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JRPG Codex Review: Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 22 May 2012, 15:33:13Tags: Carpe Fulgur; Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone; Lizsoft
If there is one subgenre we've not usually covered, it is Japanese RPGs. Most of them are console only, or at least console first, which would normally exclude them from the Codex coverage (of course, the same argument can be made for contemporary Western multiplatform releases, but let's not dwell on this here). There is, however, one particular breed of Japanese video games that is predominantly PC based. These are so-called doujin, or independent games, which are often niche and experimental in nature. As a rule, they are also tough as nails and cutesy to the point of sugar overdose - a typically Japanese-produced combination. More often than not they do not end up translated into English, but Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone (2012) is one of the infrequent cases that has.
Originally released in 2007 by the Japanese developer Lizsoft, Fortune Summoners is an interesting mix of a 2D sidescroller and a party-based action RPG, and the third game localized by Carpe Fulgur, the publisher that also brought us Recettear in 2010 and Chantelise in 2011, two games that have already developed a strong cult following. I played through the game twice, on Normal and on Hard, and am now ready to tell you what I think about it. Unfortunately, I didn't intend to review it initially so I didn't take any screenshots and I can't be arsed to go through it again just to capture some, so the screens you see below aren't mine.
A word of warning: despite being a very hardcore game, Fortune Summoners is heavy on anime that creates the impression of being aimed at ten year old girls (which it isn't), so if you simply can't stand this kind of art style, you may as well stop reading right now - before the pictures below give you headache.
I warned you.
The title screens introduces the three playable characters: Arche the sword-fighter, Sana the water mage, and Stella the fire mage, as well as the annoying flying mascot thingy that no Japanese game can do without.
Story and setting
Despite being a party-based game, Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone does have a single main protagonist. The overarching plot revolves around the misadventures of a highly - sometimes irritatingly - energetic, if not particularly bright, swordsgirl named Arche as she arrives with her family to the town of Tonkiness in the country of Scotsholm. The problem (and initial plot hook) is, Scotsholm is a country where magic is commonplace to the point of the only school around being the Minasa-Ratis Magic School, whereas Arche is only trained in the art of sword-fighting, with little to no aptitude for, not to mention training in, magic. Worse, her family is too poor to even afford an elemental stone imbued with the power of an elemental spirit that is mandatory to be able to cast spells and take part in magic classes, so no wonder getting her one constitutes an important part of the main quest, albeit with a somewhat unexpected result.
The game starts off solo as you control Arche on her way to her first day at school - amusingly, even the short trip from town to school is teeming with monsters and pupils are expected to cope with them on their own - but soon turns into a party-based affair: as the story progresses, you are joined by two schoolmates, the shy and friendly water magician Sana and the arrogant yet (naturally) also friendly at heart fire magician Stella. I won't reveal any further details of the plot, except that it gets predictably grander than just a high school anecdote and consists entirely of clichés. Luckily, Fortune Summoners treats all clichés playfully rather than endorsing them with a straight face, so you can abstract from them or heck, even enjoy them most of the time. And like this kind of story or not, one thing that instantly stands out is the high quality of the game's writing, infused with the spirit of lightheartedness, humor, and camaraderie that Carpe Fulgur's translation has managed to perfectly capture. Even pre-boss battle exchanges tend to be there for comic relief, and at its best the dialogue will often make you chuckle or sympathize with the (at times too chatty) characters, which somehow manages to make them more than merely the clear-cut archetypes that they represent. Your party of three actually feels like a team, with a rich detailed world surrounding them on their quest. The things NPCs say tend to change over time, and often I found myself talking to as many people as possible just to hear the new lines they have to offer, and not because I'm obsessive like that but because I was in point of fact enjoying it.
Unfortunately - and I mean it when I say it because it is indeed highly unfortunate - apart from Sana and Stella you also get a little fluffy flying wind elemental creature to accompany you, and his lines are where the game's writing, while still brilliantly translated, becomes absolutely cringeworthy: there are only so many times you can read 'fwiend' and 'sowwy' without gauging your eyes out. Incidentally, this is the only point of the game that is just so straightforwardly anime that you sadly can't write it off as parody. At least the game isn't oversaturated with pop culture references - in contrast to something like the Touhou games, I haven't even been able to spot any that I can remember.
Fortune Summoners is very slow to pick up, and the introductory part of the game can get a bit boring. Truth be told I wasn't following the details of the story too closely, but I felt like the ending both resolved the major plot lines in a more or less adequate manner and left enough room for a sequel to continue the story. What isn't so good, however, is the game's pacing, as the plot has a tendency to slow down for a long period and then rush a bit too fast at other times.
Fortune Summoners' bosses are certainly talkative types, eager to entertain their meal before they devour it.
But while the game may look unbelievably cuddly and the story and setting may be unbelievably girly, do not judge it by the looks, because if you just lay aside your manliness for a moment you will discover a surprisingly hardcore game underneath. And story isn't the point of the game anyway - it's all about (cute little) girls killing (cute little) things, and vice versa.
Combat and character development
Okay, so you would probably expect a 2D side-scrolling action RPG to feature simplistic one-button hit-and-run combat, but this definitely isn't the case with Fortune Summoners. Combat is, without a doubt, what the game does best. The challenge is high yet none of it comes from frustrating controls, the combo and magic system is fairly advanced, timing your attacks, abilities and movement is essential, the AI is highly competent, and both the characters' and the monsters' abilities and peculiarities are varied and crucial to learn.
Mothbees are probably the most irritating enemies early in the game. Or is it slimes? Or maybe merkids? Or... damn, they're all pretty irritating.
