Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Summoner 2 (Video Game Review, 100K Anniversary)

So, here we are folks. 100K hits on the site after just over three years of updates, reviews, thoughts and the odd rant or three. To celebrate this it seems only right to look at something special, one installment of a series which influenced my outlook on an entire media. As we've looked at plenty of books, films and 40K of late, that means we're looking into a video game. 
Unfortunately many of the more influential ones are well known and have been covered many times over: Soul Reaver, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Final Fantasy VII, and a lot of big names besides. As such we're looking into a old PS2 release which never quite got the acclaim or attention it deserved: Summoner 2.

The lesser known of the duology of Summoner games, Summoner 2 is a tale of fate, prophecy, myth and gods. One exploring the idea of the truth behind legends, the force behind deities and following in the wake of a traditional story of rebellion against an empire. It was a game which served to simultaneously subvert and renew many tropes of traditional fantasy. Reconstructing what would normally be seen in a traditional genre story of fantasy even as it deconstructs it elsewhere.

In many respects the game was the Dragon Age: Origins of its time and shared many traits with that game. An extensive codex covering events, a multitude of questionable characters united only by a single cause, many with questionable ethical and moral standing, Side quests which served to have the protagonists duped as much as show their greatness and even elements of Awakening with the protagonist running her kingdom with far reaching decisions.

The story here follows the tale of Queen Maia of Halassar, a former province of the Kingdom of Galdyr which only won its freedom a few scant years ago. Declared to be the Goddess Laharah reborn, she is fated to restore that which was destroyed: The tree of life, Eleh, which was shattered in a great storm only a short time after it brought life to the world. Along with Taugis and Sangaril, a prince of Galdyr and assassin of the Munari who defected during the war, she seeks to bring about her foretold future.
Despite her certainty, nothing is quite what it seems for Maia and a mission to recover the Book of the Prophets from a traitor sets her on a journey which will shake the world to its core.

The first point most worthy of praise within the game is its treatment of characters. They're as wide and varied as an assortment of figures as you'd find in a classic Squaresoft or Bioware title, each with their own stories and mysteries surrounding them. Each has their own reason for saying with Maia and are more directly tied to her eventual goal than many characters you would otherwise see these days. Usually either supplied by revelations within the tale or far more strongly connected than "villain X will eventually cause problems for my people."
Character stories are also more closely paced with the overall plot, tied into how far you have progressed into the game than developed independently. While this might feel like the player has less control over events, it means the game feels far more coherent, structured and allows for better storytelling.

Think of things like Wrex's quest for his ancestor's armour in the first Mass Effect game. It's ultimately tied to little of the actual plot and reliant more upon your number of conversations with him, or happening to stumble into the right place at the right time. While it does influence a major part of his character, it is very loosely connected to the main story and ultimately can be done at any set time.
By comparison, characters of this game develop with their own goals and side-plots after triggering specific events and revelations. Something which allows it to maintain a more effective pace and tie things together. While this might seem like it lacks freedom, many points are still left to the players to fully explore. Taking two specific characters back to the realm of the Unseen beneath Munari City late on into the game reveals a wealth about them. Yet it's not even hinted about, encouraged or laid out specifically; left to the player to put things together and earn their reward by wanting to know more.

Many of the character stories are subversions of what would normally be expected of their archetypes. Take Maia for example, a figure tied specifically to fate and destined to fulfill a single task in her life. Many tales would either do one of two things with this: 

The first being to show her every effort hating this destiny and trying to escape it, usually making a point of free will or choice. This was done with Joseph in the first game and covered extensively there.

The second would be to try and use it to show her hubris and arrogance as a result of this. Jolee's story about destiny in Knights of the Old Republic for example, which had a character told he had a great fate ahead of him only for it to screw him over. Mostly because of his own overconfidence at being told his future.

Here though? Maia is never screwed over as a result of knowing her future and while incredibly confident, is neither boastful nor certain of her future. She is shown to place faith in the prophecy but never so much that when things change and she learns more of her actual future she is never taken completely aback. She also remains smart enough to keep making her own plans and fight her own battles, not over-confidently assume fate will allow her to just survive.

It's a subversion of what you would expect, but definitely a welcome one combined with the game's later plot twists.

Almost every character story is similar to Maia's: Take a well known, almost cliched, character idea but then turn it on its head. The revenge motivated character stays with the group to fulfill his goal, but never fails to keep things in perspective. The assassin has ghosts of her past to silence and a mentor to defeat, but is never so obsessed that it clouds her judgement. The prince rebelling against the throne challenges the king and opposes his will, but doesn't seek to take it for himself. In fact the king in question, Azraman the Second, isn't a tyrant or snidely whiplash villain and has very different motivations than would traditionally be expected for opposing Halassar's freedom. This is something that runs throughout the entire game and provides a great deal of strength to the narrative. It's just unfortunate they're not as well told as they could have been.

