SUMMON NIGHT: SWORDCRAFT STORY / Atlus / GBA
Summon Night is yet another one of those obscure Japanese RPGs dredged up by Atlus and translated years after its original release. I don't mean to suggest that it is a bad game by that, it is actually pretty solid and shows good polish. However, it also doesn't do anything new or outstanding, and when the 10-15 hours of gameplay wrapped up it just left me with a Meh face sort of feeling.
There's a few specific reasons for that, but let's cover the basics first. The most interesting thing about the game is the setting - it takes place in this sort of steampunk-meets-Waterworld locale. You are an apprentice Craftknight, fighters who protect the town of Wystern, but who also craft their own weapons both for military use and to sell to other countries. Despite the whole military/weaponry theme the game is extremely cutesy, with more than a dash of the ol' Pokiemans to it (and seems to be targeted to the same audience.)
So, you're fighting in this tournament, the winner of which becomes the next Craftlord. However, there's also a 50-floor dungeon beneath the town, into which you'll have to venture repeatedly both to get materials for crafting weapons, and also due to various plot events. Despite that, the game isn't really a dungeon crawl - the dungeon is way too small and simplistic, first of all, and you also spend quite a bit of time visiting other cities by boat and going through mini-dungeons there. So the structure is really just the typical console RPG, but you create new weapons instead of buying them, and just have a really small world in which to move around.
The other unique quality is that the game uses a derivative of the combat engine used in Tales of Phantasia. It is a little simpler here and has less options, but also is a bit smoother and works a little better on the whole. It still isn't great, though. It is fast, and more fun than the usual menu-based boringness, but the hero is still a bit clunky when it comes to jumping and turning quickly, and you don't have much for options beyond "hack away", "cast spell" or "block". You have a variety of weapons at your disposal, but frankly, everything else sucks compared to the sword. You also only get one fixed set of spells to use, meaning the game experience doesn't vary much between plays, even though you can choose the gender of the hero and the "Summon Beast" you get (whom you call to cast spells for you in combat.)
What's good about the game is that it performs well, or at least capably, in pretty much every aspect. Combat is fast and fairly fun, the plot is "kiddie" but the characters are very likable (and 100% free of Wangst), the graphics are simple but colorful and appealing, the localization is good, the music is of original Game Boy caliber as far as sound samples but the quality of the compositions is passable to decent.
I think the dungeon is the main failing of the game, really. It is set up as this major centerpiece of the plot, but you actually don't go into it all that much. For the first 90% of the game, you don't go past the 20th floor, then for the endgame you suddenly bulldoze your way through the 30 remaining floors all at once. And when you do, you find out that they are all just as small, simple and lacking in any interactivity as all the other previous floors are. Random encounter rates are also frequently jacked up to once about every five steps, seemingly just to add padding to the very short and undemanding dungeon floors.
So the game starts out intriguing, but after a couple hours you quickly realize the story isn't going anywhere beyond Saturday Animu conventions and the dungeon is never actually going to get very exciting. That leaves you with an OK game as a time-killer, but far from a great one. It was interesting enough that I'm willing to check out the sequel at some point, however.
... and when I get a sex change!
* Gameplay Video