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I Wondered What That Mark On My Hand Was
By: Noj Airk
A loss of several years of work. Thatís the best way to describe Volitionís Summoner, one of the original RPGís for the PS2, and easily as deep as the other three launch RPGís combined. With a phenomenal storyline, amazing graphical textures, tons of translation and a nice original interface, itís a real shame to see that the final product is ever-so-slightly above average as a final release, if even above average at all. The game starts off on the right foot, where you arenít sitting in your peaceful house, chilling with friends and have to go through 20 minutes of dialogue to enter the first battle or major plot point. After a short couple of narrationís, first by a narrator briefing the player on the history of the civilization, and then a second by Joseph, the main character talking about his troubled past, you are immediately thrown into an attack upon your village, which now lies in chaos, engulfed in flames. Your only mission: escape. With this opening sequence, not only do you gain enough hatred towards the antagonists to desire ultimate victory upon them, but also a nice tutorial (skip-able for replay) that nicely teaches you to play the game. However, itís in keeping up this interest, in both playing the game, and wanting to kill the evil force of the land, that the game falters.
The interface is easy to manipulate, and is fun to work when you get a chance to do the more fun stuff with it. These include equipping new armaments, or putting your newly gained ability points to your stats to make yourself more powerful or fluid in a particular field of expertise (such as lock-picking, or identifying magical items). However, one problem is that these events are very far between, as there are very few stores that sell more-powerful equipment than which you already posses, and there are only 30 levels to gain for each character, which means, with such a long game, that youíll only do these "fun things", at most, about once every hour. The other main flaw that makes gameplay so boring is that every area is very, very large, in all three dimensions frequently, and as such, finding your way to the end to continue can be tough, and loading times can be up to a good 15-20 seconds long for each location. Also, in each of these areas can be tons of secrets, all of them hard to find, countless people to talk to, or an entire army of monsters, waiting for you to approach them. However, while uneventful the interface makes the game, at least it works well enough, and is of decent size enough for it to be acceptable for the most part. For instance, rather than just equipping one piece of armor, or three or four, but you equip for almost every part of the body imaginable, such as the torso, legs, feet, neck, and even a few ring or magical item slots. Walking around is simple enough, and while obstructions in the path are frequent, some of the times you canít see them, itís not because of the camera, but because the colors or the visibility between obstruction and path are so similar that you wouldnít guess that itís an un-walkable location. The camera is movable, and you can even choose whether you want an aerial view, an eye-to-eye, or have the game choose at various moments when it would be best to choose, such as when casting an attack spell in which knowing your enemy locations is essential.
The battle system is like a cross between Baldurís Gate and Legend of Dragoon, with a bit of Secret of Mana thrown in. One with the walking interface, as with all action/RPG battle systems, itís just as much about positioning as it is action, be it for a long ranged spell or projectile, or a close range melee attack. Spells work in one of three ways: area, self-affecting, and individual targeting. Many of these will also mix, such as a fireball targets an enemy, but creates a fire around them, so any enemies that donít move will be hurt by the flames, or the spell inferno, which sets off an explosion that hurts all enemies within a medium sized circle around you. However, as almost anyone would guess, the simple projectile spells make up a good 70% of all the spells and magical abilities. The melee combat works in a way similar to Legend of Dragoon, where every attack you make, you can increase the power and strike again by hitting a button at the perfect time. This time is depicted by a mobius-like chain icon, representing "chain attacks"; hitting one of the four directional buttons during this time will activate another attack, or a pre-programmed special ability. With each time you move again, the chain icon timing grows shorter, making it harder to make chain attacks, but after ĺ of the game as practice, one can occasionally get into the lower teens before they miss a chain and allow the enemy to move. Summons work similar to Final Fantasy X, where instead of executing a special ability, they usually stay in the heat of the battle until they are defeated, or you leave the current location. They interact as a fifth party member, however, so they can act as a helping hand, a diversionary tactic, or a means of escape. If you choose to control the summoned creatures, as you can any of the party members, you can with attacks, once again activate chains, or you can cast some nice spells that maybe they have access to, but your characters donít. However, these spells are one of the major problems with the battle system, because your party members have exceedingly low AI. While like in Parasite Eve, the ability points (AP) recharge through time, it is common for a person with strong magic to use all of their AP on useless attacks; they donít even know enough, commonly, to cast a fire spell when they see an ice creature. Low AI hits the game harder than it should, for frankly, the battling is even more repetitive than that of the Dynasty Warriors titles. Like with Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, itís a real shame to see a really intuitive battle system fail to reach its potentialÖperhaps by even a long shot.
