"Since most enemies will take around ten hits to kill, battle quickly becomes a matter of exchanging blows, parrying, watching for an enemy opening, then repeating. Misjudge your opponent and you'll take quite a bit of damage. Not only that, but enemies will soon tire of head-on attacks and will decide to circle. Suddenly, you're dealing not only with an enemy opponent, but also the horrific camera."
Everybody wants to be a queen, or if they don't, they're in denial. Well, as you'll soon find in Summoner: A Goddess Reborn, you actually are a queen. There's just one tiny little problem: people don't seem all that interested in recognizing your royalty.
The game's beginning is an excellent example of this. You watch a neat little demo about a woman pulling an orb out of some sand and turning the world into a verdant paradise from the desert it once was. Now things skip forward to the present, where you're a young woman with a long braid, riding a merchant vessel in the middle of a choppy sea. Pirates are boarding, and you're going to have to battle them off with some assistance from your retainers if you want to survive.
Other games have started with battles on ships. Skies of Arcadia Legends and Starfox Adventures spring readily to mind. However, few games have done so excellent a job of sticking you right in the action and showcasing nearly all of the game's good and bad elements in the first five minutes. Almost immediately, you'll discover nearly everything there is to know about the game's quality.
The first thing you learn is that the camera angles here are some of the worst ever implemented in a 3D adventure. Imagine the most pitiful camera you've experienced in your gaming life. Ever played a game where your character gets stuck in a corner and the camera stutters as you try and swing it into position? Taught you not to walk near the corners, didn't it? Well, Summoner: A Goddess Reborn repeats that effect. Only there's a new wrinkle: sometimes it happens in the middle of an open room. Walk toward an enemy and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the camera is swinging around in an entirely different direction. You have to fiddle around with the 'c' stick just to keep it focused as your character walks in a straight line.
This issue is exacerbated on the pirate ship, where you'll be swarmed by several waves of pirates. In these cramped quarters, the perspective jumps all over the place. As the seas pitch the ship this way and that, the camera will actually swing back and forth of its own accord, even if you're not moving. I can't remember a single game I've played before where the camera works against you even if you're not moving. This may be a first.
But if you think the camera is the only thing the game has going against it, you're in for an unpleasant surprise. It turns out that the characters move like sumo wrestlers with bricks stuck up their butts. Press the control stick toward an enemy and you'll move forward in what can only be described as a cross between a prance and a waddle. Sometimes, inexplicably, your character will pause and everything will slow for several seconds while (I presume) the system catches on to the on-screen events. If it weren't for the fact that the enemies move just as slowly, this would probably lead to a lot of deaths. As it is, the odd control scheme will leave you scratching your head. And it only gets worse once you're in melee combat.
When you approach an enemy, you need to keep in mind that it can break through your defenses pretty easily if you keep yourself open. Pressing the 'L' button will allow you to defend yourself, but you have to give your character time to bring up her shield. As the game notifies you early on, performing a combo (which is done by repeatedly mashing the 'B' button) leaves you open to enemy attack when you've finished. Since most enemies will take around ten hits to kill, battle quickly becomes a matter of exchanging blows, parrying, watching for an enemy opening, then repeating. Misjudge your opponent and you'll take quite a bit of damage. Not only that, but enemies will soon tire of head-on attacks and will decide to circle. Suddenly, you're dealing not only with an enemy opponent, but also the horrific camera.
So in the game's first five minutes, you're fighting pirates on a ship while the camera swoops about crazily and your character waddles from one opponent to another. Not a promising start, is it?
Believe it or not, I had to try around six times before I was able to defeat all the enemies in the game's introductory area. This exposed me to another of the game's flaws. You see, the game knows you're just starting out. So it tries to be helpful by explaining the various gameplay mechanics. While this is great if you don't happen to have an instruction manual handy, it quickly grows irritating when you keep dying and having to sit through things all over again. There are also cutscenes to watch. Again, and again, and again. I quickly got sick of reading the same text repeatedly, but pressing 'A' didn't fix things. Instead, the game makes you pause it, then select 'Skip' and press the 'A' button. Extra steps that are irritating to someone just anxious to get rolling with the game. It happens again if you access menus, too. Few games in the genre have been so difficult to adapt to.
But let's assume you've bought or rented this game. You have nothing better to do, no other games to play. Like me, you keep trying that first area and eventually you succeed (or maybe you take to it naturally, somehow, and pass on your first attempt). Thankfully, the game then starts to suck a little less.
When you get off the ship, you'll find that your character is on an island, along with her loyal retainer. The game will now familiarize you with one of its strengths, the party system. As you waddle around the island, you can press the 'left' button on the d-pad to switch between the two party members. The change is instantaneous. While you are controlling one character, the computer keeps the other one nearby. Through the status screen, you can assign different moves to that helper. Wander the island for long and you'll run into enemies. Here, you'll see that the computer is actually rather helpful. Depending on how aggressive you ask it to be, it will dash around working on getting rid of enemies while you do the same.
