Summon Night - Staff Retroview  

Begone, Day
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Handy experience system
+ Massive replay incentive
+ Easy to import and play
- Cash accrual takes way too long
- Obtuse magic system
- Long-winded plot
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   A few spinoffs of the core Summon Night series made it across the Pacific courtesy of Atlus, but the original tactical titles all stayed in Japan. Even the very first game, originally a 2000 PlayStation release that got a DS port in 2008, shares enough stylistic similarities with what came later that those familiar with the Swordcraft Story or Twin Age games in English will recognize it. Summon Night is an easy import for those who are curious, but not really a hidden gem that should be sampled by every tactical gamer as soon as possible.

   Summon Night depicts the adventures of a high school student who is sucked into another world and immediately has to fight for his or her life. Friends are around to help out though, and the chosen protagonist gains a considerable number of allies to combat the nefarious forces of local despot Banossa. A feature that would see use in later titles of the series is the ability to have a conversation with one of the characters at the end of each chapter that affects the ending, though the lack of a translation doesn't make following the dialogue easy.

   The tendency toward lengthy dialogue delivery scenes evident in later games is present here, making the presence of a Skip feature on the DS screen to fast-forward through the conversations very useful. Since the dialogue is rarely accompanied by any concurrent action on the screen, those without considerable knowledge of the Japanese language are unlikely to glean much from the proceedings. In keeping with its descendants, Summon Night errs on the side of too much plot rather than too little.

   When it comes to combat, Summon Night looks similar to a lot of turn-based tactical titles. Up to eight characters on the protagonist's team take their turns moving around a grid, then the enemy does likewise. The direction from which characters are attacked makes a noticeable difference to the damage dealt, and players can set the protagonists to defend or counterattack enemy blows. Being outnumbered is rarely an issue, but enemies tend to take many blows to bring down. Their AI is easy to exploit in order to face a manageable number at any one time, and any characters brought down in battle will be just fine for the next encounter. The ability to save between multiple story battles can be a double-edged sword however, since if the subsequent fight is too rough there is no way to back out for further preparation. Most of the battles in the game feel very similar, but the gallery of opponents broadens a bit and the settings become more interesting in the last quarter.

This is an interesting means of dealing with people who circumvent customs by sneaking into a country. This is an interesting means of dealing with people who circumvent customs by sneaking into a country.

   While most other aspects of Summon Night combat are easily recognizable to tactical veterans, the magic system is unique. An option for magic wielders in battle is to use certain accessories in combination with one of five colored gems that are gained as spoils. The result of this experiment will either be a new spell that pops into the character's inventory, or a backfire of some kind that can produce a variety of results from free items to the taking of extra damage. It's a time-consuming process that would be far more palatable if it did not have to take place using actions in battle.

   The experience system in Summon Night is unusual, granting all of the points for a battle at its end and letting the player freely distribute them amongst whichever party members participated. This is a handy way of letting characters quickly catch up in effectiveness without struggling to stay alive in the thick of a fight, and the points stay until used so there is no pressure to cash them in. Most of the time the player is able to engage in free battles to net extra experience and cash, which is a useful feature when story combat gets nasty.

   Accruing cash is a painfully slow process unfortunately, with later equipment upgrades requiring multiple free battle rewards to deck out a single character. The store is the only place to equip new material, and that makes fresh rewards from battle useless until the player is at ease to investigate them. Items that replenish health aren't cheap either, and a shortage of characters who can heal makes them very useful in later encounters should the player wish to spend the time needed to gain funds for their purchase.

   The plot and character interactions may be lost on those without Japanese knowledge, but actually playing the game is not difficult for importers. Driving the story ahead is accomplished by finding an Event icon, which is easy because navigation of the environs is menu-based and the Event marker is obvious. Combat options and the shop menu require a little experimentation but nothing overly taxing before familiarity is achieved, making the game swiftly intelligible.

Is it cool to hold up a strap of my backpack?  No wonder I wandered around high school in a daze! Is it cool to hold up a strap of my backpack? No wonder I wandered around high school in a daze!

   While the usual benefit of constant menu display on the top screen was achieved by porting Summon Night to the DS, all of the voice acting present from the PS1 was removed, which helps speed plot events along but is nevertheless a significant loss. This leaves the music to stand on its own, and the presence of several tantalizing tracks near the end of the game make it less excusable that one battle theme is used for the bulk of the combat. The exception to that theme during the majority of the game is chief antagonist Banossa's rocking soundtrack accompaniment, which all by itself comes close to justifying the number of times he must be beaten. As for the visuals, they eschew the polygonal style that has aged badly from the PS1 era in favor of appealing sprites. While hardly straining the hardware, they're easy on the eyes.

   The multiple possible protagonists and myriad conversational options offer plenty of reason to replay Summon Night, should the core mechanics hook the player. Playing it in Japanese as I did, however, the story didn't jump out and appeal enough to override the solid but unspectacular gameplay. Summon Night's first offering strikes me as similar in quality to its action RPG descendants, an unremarkable but moderately entertaining title.

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