The graphics in the game, however, are depicted well by the battle system. If you cast a flame projectile spell and pause, you can move in close to the image and play 3-D stop action like that in The Matrix. The character faces in the menu are quite decent for 2001, each item of equipment makes your character appear differently, and the locations are very, very polygon high. Strangely, the graphics are the opposite of those found in Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, the primary competitor PS2 launch RPG; in Orphen, the graphics werenít very impressive in the polygon count, but the amazing lighting, textures and vibrant colors, the graphics made it a nice early showpiece for the PS2. Summoner instead has very poor lighting and colors, making the locations very drab and sometimes downright uninteresting most of the time. Itís the super-high polygon display that makes the graphics what they are, despite that the textures are very ugly...or are they? The graphics and gameplay here come into a counter-active paradox: when the gameís textures are viewed from up close, they commonly surpass even those in Final Fantasy X, but the gameplay requires you look at the game from the distant view to play well. This farther eye distance also poses another, even greater visual problem: framerate. The framerate seems to drop to only 10-15 FPS when you look at the game from a distance and thatís after already cutting the amazing textures to practically single colors. The spells are also commonly drab, yet somewhat nice when looked upon closely, except the summoning, be it to battle, or to cast a single spell, look amazing. With huge locations and some nice effects, however, loading times can be a tad cumbersome, to say the least. Tragically, however, I wouldnít even say that some of the detail or additional useless portions of locations should even add to the loading time; they should have just been cut.
Another thing that detracts from the game is the sound. Personally, I like a chunk of the music in the game, and feels that the one who composed it has some real potential. However, the music is reminiscent of soundtracks like Silent Hill, where a soundtrack could call for more cinematic or orchestrated material, but the developers decide a mostly ambient soundtrack is adequate. Some of the tracks, such as the outer world theme, the Lanelle sewers, and the daytime forest battles all feature greatly composed tracks that just speak epic. However, being overly ambient in nature, the soundtrack can be a bore most of the time.The foley that is heard is quite nice, however. However, the healing spells sound exactly like the offensive spells in Shadow Madness, and most of them are much higher in the treble department rather than the bass department, making them clear but shallow sounding. But apart from that, the sounds are rather nice when heardÖthatís right, when heard. The real problem with the sound department isnít any of the sounds in the game, but the fact that about a third of the way through the game, almost all of the sound effects become very seldom in battle. It would seem itís because they werenít sure if the PS2 could handle so many polygons, movements, the musical score and all the sound effects at once, for some reason. Man, what a mistake. One real mixed bag about the audio, however, is the voice acting. Personally I thought most of the voices were quite well acted, as voices like Joseph, Yago and especially the narrator all sounded great in all the scenes. Itís just a shame that all the spoken lines had to be rare, and possibly the worst lines in the whole game.
The writing in the actual game is perfectly fine. With almost no errors to be found whatsoever, in the dialogue the NPCís deliver throughout the game, important or not, that would literally take several hundred pages to type it all on a word-processor. The lines arenít anything that stick out, but there are tons and tons of things to be said by these people, and it seldomly becomes uninteresting. Well, that is, until youíve been "texted out", as a player. This game gives you a sea of text and frankly, I was bored out of my mind after just the first few hours by the amazingly high amount I had to read; especially because like all RPGís, many questions will be posed now that will be answered many hours later. Imagine any of the Final Fantasy titles, but every time you talk to someone, you get a short monologue, and every important story is about 20 of those. Super amounts of text tied with the fact that the characters very rarely speak themselves makes the story move at a very slow and often uninteresting pace. Itís a real shame, because as I got to the final 12 hours of the game, the story really started to sweep me back into it. Throughout most of the game, I thought the story was just as uninspired and practically non-existent as in games like Baldur's Gate, Legend of Mana and Chrono Cross. In all actuality, itís just as deep in terms of both the world, history and dark turn of events as games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shadow Madness, or just about any non-Xeno title youíve ever played. Itís just a shame to see, again, a plot not live up to its potential. The plot is reasonably creative as well, but very few events will make one jump out of their chair like some like those in Final Fantasy VII, but there were a few times that I did say: "Ah, so thatís it, huh?!" However, like with how jokes are only funny once, shock value is only good once without strong cinematic qualities, or very interesting storytelling techniques. Sadly, there are literally none in the whole game, and as such, replay value is moderate at best. Still, however, I will admit that there are a few things I would like to understand better via a second run through, and there were parts that I thought were quite fun. But, as any of you would know if youíve read any of my other reviews, I like playing RPGís again just for narrative or fun. Maybe itís just me, but I can only grade based on what I feel.
Overall, for reasons I would recommend a play through of this game, and others I would not. The recent release of Summoner 2, with high critical acclaim is IMO a good reason to justify playing this game through just once, be it from a friend who still actually owns the game, or from the cheap $12.99 price tag on it. Just remember that while a deep story may have a price of only $13 attached to it; donít expect yourself to become so attachedÖ
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