you off summoning for good throughout the game.
Spellcasting is also governed by skills, but in a rather more orthodox way. There are 6 sets of spells available: Heal is rather obvious, Holy is protection and boost spells, and the other groups are all different elements of attack spells. Increasing your rank in one of the spell groups gives you increased effect and more spells, so it’s vital to get Heal up as soon as possible. As for magic points, they regenerate slowly, so the only time you’ll ever have any real trouble with fights is in boss battles, when they’re dishing damage out for a longer period of time that you might not be able to heal fast enough.
So, back to the story, and after leaving the ruined town, Joseph is told to head for the capital and the palace, to search for a childhood friend and the other survivor of the demon-ruined town, an old beggar named Yago. This is where the lag becomes extremely evident – Summoner doesn’t skimp on it’s town design. The locations are huge and complex, and you quickly discover how bad the graphics engine is.
A little lesson: most 3d games nowadays have fog in the distance. This serves a nice simple purpose – it masks where the console / computer’s Z-buffering stops – meaning, effectively, that you won’t see walls and the like in the distance slowly materialize out of nowhere along the horizon. Summoner takes the ‘bold’ move of doing away with all the fog… but leaving the Z-buffering at a normal level, meaning you walk into town and suddenly out of nowhere, where there was initially sky, the town walls slide into reality. I don’t mean miles off into the distance, either – they’re close and it’s an extremely ugly effect, seriously marring the rest of the pretty graphics.
They are indeed pretty – the towns are huge, with appropriate architecture, winding alleys, and lots of side locations. Lenele, the major town of the game and the first you go to, has about 10 different sub-locations in it – the Outskirts, the Old Town, the Marketplace, the Royal District, the Temple District, the Sewers, the Palace, the Haven… it goes on and on, and while it’s annoying at the start when you’re trying to learn your way around town, it’s really rather cool once you know the area to have such a level of detail in the town.
This level of detail extends to NPCs – there are hundreds of townspeople wandering about, and it’s quite easy to spend all day real time talking to them. Hence, Summoner implements a Handy Idea – a little ! above the heads of anyone who has anything important, story-driven, or quest-related to tell you. It’s a very useful idea indeed, and without it doing or finding any of the quests would be near impossible.
Quests are a handy little experience builder. A good example of a quest is Zane’s Bow, a quest received in Lenele from a storekeeper. He’s had a bow stolen from him by bandits, and he wants you to go get it back. Simple enough? You wander onto the world map, and walk around for a while, waiting for a random encounter. These range from simple monster encounters – you’ll suddenly be standing in a forest with imps and skeletons around you, and have to wander around until you find the yellow line signifying an exit – to slightly more complex ones, like skirmishes between opposing forces of soldiers, to story driven ones… like this one, as you find yourself standing in front of a group of bandits who want to talk. Talking to them and promising not to attack or give away they’re still alive nets you the bow in question, and returning it to the shopkeeper gives you a hefty experience bonus.
The music of the game never especially grabbed me as being fantastic or terrible – it’s really just there and in the background, and I suppose that as a job description it works well for what it is. The grunts and shouts are real enough, and the voice acting in the movies seemed… well… fairly good, actually. I certainly wouldn’t call it the game’s strong point, but it’s definitely not as cringe-inducing as, say, Grandia 1’s voice acting. The option to stick subtitles on movies would have been preferable, however, since it can be hard to make out what quieter characters are saying.
As for control, the control of the character you’re currently using is perfect, and the rest is up to the AI of the game – while this can be lacking at times, it’s generally pretty good. Healers will heal people at low hit points, casters will lob off spells when they can (but show an alarming tendency to hit monsters you’re attacking with area spells, thus hurting you), fighters will clobber the monsters with axes. I personally found the best way to go was to make everyone a healer – that way, they’d fight unless someone needed healing – except for the thief, who I controlled. That made it very hard for me to die, and if a healer showed signs of being stubborn and not healing someone, it’s very easy to drop into the spell menu and tell them to cast something.
Summoner is packed with lots of little nifty things – weapon and armour speeds, giving you the ability to have the slow but unstoppable warrior, or the fast and responsive thief, paperdolling of your armour (always a plus, to be seen wearing what you’reactually wearing), the absolutely awesome hidden movie, the sheer amount of people in towns, the extra quests, the pretty innovative way of summoning things, the different tactics available to your other party members (you can, however, switch between them at will), the areas where Flece goes solo and the game becomes Medieval Gear Solid – there’s all sorts of little things that make up for some of the bad points.
Overall, Summoner is a good game. It may not be great, but it’s good enough to make me keep coming back and holding my interest. While the launch RPGs weren’t too good, Summoner is the cream of their crop, and for UK readers at this time definitely the best PS2 RPG out. I can describe it best as Vagrant Secret of Mana, with Diablo and Baldur’s Gate tendencies. And, of course, a worrying lack of fog. Don’t these countries ever get rain?