A Look at the Past - Summoner
I was pleasantly surprised when I went on Steam yesterday. While browsing through the new releases, I came across an old favourite of mine when I was a lot younger: Summoner by THQ and Volition, released originally in 2001. It was for sale at roughly $5, and I had a lot of fond memories of it, so I decided to give it a rerun to see how it would match up roughly 12 years later.
About two hours in, and with my nostalgia goggles in place, I was going through all the fond memories I had of the game. The first time I played it I was eight or nine years old and not exactly fluent in english, so I never finished the game and got stuck relatively early. Now that I'm older and more experienced in games of the genre, I managed to breeze through it, and made more progress in a six-hour sitting than I ever did in four years of playing it on the PS2.
"And so Urath struck the ground with his sword, sundering a rift within the very earth. This is how all the worlds became one, how the kingdoms became divided." - The Third Araenegath
Summoner follows the story of a young man called Joseph, who was born with the mark of the summoner. In the mythos, summoners are seen all throughout history. They are monarchs and heroes, but also harbingers of calamity. Joseph experiences that himself as a young boy when he unleashes his power to save his village from a band of brigands. Unable to control his powers at such a young age, the demon he summoned kills friend and foe alike, destroying his village.
He begins his life anew in another village, Masad, in the kingdom of Medeva. Years later, the Orenian empire invades and attacks his village searching for a boy born with the mark, and killing anyone who stands in their way--reminding Joseph that wherever a summoner walks, death follows.
Summoner is a game with a very rich mythos. The lore in the game is rather large, but it is unique and interesting. Mortals brush shoulders with the Gods and each culture comes with a unique back story. Humans, for instance, are called Sudani, and were originally winged beings who lived in cities of glass above the clouds. The death of their god, Urath, made them lose their wings and fall towards the earth while their cities of glass shattered.
As the story progresses and Joseph is forced to fulfill his destiny, it feels more like he's on a giant fetch quest than anything.
The narrative and the way the game's lore is delivered, however, doesn't live up to its potential. It's very easy to miss the game's mythos entirely since most of the world's lore is delivered through cutscenes, some of which aren't mandatory to watch. It's nice that the game doesn't force the lore down a player's throat, but the way it is handled also makes it so that a player misses out on one of the game's greatest achievements.
Joseph doesn't feel like a hero. The game makes a point of showing Joseph as a man who loathes the mark and would rather live out the rest of his life as a farmer. This is fine, given the character's back story. However, as the story progresses and Joseph is forced to fulfill his destiny, it feels more like he's on a giant fetch quest than anything else.
Joseph is clueless and relies on the knowledge of his former caretaker, an Ionian monk called Yago, to progress the story. The way this is handled makes Joseph seem more like a hired sword who's been told to gather ancient artifacts all over the world. For most of the game, his motivation is doing whatever Yago tells him to, which makes it very easy to achieve the same result if Joseph was replaced with a nameless, faceless hero.
A good ending and a couple of good twists don't make up for the entire story.
All the playable characters are forgettable. Not enough time is given to characterization in Summoner, with every character getting a cutscene or some dialogue when you first meet them before falling in formation until the next cutscene. This makes it very hard to empathize with the characters when the game tries to make you care about them. There's a scene half-way through the game that touches on Flece's roots, your party's thief and right-hand woman of Medeva's mob boss. The entire scene comes off as forced and awkward though, due to how characterization is handled.
Flece remains silent throughout most of the game. Most characters do, really, since dialogue comes in the form of questions. Whenever you meet someone new, after whatever cutscene the game has allocated to them, all characters remain silent as Joseph is given the task of repeating whatever buzzwords he learned from the character in question format.
There are a couple of plot twists towards the end of the game that make up for the narrative's shortcomings, but Summoner is a very long game. A good ending and a couple of good twists don't make up for the entire story.
A squad-based RPG that gets a good start but becomes increasingly boring as it progresses.
When the game starts and delivers its gameplay features, they seem solid and balanced. Fights don't take longer than they have to, and progress comes at a good pace. Enemies aren't too strong or too weak, and the game manages to stay challenging if the player doesn't take the right precautions and has his party well equipped.
It is hard to get into the game though. When you first start, after you're done with the first level, it throws you into Lenele, the city of the gods and capital of Medeva, which is very large and easy to get lost in. This can be a turn off for some people. I don't mind since I've played games like Planescape Torment, that did the exact same thing with Sigil.
Exploration is rewarded. There are a couple of well hidden rooms in Summoner, as well as loot that's tucked away in the corners of the map. Getting a new chest piece for Joseph early, or a dagger that can cast Icicle on the target it hits for Flece, can make some of the game's harder segments relatively easier.
Summoning feels like more than just a gimmick. In my opinion, by drawing some elements from the lore, the summoning system was well implemented. As Joseph progresses through the story he comes across certain rings that give him the ability to summon. The act of summoning is an act of creation akin to the powers used by the gods, which is why summoners are feared.