Unfortunately, your little pals aren't perfect. They have a tendency to get themselves killed if you're not paying attention, which is where magic plays a key role. All characters can use the 'Y' button to use special abilities, be they magic or items. Map whatever move you desire to that button, then get ready to kick some enemy butt. If you see your friend's life dropping, just press the 'Y' button, select the target, then press the button to execute a healing spell. You will then take a moment casting it and, assuming you're not interrupted, everything will be rosy all over again. These special moves require what the game calls 'AP' points. While you walk around the island, your gauge is constantly refilling to its maximum level. For this reason, you don't necessarily need to use special items just to refill everything if a battle goes badly and you need to use a bunch of spells. I say 'necessarily' because there are some skills that do drain your meter quite rapidly. The gravest offender is the 'summon' skill.
Shortly after your characters land on the island, they will make their way up the side of a cliff, to a mysterious patch of glowing soil. Being a queen, you of course decide that the most sensible thing is to walk directly over the bubbling earth and investigate. When you do so, you discover the game's first summoning spell. There are around twelve of these hidden throughout the game. Whenever you use one, your character is replaced on-screen by a hulking beast that can really cut through opponents, as well as use magical abilities of its own. Unfortunately, summoned creatures tend to move even more slowly than the queen herself, and they take a serious bite out of her magic meter. In fact, they won't even stay around long unless you level up your summoning ability.
Which brings us to the subject of level-ups. Like any good role-playing adventure, this one allows you to gain strength as you defeat hordes of enemies. Characters gain stats individually. Whenever a character levels up, he or she gains a health and AP boost, and also gets stat points. These points may then be distributed to the game's various skills. As an example, you may choose to increase your resistance to physical attacks, or your ability to effectively use clubs. Special skills such as healing and revival magic may also be acquired in this manner. The game restricts you from maxing out any one category by putting a cap on growth, but there are still enough choices to make as you progress that you should feel satisfied.
Also, as you might expect, exploration also becomes more enjoyable when your characters grow more powerful. The environments you'll discover are actually quite nice. To me they don't look quite so nice as pre-rendered environments could have, but there's definitely a sense that the architecture all fits together in a pleasing manner. Early on, everything is quite tropical and peaceful, and things will grow dreary from there as you progress into the darker corners of the world and beyond. No matter where you go, there's always something to explore, and it's easy to miss treasure chests and the like that are hidden behind columns or piles of rubbish.
Careful exploration, then, is definitely rewarded. There are all sorts of rings and special items lying about. Also, there are puzzles to solve. On the first island alone, there are two or three quite intriguing puzzles, and a few of those are optional. Nothing is terribly taxing, but it's nice that more patient players are rewarded for taking the time to unearth the game's secrets. On a more negative note, exploration can sometimes be a real chore because of the map system. Regardless of the environment you're exploring, the rooms all look quite similar and the map works against you by allowing portions to fade from sight if you head toward the center of a current room. Suppose you're at the center of what is basically a square room. You look on the map and see several branches leading in different directions from there. As you approach one such branch, another room melts into view, and suddenly you know how to proceed. If you'd not headed toward that apparently dead end, however, you never would have realized a new corridor existed. Even once you know the room is there, it will fade from sight if you start to retreat. Because of this, the map is all but worthless.
One way to combat that feature's uselessness is by saving frequently. Every time the game reveals a new cutscene, you know you've made it somewhere good. Since the game allows you to save anywhere, doing so becomes a good idea. In a given area, I might save ten or twenty times, just so I don't find myself backtracking later on because I've become lost. It really is good that the developers included this feature. Unfortunately, saving itself can also be frustrating. By default, you'll create a new file whenever you save. Since a single save takes 19 blocks from your memory card, it's easy to fill up even an enormous memory card just because you've been saving so frequently. Though it's true that you won't encounter that problem if you're patient, it's still a mark against the game that even an exercise so simple as saving is made more difficult by poor design.
When the game is frustrating you in this manner, it then becomes simpler to see its other flaws because you tend to be looking for them. Other little defects that normally wouldn't irritate you suddenly seem much more important.
Of course I'm referring to the queen's afternoon shadow. Shortly after you escape from the first island, there's a scene where she's standing in a courtyard, overlooking the sea. Parrots fly from a nearby ledge and pass behind her while she turns toward the camera to reveal what looks suspiciously like a beard. Is it? Of course not. It's just polygon seams blurred to 'look good.' Similar effects plague all of the character models, unfortunately, which means the cast of characters tends to look rather bland and just a little unnatural.
Thankfully, the sound department makes up for oversights such as this one. From the moment you begin playing, you'll likely be struck by how amazing things sound. There's the roar of a waterfall, the sloshing of seawater against the side of a ship, the squawk of birds, and so forth. Though you've heard games that sound better, I'd wager you've also heard a lot worse. Every single location has something that lends to the atmospheric effect, in beautiful stereo sound. Something else that also impressed me was the fact the developers included voice acting. Then I realized that they got lazy. Meet some pirates on a ship and they'll sound about like you would expect. Then you'll meet a former retainer, and she sounds little different than the pirates. In fact, just about everyone sounds very similar, and the lines are either flat or so exaggerated that they become a cliche.
And so goes the whole game. For every strength, there's a flaw that evens things out. There's a pile of dirt for every broom, a spill for every mp. If you weighed the importance of each feature on a scale, you'd probably find that everything balances itself out. And if that's what you're looking for in a game, well, you've found it. As far as role-playing games go, this one ranks pretty low on the scale. It is, however, one of the only ones of its kind on the GameCube. Get past the sizeable flaws and you'll probably even have fun. After all, everybody wants to be a queen!
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 22, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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