The team behind Gaijnworks has always been at the forefront of bringing Japanese RPGs that have a cult following to the western market. The Summon Night series is no exception, as the California-based publisher has painstakingly brought #5 to us on the PSP and Vita. Yes, that’s right, PSP games are still being released.
This is my first time playing the Summon Night series, but I had been a big fan of Working Designs’ imports like Arc the Lad, Growlanser Generations, Vanguard Bandits, and the Lunar series. But Summon Night 5 is a different kind of RPG than the previous ones I’ve mentioned. SN5 feels more like a visual novel than a standard tactical RPG, along the same vein of a Growlanser.
The game world is fixed on a few maps, with no random encounters, thus negating any and all exploring that would be typical of a normal RPG. Each point of interest on the map has an icon fixated above it, and sadly there are few of these icons hovering around. There is very little to do or explore in this world, putting all emphasis of the game on the main story rather than side quests. With so much text to read through and nowhere to explore, this combines to create the visual novel effect.
Equipment is also scaled back as well, with each character only getting non-changeable weapons that can only be upgraded, instead buying new gear at shops. There is also only a single accessory slot, so the abundance of accessories go to waste in terms of using them as equipment. Thankfully, the blacksmith can turn those unwanted items into a buff or ability for your weapons. The catch is only one ability can be put on a weapon at a time, so there are still a lot of items that are just not needed or useful.
As you progress through the story and complete battles, experience points are distributed as if it were a non-tactical RPG rather than a tactical one. All experience is given at the end of the battle, divided up between all the participants, rather than the individual doing the hitting and killing getting the points. This is great if you want to power level weaker characters by grinding later stages but the downside is they need to be alive. Dead characters get nothing at the end of battle, which does add some strategy to the gameplay. It also adds a lot of grinding though when forced to use characters you would not normally use to complete a mission.
Leveling is not automatic either, as the experience can be put towards gaining abilities for the characters. It becomes a bit of a balancing act when to level up and when to buy or strengthen abilities. Also, with each new level you get 3 points to be distributed among the character’s stats to help them grow in accordance with your gameplay style. Don’t like mages, then put them all into attack and defence, and vice-versa. There is a cap though, meaning you can’t put all 3 into one stat. You have to spread the love around, and depending on the class of the character the stat cap is different.
Summon Night 5 has a simple but engrossing story. A summoner and his cross (otherworldly ally) try to stop a childhood friend from destroying humanity, all while delving into the rabbit hole that is the cross’s mysterious origin. I don’t use names because there are two summoners and four crosses to choose from, which changes the story’s dialogue. Each cross has a different set of skills, allowing for fun customization and a reason to replay the game with a different one.
Story chapters are patterned succinctly. A little intro story is followed by checking the map icons to find a special conversation and then a battle happens, followed by more story and another battle. It rarely deviates from this pattern. This keeps the chapters short and sweet, and can be felt in one of two ways. For those with little time, it feels like one of those one chapter a night type of games, where not a lot happens in one-shot so you’re not stuck pausing at inopportune moments. On the other hand, for those with a lot of time and a need to be overwhelmed, the pacing might not make the story as fulfilling as it could be.
The big complaint with the game is the combat. It is standard turn-based tactics, ala FF Tactics, but the big issue is the overabundance of story missions requiring the player to fight a never-ending horde. At a certain point in the story, when fighting a specific enemy you’ll be forced to keep watching in dismay as they constantly re-spawn every turn. What begins as a somewhat even fight, becomes a test of patience as 1-3 new units keep popping up. There are ways to stop the spawning, like standing on the spot they appear, but that strategy risks leaving units isolated without backup. If they were every once in a blue moon, it would be a breath of fresh air, but instead the non-horde missions become that fresh air, which makes combat more of a chore than a pleasure.
There are free missions that do not have this situation, and all story missions can be replayed at any time for grinding experience points, as well as completing certain conditions to get medals. Medals would be the only thing I’d consider a side-quest per say, considering they can be used to get rare items from the store as well as buy party actions. Party actions are special actions or buffs assigned to the team. Some come from your allies themselves, while others can be bought using medals and unlocked from doing the free missions. These actions are quite useful, like giving experience point buffs or healing the entire team.
While the story’s premise was entertaining, the slow pacing of the story due to the abundance of what I call horde missions ruins the mood to keep going. A lack of traditional side-quests is also a detriment to the replay value. Still, it is a charming title with a wacky cast of characters that are so over the top it is hard not to like them, and a story with enough dark twists to keep RPG fans interested. How well you like this game is determined by how you approach it. If you’re expecting a normal RPG, then you might be disappointed. However, if you like visual novels, then this might be more up your alley.