It’s always nice when a lesser-known game from a niche genre can escape the confines of one worldwide region and reach a wider audience. Whilst JRPGs continue to be incredibly popular worldwide, dungeon RPGs have seen somewhat of a drop-off in both popularity and number – especially in the west. Granted, there have been some exceptions, with the enduring Etrian Odyssey enjoying popularity throughout the last decade and a few surprises hits from Compile Heart keeping the genre alive, but overall many players have either moved on to straight turn-based RPGs or more action-led experiences.
However, it seems NIS America isn’t ready to let the genre die just yet, with the release of a DRPG double pack; Saviors of Sapphire Wings / Strangers of Sword City Revisited. Whilst the two games have been packaged together and share some common aspects, there is quite a lot of difference between them.
The main title in the pack; Saviors of Sapphire Wings, is still a relatively new game, having originally released on PSVita in Japan in 2019. Bundled with it is Strangers of Sword City Revisited, an older title originally released on Xbox 360 nearly a year after the XBONE’s release, but which also migrated to PSVita and XBONE over the years. The version included is an updated version, closest to the PSVita port.
Saviors is a true call-back to retro first-person dungeon crawlers, with a real focus on exploration and slowly building out your map of a dungeon as you progress. The story begins at the end of another story, with a cast of vibrant and interesting characters introduced from the get-go. It’s pretty standard RPG fare, with ancient prophesies and reincarnated heroes filling out the bingo sheet, but the plot eventually builds into something quite special with the world’s survival left in the player’s hands. I got really quite attached to the cast of characters and enjoyed seeing them work together to overcome the odds. I was pleased to also notice a lack of over-the-top fan service in attendance, as most modern titles in the genre seem to lean into it these days. There are some mechanics to help you bond with the crew; talking to them and sharing meals with them to be precise; but overall there was a good balance between visual-novel elements and what you actually come to a game like this for; dungeon crawling.
Luckily, the dungeon crawling and combat systems are excellent. Combat is slick and deep, and whilst some may miss the dynamic nature of combat as seen in modern turn-based RPGs, there is plenty here to stick your teeth into. As the party explores each dungeon, they level up and find better gear, giving you the chance to improve and customise each character to your needs. The combat is very intense, with multiple challenge spikes throughout the runtime, but there are plenty of ways to improve your party as you go – from burning unnecessary gear for a party buff to enhancing individual characters through bonding with the soul-rank system. I enjoyed how much I had to think about the real strengths of each character to proceed, as it added a true depth to party customisation and led me to a greater appreciation of their unique personalities and abilities. The dungeons and quests themselves were also well-designed, and consistently relevant to the story. They say variety is the spice of life and I was glad to find that not every quest felt like I was fetching something for a randomer.
Stranger, however, is quite a different beast with a dark charm to it. Whilst the characters themselves are no-where near as interesting as they are in Saviors – they are intended as blank slates to be customised – I still enjoyed the overall plot and feel of the world they inhabit. Following an airplane crash, the player’s characters are forced to explore an alternate dimension full of Lineage creatures. Each of these can imbue the party with powerful Divinity spells, but they are a real challenge to beat, with difficulty spikes that could make a grown man weep. Because of this, character customisation and maximisation is key, with an intricate and deep system of attribute levelling to contend with. Your characters are incredibly flexible, with classes and skills begin fully customisable, and you’ll quickly find that despite the lack of real character to them you do become quite attached. Unfortunately, the downside to this is that when they die – and be warned, permadeath is a feature in this title – you’ll be left bereft and distraught. There’s so much I could say about Stranger, as it’s full of little unique mechanics that contribute to the overall brilliance of it – ambushing enemy convoys and running an ever-changing list of errands for NPCs for example – but unfortunately, it’s a game which will lose the attention of many due to the often crushing difficulty. Alas, I was unable to finish this one, but for those of you with more patience, Stranger can be very satisfying to play.
Despite their differences, both have a powerful, unique aesthetic. Saviors opts for a cuter, anime-esque look and feel for it’s cast alongside beautifully realised enemies. Honestly, some of the boss designs took my breath away. A neat feature I also noticed was the ability to change party portraits, giving each character that little bit of extra customisability that you wouldn’t expect. Overall, the 2D design is beautiful, and whilst I would have liked a little more detail in the 3D dungeon exploration sections I can’t dock too many points for that alone. On the other hand, Stranger has a darker, moodier feel to it, and drips with detail throughout. It’s eerie, gripping, and dark, which just adds to the brutal and heavy atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack of this one, as it creates a heroic, yet somewhat hopeless feel to the world. It’s straight out of the mind of an angsty teenage D&D player whose parents “just don’t understand,” and I love it. Another element I love about this package is the consistency between the creatures of the games. Yes, the art style is completely different, but it’s clear that monster designs were shared between the two and I liked seeing how certain creatures are reimagined in the different styles.
Overall then, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my time with these two DRPG behemoths. Granted, the engine does feel somewhat dated in 2021, but the sheer style and depth on show is more than enough to make up for these hiccups. This package will not be for everyone, as both are tricky and Stranger, in particular, can be like throwing yourself repeatedly against a brick wall, but if you’re a fan and/or veteran of the genre I can highly recommend giving this a look. Either one of these games would be worth the entry fee – though if you’re newer, I’d recommend Saviors over Stranger, at least at first.
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Developers: Experience Inc., Codeglue
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