Summon Night is a strategy RPG series by a company called Flight Plan, which dates way back to the days of the original Playstation. While a small number of American gamers might be familiar with the Summon Night name through the Atlus-localized Game Boy Advance RPGs, those dungeon crawling action RPGs are merely side stories to the main series. Even though they play completely differently, they’re both full of amusing characters and the brightest kind of anime style artwork.
For the most part, Summon Night is essentially Tactics Ogre Lite – the basic interface and gameplay is almost exactly the same as Quest’s landmark RPG. Thats not to say that it’s simple – it’s all too easy to lose a poorly placed character due to the vicious AI, thus putting you at a huge disadvantage for the rest of the battle – but at the same time, it’s not quite as obnoxiously difficult. Character placement is incredibly important, as hitting enemies from the sides or from a higher height will trigger extra damage. This isn’t a new concept, but there are a few other elements that are unique to Summon Night. You can select one of two defensive stances – a guard, which will lessen damage, and a counterattack, which will give your character a quick extra hit whenever they are attacked. Most of the characters have crystals, which will summon various monsters to the playing field. Most of the times, they just attack and disappear, acting just like regular magic spells, but a few of them can be placed on the battlefield and used as a regular unit.
The level gaining system is also a bit different – your party doesn’t gain any experience in battle, instead Summon Night 4 leaves it up to you to divide up amongst any surviving party members. This way, you can choose who to power up, rather than forcing you to use them in battle. Unlike the Nippon Ichi strategy RPGs, there’s very little in the way of character customization, other than the ability to temper your armor to various strengths and weaknesses. However, if you perform particularly well in a stage, you’re given a Brave Clear, a mark of honor for a job well done. These, combined with the dialogue responses you give during the story segments, will determine your ending, as well as any hidden characters you might come across.
From a gameplay perspective, there’s very little that’s radically different about Summon Night, so it seeks to distinguish itself with its storyline. You can choose from either a male or female protagonist, who despite having plenty of speaking lines, is one of the few characters without any voiceovers. You run a shop in a small village, and generally just hang out with your friends, until a meteor comes crashing down into the field. Inside is a dragon, which also happens to transform into a human kid. Naturally, there are plenty of bad guys that come looking for him, and it’s up to your troupe to defend the little guy. Eventually two other dragon kids show up, along with some angry robot things, who are pretty eager to show you the business end of the drills they’ve got attached to their arms.
Beware that Summon Night is extraordinarily preoccupied with its storytelling – although you can skip through dialogue by hammering on the buttons, you can’t skip cutscenes altogether. Which means every chapter, you’ll need to go from point to point on the map, listen to some blathering, head to another spot, listen to some more exposition, and repeat until you finally get into a fight. The still character portraits aren’t particular engaging, although at least the artwork is nice. From the time you first start the game, it will probably be at least half an hour before you get into your first battle. After the initial stages, you’re allowed to fight “Free Battles” to gain extra experience and gold, but these aren’t randomized, so you’ll be fighting the exact same stage over and over. There are also a couple of (mostly useless) minigames to waste your time with, including a rather obtuse puzzle game.
Summon Night 4 is practically identical to its predecessor, released over three years ago, which in turn wasn’t all that innovative to begin with. The only real leg up it has on the competition are the high-res 2D graphics, which look far better than even the recent Disgaea 2. The fully animated intro is set up like a TV show, complete with credits and lyrics on the bottom of the screen. Oddly enough, the accompanying vocal song sounds a bit like Pop Goes the Weasel as played on bagpipes. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty interesting too, offering up your standard Final Fantasy Tactics-style war marches with a bit of a Celtic flare.
Once you figure out the menus to pretty much any SRPG, they’re pretty easy to play, and Summon Night 4 is no different. There’s no real exploration segments other than clicking on different spots on the map, so you can’t get lost either. However, since there is a big focus on the story, you’ll probably miss out on a lot of the experience if you’re not fluent in Japanese. Other than the aforementioned Swordcraft Story GBA games, none of the previous Summon Night games have made it to America. However, the PS2 will still be alive at least through the summer, so it’s possible Atlus or some other company will grab it up. The bottom line is big time strategy RPG fans will probably dig Summon Night 4, provided they have enough patience to get through all of the dialogue.
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