The world is a pretty amazing place - from the Egyptian pyramids to the coral reefs to the wtf-ness of Japan, there's so much to see, and so little time to do it. But with teleportation a far off fantasy, there's really only one way to reach the far flung corners of the earth, and that's by plane. And as someone with a bit of a fear of flying and an astonishing ability to catastrophise even the most mundane of things, it's not exactly something I'm fond of. Despite how rare they may be, plane crashes do happen, and the idea of hurtling through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour, hundreds of miles up in the air is enough to put us off the idea of travel for life - especially when we can just sit at home, with our feet firmly on the ground and look at pictures on the internet instead. Safely. And, by handy coincidence, Stranger of Sword City, the latest dungeon crawler from NIS America, only serves to cement our decision to abstain from all airborne forms of transportation.
As the only survivor of a plane crash that somehow landed in a different dimension, Stranger of Sword City certainly lives up to its name in the opening hours - you really do feel like someone who's stumbled into another world, with no idea what's going on. Characters mutter about Lineage Types, Blood Crystals and Chosen Ones with little to no explanation of what they actually are, as you fumble your way through a character creation screen and a few battles, most likely finding yourself getting knocked out in each and every one. As the hours pass by, things start to make a little more sense - you're one of a number of folks, known as Strangers, who've somehow found themselves in this mysterious dimension, and along with the change of scenery comes a number of mysterious powers. And so it falls to you and your not-so-merry band of adventurers to take on the powerful monsters known as Lineage Types to protect the folks of the Sword City, preventing them from resurrecting by swiping the source of their power - the Blood Crystals.
A first-person dungeon crawler - a rare sight these days - Stranger of Sword City is pretty hardcore, with many a labyrinth-like dungeon to explore, and oodles of monsters to beat up, with each of the dungeon set up in such a way as that you likely won't make it out alive without having done a heck of a lot of grinding. In the gaming parlance, this basically means you'll spend the bulk of your time repeatedly getting into battles in an effort to make your team more powerful, before promptly legging it back through the corridors and sprinting to the nearest town to heal, revive, and generally patch up your wounds. The intention is that each time you venture into the dungeon, you can get that little bit further - but that's easier said than done.
Battles are traditionally turn-based, with you and your enemies exchanging blows, defending, or slinging spells at each other until one of you runs out of health. Theoretically, you're meant to be the one coming out victorious, but Stranger of Sword City's difficulty tends to spike all over the place. One minute you'll be cutting your way through a group of monsters in seconds, the next you'll be hitting a hugely overpowered one that will wipe out half your party in one go - while others, such as the immensely annoying fairy-beast, the Quincey, repeatedly cast avoid spells to the point where they dodge your every attack, and you're stuck in a twenty minute stalemate instead. Magic spells tend to deal way more damage than physical attacks, but come at a bit of a price - with a finite amount of magic points to power them, and prohibitively rare and expensive restorative items, you'll likely want to pass on using your magic 99% of the time, just in case you need it later. Because without magic points, your spell-wielding characters are basically useless.
The ability to create your own party before venturing forth does have its perks, however, and gives you a little bit of freedom with how you put your squad together. With dozens of anime-inspired portraits, several different races, abilities and classes to choose from, you can get quite into crafting yourself the perfect set of six adventurers to join you on your travels through the Labyrinths. During battle, your team operates on two rows, with the front row drawing most of the enemy fire - it makes sense to plonk your tough guys and gals, such as your knights and fighters, there to absorb the bulk of the damage while your weaker wizards, clerics and rangers hang around behind, slinging spells and such from a safe distance. You can also give your characters an age, but there's actually a bit of a catch here, and one you should be aware of before you put your team together. Whatever you do, we'd suggest not trying to match the number to their looks, as you may find yourself in a bit of a pickle further down the line. Far from just a superficial number, the age you choose for your character plays into Stranger of Sword City's most irritating mechanic - a little thing known as perma-death.
It's not quite Fire Emblem levels of once-they're-defeated-they're-never-coming-back, but defeated characters do only have a finite number of revivals in them, with younger characters having more than older folks. Revival isn't instant either, at least not if you don't want to file for bankruptcy any time soon, and the number of in-game 'days' you need to wait for your characters to come back from the brink also scales with their set age - days which only pass when you're exploring dungeons. Of course, they can't be in your party and in hospital recovering at the same time, so you'll likely need to create yourself a whole set of six more substitutes, ready to step in when your favourites get defeated - which means having to work on keeping your subs on a similar level too. Basically, you'll need to grind enough for twelve characters, chopping and changing your team frequently - and with Stranger of Sword City's meagre experience points rewards and subsequently slow levelling up, it really starts to drag.
Your attacks may seem pretty underpowered most of the time, at least in comparison to the comparatively stronger enemies - but buying new weapons from the dwarf in town has very little effect for rather a lot of money. Arguably your best bet for bolstering your attack power is making use of Stranger of Sword City's most interesting mechanic, which lets you hide in certain areas of the dungeons and ambush passing enemies. If you manage to take out the 'leader' of the pack, you'll get his box of loot as a prize, which generally contains far better equipment than you'll be able to buy from the store. The only catch is that the 'leader' will flee after a handful of turns, taking his treasure with him, and leaving his lackeys to sort you out - as such, a successful ambush is relatively rare, but well worth trying regardless, because the rewards can be worth it.
At its heart, Stranger of Sword City is a hardcore dungeon crawler, aimed squarely at those who prefer their games with a large slice of challenge. For the rest of us however, its dodgy difficulty spikes, lack of any explanations or directions and lengthy grinds for higher levels make it feel too unfair - while it's odd perma-death/revival mechanic is the final straw. Its character creation is solid, its ambush mechanic interesting and its setting a gritty alternate dimension, but those alone cannot a game make, unfortunately. If you have a dungeon crawling itch that needs scratching, there's many more better games that you could play that aren't quite so unaccommodating as Stranger of Sword City.
Format Reviewed: PC