Have you ever played a game that does so many things wrong, but you still enjoy it despite the multitude of flaws? Maybe it's buggy and you keep losing progress when it crashes, or perhaps the localization isn't top notch. Maybe the game has a host of interlocking systems that aren't explained well or possibly the gameplay changes late in the game and thwarts your well-honed strategies for success.
Any one of these might be a significant knock against a game, but what if a game embodied all of these problems? A game with that many problems should be easily tossed in the dust-bin with all the other flawed, mediocre experiences that populate the game release schedule. There is a game that does all these things wrong, but even a year later I still find myself thinking about it and a craving to defy my better judgement and revisit it. That game is Summon Night 5.
If you haven't heard of Summon Night 5, that's not a huge surprise. Prior to its release, none of the mainline strategy RPGs in the series had been released outside of Japan. If you are a fan of portables, you might have come across the Swordcraft Story action RPG spinoffs on the Game Boy Advance or Summon Night: Twin Age on the Nintendo DS, but Summon Night 5 was the first release of a proper Summon Night game in the west. Honestly, it caught my attention as Gaijinworks, the western localizer, billed it as the last physically-released game for the PSP. I knew little about the series, but the novelty of owning a copy of the last PSP game got me to bite on it.
Even before release, problems were rearing their head. Summon Night 5 was originally planned for a fall 2015 release. It's not exactly a surprise that releasing a PSP game in 2015 would run into some problems, and it had delays in both localization and production. This lead to a split of the physical and digital releases: the digital release dropped to little fanfare on December 15, 2015, while the physical version finally arrived unannounced to those who had pre-ordered in April 2016.
The launch was kind of a mess, but at least those delays would leave plenty of time for playtesting and ironing out bugs, right? Well, not so much. Summon Night 5 shipped with a bug that would crash the game when you went into a menu before battle to upgrade your characters. Thankfully, this only happened in the mission preparation menu, so it was possible to upgrade characters outside missions, but it wasn't a good look for an already delayed game.
Then there is the English script. This localization is one of the strangest I've come across. I've played plenty of games that are niche in appeal and obviously have a correspondingly low budget. This usually leads to lots of errors due to lack of editing or a very literal translation that can be bland to read. Neither of those are the case in Summon Night 5, it has a solid and engaging localization with few grammatical errors, but there are some incredibly head-scratching word choices. There will be a well written line from a bad guy, and it will be followed by him looking like a crashed calculator.
There are some other questionable lines like: "Colorless... so no colors?"; "The only running is going to be in your pants!"; "I don't give a hot or ice cold damn about your budget!"; "Looks like toughy-tongue fainted."; "You did NOT just mock me, you foaming brown stain!!! Mock THIS!"
Summon Night 5 also hits on a localization pet peeve of mine: senpai and kohai. These terms describe a relationship common in Japanese organizations where an older, more experienced person, the senpai, offers guidance and friendship to a new or inexperienced member, the kohai, who in turn gives gratitude and respect. I personally think these are words that you leave untranslated and let the context carry the meaning across to those not indoctrinated in Japanese culture or you use names like normal people do in the English-speaking world. I know it's a technically correct translation, but does anyone really use the terms senior and junior to refer to these sorts of relationship dynamics in the west?
If this game is buggy, and the localization has issues, the gameplay must be where it shines right? Actually, it is one of the strongest parts of the game; a smaller scale strategy RPG with five to six allies on a map and about double that number of enemies. Summon Night 5 has a fairly standard strategy RPG setup, but it includes a unique addition in the form of the Brave Battle System. This meter essentially acts as a proxy for the overall morale; going up when you pull off certain predefined actions like getting the first attack or killing three enemies at once and going down when characters who lose all their HP are forced to retreat. This meter can also be spent on special moves allowing the player to bring in reinforcements or heal the entire party, but if the meter reaches zero, the battle is lost. Tied into this system are medals which you also receive for pulling off the predefined actions that raise Brave points. These medals are used for purchasing upgrades for your characters attacks and abilities.
So far, so good; it's a competent strategy RPG with a few unique twists. The problem I experienced was with magic users. This game locked spells to certain classes, and I didn't understand until late in the game that class choice determined the player's ability to use advanced spells. Remember how I mentioned that bug earlier that would crash the game when you were upgrading characters? Because of that bug, I didn't spend nearly enough time in the menus really getting to understand the systems. Therefore, I focused my party on melee characters and really didn't have any problems with the first two-thirds of the game. Then at the end of the game, I ran into units who spawn one to two new enemies every turn and my brute force approach with melee characters didn't work against mobs of low level enemies.
What I usually do in this situation when I make a dumb mistake in party design, in this case because I wasn't paying attention to something that still could've been explained more clearly, is to take a turn onto Easy Street. Sure, normal difficulty had been a nice challenge up to this point, but now that I've unintentionally played myself into a corner I can fix it by lowering the difficulty, right? Not so fast, there are no difficulty changes mid-game in Summon Night 5. You pick the difficulty at the beginning and stick with it. That left me stuck on a mission that I couldn't beat with my currently constructed party.
After a combination of developer, localizer, and user error leading to what probably should be a bad experience, what's redeeming this game for me? First off, for a PSP game, the visuals are impressive and it has an appealing aesthetic. Anime-inspired games are dime-a-dozen these days, but I really liked the character models in this game. It uses a similar system to Hyperdimension Neptunia where the character portraits are animated, and though that is a small thing it adds a bit to the characterization. I'm also a sucker for a cool map, and the overworld map of Lyndbaum fits the bill.
The combat, while I obviously had some issues, was a lot of fun. Boss encounters were especially interesting: they would take up four to six squares of the map, but they were susceptible to area of effect attacks allowing you to do damage for every square that was hit. In retrospect, it's dumbfounding how I didn't catch on to the importance of advanced area of effect spells.
Also, the story contains an incredible number of permutations. There are two different protagonists, four different Cross characters (essentially a living, breathing persona), and a number of other side characters. It's a game that's designed with replay in mind; you choose between the different protagonists and Cross characters so that a second playthrough has a different feel. Every chapter has points where the player gets to choose a character to hang out with and watch a little vignette play out. These decisions also affect the story, with the ending being dependent on which character in-game the protagonist was closest to.
The element that won me over the most were the characters themselves. The characters in Summon Night 5 were so likable, I keep thinking about this game almost two years later. I chose the female main character Arca: a late sleeping, fourth wall breaking, optimistic hero who was eminently charming.
Pariet, my choice for Cross, was a character with a strange manner of speech, but was loyal and incredibly fun to interact with. Plus, she likes pie; I can relate.
Ruelly, a cloying "Oh Senpai" character that would usually drive me nuts, had certain moments in the game that were incredibly endearing. The way she would tell off antagonists made her one of my favorites.
Even the bad guys were fun in a delightfully over-the-top sort of way. Did I mention that there was a crime syndicate run by a cigar-smoking giant turtle? Yeah, that totally happened.
I hope it comes across that despite the jarringly awkward wording at times, the localization was actually a strong point. Summon Night 5 is a game that did everything it could to annoy me, but the strength of the writing and characterization carried it through. I think this game is a testament to the fact that well written, strong characters can carry a player past so many other gameplay weaknesses. The bugs, awkward lines, gameplay changes, and other missteps weren't enough to dent my affection for Arca, Pariet, Ruelly and the other characters of the Summon Night world. I'm hoping that Summon Night 6, which is still scheduled to make it out this year, will capture the magic Summon Night 5 had without quite as many missteps.