Summoner 2 relies heavily upon its codex, almost certainly too much. While details like the events of Summoner were necessities to be outlined rather than told within the game to save time, it expects the codex to fill the plot holes far too often. The aforementioned war to free Halassar is only covered in brief in the conversations it is brought up in, with the player expecting to read the codex entry if they wish to know the full story. This might not have been too bad but unlike many Bioware titles you're never given a chance to speak with the characters in isolated conversations. As such there's no way to naturally learn more about events just by talking to the people who were actually there. It's one unfortunate point where the game really shows its age and the difficulties some RPGs were having of that time.

Even accounting for the shortcomings of age some character arcs do lack information or details which would be necessary to their stories. One rather infamous piece of information is in Neru's background, involving the identity of a women who gives him a signature ring and announces he has taken up the mantle of the famous pirate king. Who this woman is and her motivations are never gone into, and while they might allow for fan theories and ideas to grow from this detail it feels like an unnecessary mystery. Combined with being told so many things rather than shown them, it makes what should be a very strong and rich background to be surprisingly weak in many places.

Still, while the characters and story might be a major part of any RPG, there are many other elements to account for. For one thing there's the side quests and choices. The aforementioned side-quests only come into play at certain points in the game, most of them when you reach Munari City and you're allowed to start freely moving between places. While many of these lack far reaching consequences  they take a long time to truly finish and quite a few require you to keep progressing and attaining items throughout the remainder of the game. This can be for minor things like helping a man who has suffered badly in an experiment or even gaining another summon for Maia. 

The quests which do have long term consequences are those made from your palace. As Queen, Maia is expected to deal with a number of problems relating to her kingdom and certain decisions. These range from financing an exploration fleet to investigate an abandoned city an admiral claims to have encountered to permitting certain priminent figures to pass into Halassar's borders. Each decision can result in a different outcome and the more beneficial ones can be some of the least expected. Especially when it comes to a family from Galdyr paying their respects to the dead. 
Beyond these are more independent interactions you can have with heads of state, various generals and diplomats who state their requirements. These usually involve donating cash, but can also include recruiting others or finding certain items. Many are very beneficial in the long run, especially education and defense, the latter point directly impacting upon how difficult a major battle is late on into the game. While it doesn't make as much use of the idea as you might hope, it still provides an element not usually seen in games of this time.

The gameplay of Summoner 2 ranges from the expected to somewhat inventive. People who've played the usual three/four action RPG party games will recognise many elements involved from healing to other things. Unlike them however you are not granted a bar or series of hot-keys to cycle through each ability as and when it's needed. This means that when you're controlling a spellcaster you have to individually choose between healing and throwing fireballs. Opening menus the switching between each one as and when you need them, making combat occasionally tedious.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum is the melee attacks. The game offers a vast number of combo attacks and specific abilities which constantly mix up fighting to make it feel more dynamic. While you can get through the game by simply mashing square in combat, you'll be required to grind far more often and many bonus areas will be made near impossible to you. Facing things like Sangaril's clan and the priests imprisoned within a tomb in the Halassar Palace, one very familiar to people who played the first game, will be near impossible. While it definitely takes some practice to remember each one as it's introduced for each character, it adds a new level to the game and enhances the combat. While by no means turning it into something on par with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, it makes the game far more interesting that it otherwise would be.

The summons are one point of the combat definitely worthy of mention. Unlike other games where the summoner brings forth beings to fight for her, Maia transforms into the creatures themselves after gaining their power. Warping and twisting her body into titanic juggernauts, figments of dreams or living blades. Each has their own move set, strengths and weaknesses to independently learn over the characters and shift in design if you can find the additional stones to upgrade their forms. These become crucial to continuing the game in the areas when Maia is forced to progress alone.

The final critical point in the game to bring up is the environmental design and look of the enemies. Offering every location from generic, ruined paradise isle 1302 to unknown realms beyond the world, Summoner 2 really does offer everything it can. As soon as you get used to one environment another is almost immediately introduced meaning it's much harder to become borded or tired to the same designs over and over again.
Many jumps can occur drastically, shifting from sinister dungeon to bustling amphibian-man city to a realm of old gods. The design for each is anything but generic, especially with the aforementioned city and really helps impress the different cultures of the game's civilisations and its sheer variety. While the game fails to go truly in depth with each one, what we do learn portrays a very different ensemble of races to the usual elf/dwarf/human combo.

Is Summoner 2 a perfect game? Definitely not, there are a fair few bugs which can break the game and definitely retains a lot of problems which have been overcome in more recent titles. That being said it has a interesting world, a wealth of lore, rewards exploration and even when it railroads the player it's nowhere near as bad as Final Fantasy XIII. It's hard to come by these days but if you can adjust your expectations, and accept the blocky graphics of the time, it's a very decent title. Besides, where else are you going to play as royalty who transform into spiritual guardians to fight treemen and pirates. Definitely seek it out if you are interested in an undervalued gem.

I hope that was helpful to at least some of you. Thank you all for linking, reading, liking or raging over the articles on this site and others for the past three years. Here's looking forwards to the next 100K hits and hoping things only get better from here.

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