Say what you want about the Vita’s presence (or lack thereof) in the current video game market but there is no denying that it is a treasure trove of unique games that you really won’t find anywhere else. When it all comes down to it, the Vita specialises in three genres: Visual Novels, Rhythm Games, and Japanese RPGS. If you’re into any or all of these genres, then the Vita was simply made for you. While there is usually very little in the way of physical releases, the Vita has simply embraced digital distribution for the better as many titles that would have been impossible to release and distribute physically can now easily make their way to the PlayStation store with minimum costs and fuss. Everyone wins really, small publishers can get games on the digital store without having to worry about retailers, and gamers get easy access to a larger library games they wouldn’t see on store shelves. When it comes to niche Japanese games in the aforementioned genres, digital distribution on the Vita is practically heaven sent. The latest JRPG to land on the Vita is Stranger of Sword City, mostly available as a digital title but if you really wanted to you could find a physical copy while they are still available. Curiously enough, it doesn’t have a companion release of the PlayStation 4 as it is with most Vita games. Instead, the console version of Stranger of Sword City is on the Xbox One of all things…. but on to the game at hand.
Stranger of Sword City is a first person dungeon crawling JRPG in similar vein to the Etrian Odyssey series and many titles from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and of course paying homage to genre legends such as Shining in the Darkness (Mega Drive) and Shining the Holy Ark (Saturn). Stranger of Sword City follows many of the conventions, such as using a first person viewpoint for dungeon exploration and battles, featuring gorgeous but un-animated stills for enemies, largely menu based town exploration, and a lot of freedom when it comes customisation of characters. In Stranger of Sword City, your party members can be whatever you choose them to be, with a number of different classes to choose from and being able to customise them to your will. This is great for those who enjoy this level of freedom, but those hoping for more defined and structured characters and development as it is the case with contemporary JRPGs like Final Fantasy, might feel mildly disappointed.
That being said, Stranger of Sword City has a story that is filled with mystery and intrigue… if not a little spooky. The story starts with you, the protagonist, boarded on a plane when things suddenly go wrong and the flight goes off its scheduled route and vanishes. Note that this plot was written years before certain real world events, and it’s times like these where the “this game is a work of fiction” disclaimer warning at the start-up screen couldn’t be more appropriate. When you come to, you find yourself in a mysterious dungeon and immediately encounter a creepy old man that you reluctantly trust. That soon proves to be a bad idea as he leads you to be devoured by a creature, but luckily a mysterious sword-wielding woman comes in to the rescue.
This woman, much like you, ended up in this strange world after a freak event, and there are many others like her that collectively call themselves Strangers. You soon sign up to the Strangers Guild and figure out what you need to do, which is to explore this hostile environment and unravel its mysteries, more importantly how (and why) everyone ended up here. In doing so, you need to hunt a range of creatures, in particular the Lineage, which are powerful bosses that you need to search and destroy. While there isn’t much in terms of interpersonal and emotional character development, Stranger of Sword City does present a mysterious world for you to explore and figure out, backed by an intriguing premise. In other words, Stranger of Sword City is much like Dungeons and Dragons, even in its gameplay conventions.
The gameplay is similar to the tried and tested conventions of this sub genre, exploring a range of dungeons and labyrinths in a first-person maze like fashion. In exploring these many locations you discover some cool quirks, such as being able to land an ambush in certain areas, and overcoming traps and such. It is addicting for sure, as you try to explore every inch of an area and stumble upon some neat treasures. Every excursion allows you to progress in some manner, whether its hunting a new Lineage or collecting the funds and items needed to upgrade your character, not to mention adding new skills to your character’s repertoire. Being able to switch between classes is handy too, allowing you to mould your characters in whichever shape or form you like.
Unsurprisingly, Stranger of Sword City is a challenging game that pulls no punches, not to mention it has a rather steep learning curve. It will take several hours before your party of hunters and explorers are strong enough to really dive into the game. Stranger of Sword City is a slow burn that demands patience, and it has so many little hooks and systems to learn.
Visually the game is beautiful, and largely comprises of artwork rather than any graphical fidelity outside of spell effects. You get to choose between two very distinct art styles, plus a nice extra. The first is the original artwork by Yoko Tsukamoto, which was used in the original Xbox 360 release and carries a dark and beautiful medieval flair. The alternative artwork, introduced in this Vita (and One) version, is done by Oxijiyen, and it carries a stronger anime flair that looks a lot cuter and cheery than the dark and broody style of Tsukamoto.
Personally, I prefer the original style but some might prefer the more anime style visuals of Oxijiyen. Finally, you can also choose the art style of Satomi Murakami, with character designs coming straight out of Students of Round. For the uninitiated, Students of Round is another Dungeon RPG by the same developer, and was released in Japan for the Xbox 360. While it never got localised, Students of Round is actually one of the top five most popular Xbox 360 games in Japan.
Stranger of Sword City may not reinvent the wheel, but it is an absorbing, challenging, and very well designed dungeon RPG that any fan of this niche genre will get a lot of enjoyment out of. Personally, I found myself enjoying it more than the Etrian Odyssey games, and so if you’re a JRPG fan looking for something that will keep your Vita occupied, then Stranger of Sword City is a worthwhile addition to your Vita collection.