Experience Inc has definitely been busy lately with the Western releases of both Stranger of Sword City and Ray Gigant being in quick succession. Whilst Ray Gigant was really fun and brought some great new things to the table it was definitely geared more towards newcomers to the genre and was a little bit too easy for my liking. So will SoSC be enough to satisfy my dungeon crawling itch? Let’s find out!
The game begins with a news report about the disappearance of a plane. The plane was travelling from Japan to Alaska when it disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, as you can probably guess, it’s the plane that you were travelling on! You wake up, as the only survivor, in a dingy old ruin. You have somehow crashed in a dark fantasy world filled with strange races, fierce monsters and dangerous labyrinths.
You soon find out that there are many other people from your world who have somehow ended up here. You are one of the chosen few who has the rare ability to defeat and take blood crystals from fearsome monsters known as Lineages.
There are three factions in this world; the Stranger’s Guild lead by Riu, the Kingdom headed by Marilith, and the Medell Company which is run by Alm. All three faction leaders are Vessels, each of them linked to a different God and they can absorb the blood crystals that you obtain. By giving these crystals to one of the Vessels you gain access to powerful Divinity Skills that can be used in battle. It’s your choice which of the Vessels to give blood crystals to and each has different skills.
Your overall goal in SoSC is to try to find out why people keep getting pulled from our world into this other strange realm and to try to find a way back home. The story is an interesting and intriguing set up, but as with a lot of dungeon crawlers it’s fairly slow to unfold and takes a bit of a back seat to the action.
When the game begins you’ll get to create your own protagonist and shortly afterwards you’ll also be given the ability to create a team of allies to journey with. There are a lot of options to choose from – you can choose a character portrait, gender, class, race, voice and age. If you wanted to you could create a 99 year old female warrior who looks like a spell caster but sounds like a young man, it really is up to you.
SoSC is a fairly typical first person dungeon crawler but with one feature which really does ramp up the difficulty. Perma-death. If one of your characters dies in battle and has no more life points then that character is dead for good. Age is not just a number in this game; the younger your character then the more life points they have and so they can be revived more times before they permanently die. Older characters on the other hand will have less life points but have better statistics and are therefore stronger.
The age you decide to make your characters will definitely depend on your preferred play style. If you want you can create a stronger party of older men and women and hope that with their better stats they’ll destroy any monsters that dare to confront you, and in the unfortunate case they die then just replace them like the mad cackling dictator you’ve always wanted to be (or is that just me?!). Or you might prefer to be a bit more careful by banding together a group of young heroes who, although weaker, can be revived. As long as they still have at least one life point then you can leave them in hospital for a week or so to recover.
It takes roughly a week of in-game time to revive someone and recover a life point. This can feel frustratingly slow at times, the only way to pass time is to fight battles but when you’ve just lost your best fighters things can be really tough which of course can lead to more death and therefore an even weaker party. There is however one benefit to losing access to some of your favourite party members however, it really does get you to experiment more with different classes and different party set ups. I played around with different set ups far more than I ever did with Demon Gaze which overall greatly improved my understanding of all the various classes.
Speaking of classes, a really great new feature is the ability to change your class. If you’ve always wanted a wizard with the ability to use bows from the back row or a knight that can hide and assassinate then now you get to create one! By talking to Riu in the Stranger’s Guild you can change your class but can still use the skills learnt from your previous class. This adds a whole new depth to character creation as you can change classes up to five times and so I had great fun plotting out exactly how I wanted my characters to grow and what skills I wanted them to learn. The downside to changing classes is that your level reduces by half so you’ll have to spend a little bit of time to get them back to the same level that they were originally at.
If you’ve played one of Experience Inc’s previous DRPG’s then you’ll be familiar with the various tricks and traps used in the dungeons like one way water streams, hidden doors and poison/lava floors. Although this all feels a bit familiar you’re also given a fair bit of freedom which helps to alleviate the familiarity. You’ll be given access to a number of different dungeons at any one time and it’s up to you to decide which Lineage to hunt down first. It’s really refreshing to play a dungeon crawler with a bit of freedom. You can make your way through one dungeon, realise that you don’t have quite the right skills or aren’t high enough level and instead start working on a different dungeon and hunting different Lineages before returning back to the first.
Hunting down Lineages is fun and you’ll need to do different things to get them to appear. Some will only appear if you have certain items in your inventory whereas others will need you to ambush in certain locations or stay in a battle for a certain number of turns. By talking to various people in-game you’ll get given hints on what to do or where to try to find them so if you ever get stuck then it’s worth heading back to the Stranger’s Guild to get some hints.
There aren’t any save points in the dungeons so, especially with perma-death, running from battles and playing things safe is definitely key! It can feel awesome when you get through a boss fight with no deaths but then, mere moments later, deeply frustrating when the next battle you get into you end up losing half your team and haven’t been able to save.
In some dungeons you’ll come across Magical Stones which act as warp points in and out of the dungeon. This saves you from having to walk all the way back through a dungeon, unfortunately though they aren’t always available. Lineages can revive and when they do you aren’t able to access the Magical Stone until you’ve walked all the way through the dungeon back to that Magical Stone and defeated it again. It can be a bit of a drag to leave a dungeon to recover and save but then not be able to warp back to where you were.
Things will feel pretty tough at first, there are no save points in the dungeon and you start off with pretty crappy equipment. But there are certain places in every dungeon where you will be able to hide and ambush monsters. These monsters will be protecting a chest and if you defeat the monsters before they can run away then you’ll get to keep whatever is inside. This system works a bit like the Demon Circles in Demon Gaze and it can be a great way to get new more powerful equipment as well as grind a few levels.
Another cool feature is that you get to choose the visual style of the NPCs; you can either go for Yoko Tsukamoto’s art work or a more anime inspired style by En Okishiji. I mainly stuck with Tsukamoto’s style as I found it suited the gritty style of the game much better but it is a fun option to be able to switch between the two whenever you like. I really liked the artwork of all of the monsters and the dungeons but think the battles would have looked a lot better if all your attacks were actually shown instead of just being flashes of light and text boxes to describe what happened.
I’m not going to lie, I actually found SoSC to be pretty tough. It can feel really unfair at times to have enemies with 1-hit kill abilities in a game which also has perma-death. The lack of save points in-dungeon and the re-appearing Lineages can sometimes make the game feel a bit of a drag. I did rage quit a few times after losing certain favourite characters but I found it difficult to keep away for long. There’s definitely something about SoSC that keeps you coming back for more. You can’t help but think that maybe if you tried a slightly different party setup or different weapons that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get slightly further next time and kick the ass of the Lineage that just 1-hit killed your favourite Samurai.
Overall, SoSC is a damn good dungeon crawler, it’s beautiful to look at and will keep you playing for quite a while but be forewarned that it is tough. If you’re a newcomer to the genre then I’d suggest trying Ray Gigant first. If you’re already a fan then I would definitely recommend you give this a try as it is really engrossing to build up a kick-ass team and go hunt down all the Lineages.