Stranger of Sword City does a great job of living up to its name. Trapped in a weird, rather haunting fantasy world, you're constantly made to feel like an outsider – someone that's stumbled into a series of events that they can't quite comprehend. This is a dungeon crawler with an atmospheric edge, and although it doesn't do a great deal to differentiate its gameplay from other titles in the genre, it's a refined experience that role-playing game fans may get a lot of mileage from.
However, proceedings don't start off as smoothly as they should. After creating your own custom character, the title's systems and features are gradually explained as the story takes its first steps. Being a traditional dungeon crawler at its core, the game's complexity certainly warrants some kind of tutorial phase, but this initial section of your adventure lasts several hours, and really starts to seem like a slog – especially since your actions are severely limited in battle until your ragtag allies level up a few times.
Once you're finally left to explore various dungeons at your leisure and progress the plot at your own pace, Stranger of Sword City thankfully starts to come into its own. As hinted, this isn't a casual RPG – on the normal difficulty setting, combat can be rough if you enter a location underprepared or underlevelled, and allowing your party members to fall in battle has some pretty punishing consequences.
Speaking of which, your party is yours to customise, tweak, and develop as you see fit. You can create a balanced team of warriors, magic users, and ranged attackers, for example, or if you wanted, you could form a band of tanky dwarves and attempt to recreate The Hobbit. Having the ability to craft your own group of allies – all the way from giving them dumb nicknames to deciding their classes and statistics – is one of the game's best features, as it gives you ample opportunity to put your own personal spin on this lengthy journey.
Watching your comrades grow, gaining new skills and spells as they level up, is a rewarding process, especially since dungeon delving can be risky business. As you unlock more abilities and gain access to better equipment, the release really opens up as an increasingly tactical affair. Depending on enemy formations and the type of foe that you're up against, you'll quickly start to form strategies for each battle, and the turn based combat system as a whole ends up having a satisfying amount of depth to it, even if it doesn't necessarily do anything unique or particularly exciting.
When you're not facing off against monsters of all shapes and sizes, you'll mostly be traversing maze-like dungeons. Staying true to the genre, these labyrinths are home to hazardous traps, hidden treasures, and secrets. Exploration happens in first person as you move across a grid, one step at a time. As you'd expect, dungeon crawling is generally a slow and methodical process as you uncover the map bit by bit, all while being wary of traps and enemies.
Proceeding with caution is, more often than not, the best way to advance since you can quite easily stumble upon rare, powerful monsters or even optional bosses. As such, preparation and resource management play vital roles in emerging from a dungeon alive, although it is worth mentioning that the game provides an easier difficulty mode for those that perhaps aren't too enamoured with treating every delve like a suicide mission. That said, even with the difficulty lowered, Stranger of Sword City still isn't a walk in the park – it's just a touch more forgiving.
Boasting a cohesive combat system and some reasonably engaging exploration, this is an RPG that does an admirable job of keeping you interested – but it's the title's strange and imaginative setting that's the star of the show. Without its rich atmosphere and promising premise, Stranger of Sword City would come off as being just another game of numbers, but a great default art style and a cast of relatively interesting characters string you along and keep you invested. And yes, we did just use the word 'default' there; the release actually sports a second, optional art style that re imagines the characters in a modern anime look – but we honestly think that these more light-hearted, colourful designs don't play off the game's dark and serious tone anywhere near as well. Still, the rather unorthodox option is welcome all the same.
Indeed, there's a mature streak in the title's art direction and narrative that's compelling and even refreshing, considering so many Japanese RPGs adhere to stereotypical anime-inspired design these days. While the writing and the overall plot aren't anything special – once again falling into familiar territory with concepts like your character being a sort of chosen hero – the tale's punctuated by player choice, as you decide which of the world's three distinct factions gets to make use of your protagonist's powers – much to the narrative's benefit.
Despite its slow start, Stranger in Sword City matures into a compelling dungeon crawling RPG that's defined by its gritty atmosphere. Even though it doesn't bring anything especially new to the genre in terms of gameplay, it's a cohesive and well-crafted handheld experience, topped off with a setting that practically begs to be explored.