Ask me to name a niche genre of game and I’d immediately say “the dungeon-crawling RPG.” Owing its existence largely to Japanese game developers’ early fascination with the Wizardry series, this subgenre of grind-heavy, narrative-light games have never really been my personal cup of tea. That is, until I took a chance on Saviors of Sapphire Wings / Stranger of Sword City Revisited.
An enhanced remake of the once Japan-exclusive Students of the Round, Saviors of Sapphire Wings comes from developer Experience. The studio might seem unfamiliar to most players, but it’s practically a household name if your jam is obscure RPGs from the PlayStation Vita-era. Both Saviors of Sapphire Wings and the game it comes packed in with, Stranger of Sword City Revisited (more on that later), date back to the Vita days. So do Experience’s other titles, like Demon Gaze and Operation Babel: New Tokyo Legacy. Suffice it to say, the team has got a lot of dungeon RPGs under their belt.
That expertise shows, because Saviors of Sapphire Wings is an admirably efficient dungeon-crawling package. All the hallmarks of the genre are right in place. Players will explore the world with a first-person view, plumbing deep dungeons and labyrinths, fighting baddies all the way. They’ll level up, upgrade their gear, and try not to get wiped out. For even on “easy” difficulty, the game can punish an incautious adventurer.
Exploring a dungeon step-by-step, tile-by-tile sounds like it could be a drag, but Experience’s long history making dungeon-crawler RPGs shines through in the form of a few useful convenience features. Simpler battles can be sped up by holding the “confirm” button, partially automating your party’s behavior. Saviors keeps a convenient, automatically revealed map that makes clear which paths you’ve missed. Better still, that map contains an “Auto Move” function, allowing the party to move itself to a previously explored spot. Considering that Saviors of Sapphire Wings isn’t the kind of game to let a player clear a whole stage in a single run, Auto Move is a lifesaver. I used it constantly to retreat to the dungeon entrance to heal, upgrade my gear, and get my party back into fighting shape.
Speaking of that party, Saviors of Sapphire Wings sets itself apart from the pack by upending the notion that dungeon RPGs are light on storytelling. The typical dungeon-crawler only has the barest bones of a narrative, often settling for a simple excuse to justify the game’s aesthetic and give the reason for the party to go traipsing about territory crawling with foes. Not so with Saviors. Here, you as play the reincarnated souls of a previous party of heroes that fell in battle against the overlord “Ol=Ohma” a century prior. Thanks to your whiffing it the last time, the world has spent the last hundred years gradually being corrupted and is on the verge of collapse. Now it’s time for a rematch, and you must gather your party of reincarnated “squires,” level up, at beat Ol=Ohma, thereby getting a do-over on saving the world.
Honestly, it’s not much, but compared to most dungeon-crawlers, Saviors of Sapphire Wings brims with storytelling. Further, this sense of motivation also manifests in the game proper. Unlike the usual dungeon-crawling RPG where you create every one of your party members, you encounter your party more gradually in Saviors. Though you still have control over their actions, development, and even appearance and name, the fact that you do recruit them as part of the story makes them feel quite a bit more real. Or if not “real,” then more befitting of the setting than a squad of goons you created yourself and named after friends or family. Plus, there’s a whole relationship system at play. Characters gain heart values as they adventure and share meals with you, and leveling up their relationships confers benefits in combat, including party-wide skills and other useful tricks. There’s also a reasonably deep crafting and equipment-tweaking system to sink your time into, allowing you a lot of control over just how your party is kitted out. Add to that a semi-random “trapping” system brought in from Stranger of Sword City, and Saviors of Sapphire Wings carries the aura of a dungeon-crawler that’s tailor-made to prove that not every dungeon RPG conforms to the stereotype of “heavy on grind, light on story and character.”
Despite this difference, Saviors feels like a great gateway game for those who’d like to learn more about dungeon RPGs’ appeal. For those who are already well-aware of the appeal, though, there’s Stranger of Sword City Revisited. Technically the older of the two games included in the pack, Stranger comes with a few additional classes and refinements, but is otherwise quite a bit more straightforwardly “dungeon RPG-like”, in that outside of its initial premise, it’s also quite light on story and heavy on challenging dungeon-crawling. In Stranger, you are a “Stranger”, having barreled into the game’s world by way of a crashing plane. Imbued with special powers by the world’s atmosphere, you must then get strong and knock monster heads as you plumb the dungeons. In terms of additional systems and storytelling, it’s a lot more of a no-frills affair, and definitely for the type of person that needs no introduction to the dungeon-crawler. That said, there’s also less to get in the way of some satisfying grind. It’s also a lot less forgiving, even on easy, compared to Saviors of Sapphire Wings.
Either of these two games, weighing in at several dozen hours each, would be worth the price of admission alone, but to see Saviors of Sapphire Wings and Stranger of Sword City Revisited packaged together raises the value proposition considerably. If you’re jonesing for an original satisfying dungeon-crawling experience, or even a way into the wild world of dungeon RPGs, Experience has put together an “experience” that’s easy to recommend.
Saviors of Sapphire Wings / Stranger of Sword City Revisited is available for the Nintendo Switch.