To summon, Joseph has to spend MP and sacrifice a bit of his maximum HP that is restored if the summon dies or is banished. If Joseph dies, the creature is no longer bound to Joseph and turns on the party as it is now free to do as it will. The summons themselves are rather powerful, although some of them become less useful as the game progresses, even if one raises Joseph's summoning skill to 10.
It doesn't feel like you're progressing, which makes the game start becoming boring since you feel like you're stuck in the same level of power.
Combat gets boring towards the end of the game. As you progress and get more party members, enemies obviously become stronger to make up for the extra oomph your party is carrying. It isn't handled in the best way, however, with every enemy taking an entire minute to kill, and every encounter boasting at least three or four separate enemies to defeat.
The damage you do never really changes throughout the game. Since enemies get stronger, you start dealing less damage and make up for it by getting new equipment. Your damage, both physical and magical, ends up never leaving the same range as when you started the game, with the exception of Flece, due to her back stab ability; and Jhekar, your party's dedicated fighter, once he starts landing critical hits. It doesn't feel like you're progressing, which makes the game boring since you feel like you're stuck in the same level of power.
Combat is also buggy. Another reason the combat gets slow is the time it takes for attacks to land. Some of your stronger melee-oriented summons attack with the same speed as allies with two-handed weapons. For some reason, however, they will take very long pauses between their normal attacks and chain attacks while Flece is attacking every other second.
You need to strategize how you build your character in squad-based RPGs. Summoner's level system doesn't let you do that.
The AI is broken. I don't know how many times I saw Rosalind, your caster, try to cast a magic spell, waste MP in the process, only for it not to do anything because the enemy isn't within line of sight. I ended up setting up Rosalind as a healer and micromanaging her casting. There is also friendly fire when it comes to area effects, but perhaps I was just lucky that she never tried to use any of the big spells.
You can't plan your character without having a guide next to you. When you level up, you get Skill Points that you can assign to different skills. Some skills, like Fire, represent your ability using fire spells. Leveling it will not make your fire spells stronger, but it will give you more spells. You don't know which spells though, and certain spells aren't even worth leveling the entire skill up to 10. You need to strategize how you build your character in squad-based RPGs. Summoner's level system doesn't let you do that.
The PC port hasn't been properly patched. The game is old, so compatibility issues are going to pop up. It got ported to Steam, though, so one would expect some of these issues to get patched. Summoner runs too fast on a multi-core computer after cutscenes, which makes landing chain attacks hard if you've got them set to manual. To fix this, you need to access the options menu and turn Vsync off, and then back on after every cutscene. With every boss boasting at least one or two cutscenes during the battle, it breaks the fight's pacing as well as the player's immersion.
Summoner has some unique locations due to its unique world and lore. The art direction isn't the best though as the game's scenarios manage to become repetitive due to the constant use of dark colours.
Summoner has aged well. Back in 2001, when it was released, the graphics were stunning. Now in 2014, they are outdated, but still bearable for most people. The character models have decent animations and don't look half-bad either. It manages to bring the player to some interesting dungeons, like the catacombs of Iona, where the player is traveling inside the remains of a giant three-headed serpent.
The levels are large. There are few loading screens in Summoner and they are incredibly fast, so the action isn't interrupted very often. Couple that with the fact the dungeons and city districts are huge, mainly for a game from 2001, and you won't even notice the loading screens were ever there. It does commit the sin of making you backtrack though, with Lenele being revisited at least four times, and the first dungeons you do at least twice.
The environments feel the same since the game never leaves its dark palate. Gray, different shades of green and brown are the colours you'll continue to see throughout all of Summoner's areas, with only a few being decorated with brighter colours in the form of regal tapestries. Most of the game is spent within dark dungeons though, which makes the areas feel repetitive. Since the levels are huge and you have to backtrack, progressing through the game starts to become a chore.
Finishing Thoughts and Summary
TL;DR? This is the place for you.
Summoner succeeds at establishing a unique world with a very interesting lore and mythos, but fails to deliver when it comes to its narrative. It gives us some unique locations, but by not changing its colour palette or lighting effects too much, they eventually start to feel repetitive, mainly given the size of the levels and the required backtracking. It could've been a truly great game, and it is a shame that it fails to deliver.
It was acclaimed to be one of the best RPGs released on the PS2 back in 2001, and maybe by 2001 standards, it could've earned a 7 or an 8 due to its large levels and its graphics, but in 2014 those things can't carry the game's score. It receives a 4/10, and it pains me to give it this score due to the fond memories I have of it.
A sequel came out exclusive to the PS2 one year later, Summoner 2, which kept the unique world and changed it from a squad-based RPG to an action RPG. The AI was a lot better, the levels a bit more vibrant and the narrative more compelling to the player. If it ever comes out for the PC I might review it, as it is a better alternative to the original if one wants to experience Summoner's rich mythos.