In Fortune Summoners, you get to control a party of up to three characters - Arche, Sana and Stella - each with her own distinct play style. The main character, Arche, is a physical fighter who controls in the manner remiscent of fighting games. Right from the beginning of the game, Arche possesses a fair amount of sword-fighting moves, from a wide thrust to a back roll, that is large enough for the combat to never feel tedious. The actual damage output depends on the character's attributes, equipment (which in its turn influences the attributes), as well as on the type of move executed, with the number of moves growing as Arche levels up and unlocks them, which serves to make the combat even more dynamic as you progress through the game. Playing it defensively is also a viable strategy, but personally I found more fulfillment in doing it the fast way.
The specific button and directional combinations needed to pull off the special moves make sense without being overcomplicated; that helps in learning the system and makes the swordplay very satisfying once you've mastered it. Some abilities, such as thrust or downstab, are made even more essential by the fact that Arche's blade is fairly short and so is the range of her attacks, and there are many monsters you just don't want to get too close to. Other moves let you charge right through the enemies or strike at them mid-air, all that complemented by a combo meter that rewards you with multipliers for chained attacks, giving you further incentive to get the hang of the rhythm and flow of combat. Interestingly, your companions' attacks add to the combo meter, too, so it becomes a measure of team play above else.
Sana and Stella are magic users that lack Arche's elaborate combo acrobatics, and they also control very differently. Sana's water magic is slow but diverse, her spells ranging from healing to status effects to offensive. The latter are, however, relatively easy to dodge and many enemies do just that when they have enough room for maneuver. In general, the enemy AI in Fortune Summoners rates from good to excellent; enemies respond to your moves and act ahead if you get too simplistic and repetitive in your actions. They also like to take advantage of the large amount of time Sana needs to cast her stronger spells to close in on her. That creates many adrenaline-filled moments, especially during the segments where you control Sana solo and have to time your spells and measure the distance to the enemies and their speed very carefully. Stella, on the other hand, is mainly an offensive spellcaster, more than capable of freely moving around the battlefield, and it is satisfying to take control of her as she relies on fast homing spells and conjures up fire walls burning enemies that attempt to get near her.
In any case, whoever you choose to control (and you can switch between the characters on the fly), much of Fortune Summoners' difficulty comes from managing your timing and the pacing of your keystrokes and abilities; precise timing and careful manipulation are required to make efficient use of your moves and abilities, while button-mashing will only bring you closer to death. The game's design achieves that not only with the good AI and the varied danger of enemy moves, but also by insisting on a slight delay - that you can fine tune in the menu - between the character's actions that is there no matter how fast you tap that button (which has led some people to call the controls unresponsive because the speed of key presses does not directly translate into the speed of chaining combos) and by introducing quite a bit of momentum to the character's movements and jumps, which adds a certain floaty quality to them that you can use to your advantage once you figure it out in order to compensate for the short range of Arche's sword and take enemies by surprise. Learning to fight properly with any character takes time and skill - and requires you to adapt whenever a new enemy type is introduced.
Stat increase when leveling-up is randomized, but you can fine tune the process via a variety of consumables.
Fortune Summoners' character development system is simple but efficient for a party-based side-scrolling action RPG that it is. In addition to HP and MP, every character has a set of four base attributes - Attack, Defense, Spirit, and Resist - increased upon leveling-up or via consumables. Attack and Spirit determine the physical and magic damage you deal, with Defense and Resist being the corresponding defensive attributes, reducing the damage you take. In a venerable old school tradition stemming from Wizardry, the level-up process is automated and dice roll based so you don't get to distribute points or anything and stat increases are random, but the special kind of consumables, the ones that have permanent effect, provides just enough room for you to tweak this process. Naturally, you will want to only raise the attributes that matter most for this particular character, and woe to you if you don't.
Until you permanently get the full party together later in the game, Fortune Summoners sometimes makes you play solo as one of the girls, so ideally you should become equally, or at least somewhat, effective at all three play styles. The companion AI is not only competent enough that a low-skilled player will probably find him- or herself worse at controlling the girls than the AI, but it is also highly customizable so that you can set the party's formation and global magic use policy (which ranges from "healing magic only" to "cast away") as well as hand-pick the individual abilities and spells they may or may not use during combat. Given that MP is scarce (no kidding here!), customization is a must on higher difficulties. You can also remap the controls, and - in contrast to, say, Chantelise, another Carpe Fulgur-published game - Fortune Summoners is refreshingly comfortable to play with a keyboard. The ability to instantly switch controls over to another character with a single key press also helps, and can even be life-saving whenever you need to micro-manage the situation to prevent your companion from dying - and believe me, you won't want any of your sidekicks to go down, as that can make a dungeon unwinnable or just too challenging. Which leads to another consideration: on the one hand, when the full party is present, combat becomes considerably easier; on the other, it calls more for micro-management and borders on an escort quest in which your player-controlled character has to always keep an eye on the AI-controlled ones to instantly change the controls over when necessary to prevent them from dying.
Every character eventually learns a lot of spells and abilities, and using them correctly without sticking to just one or two is crucial. The abilities are mostly well-balanced in that you can, and should, alternate between them to handle all kinds of situations efficiently. Ignoring the variety of spells and abilities at your disposal can make some scenarios much harder than they should be. This is particularly the case on Hard, although even on Normal different situations usually call for different tactics. It doesn't help that, as mentioned, the enemies can be surprisingly clever, dodging your attacks and taking advantage of the pauses you make in your movement. They can also inflict different kinds of status ailments on you - making you poisoned, frozen, asleep, paralyzed, and confused - and it is every bit as bad as it sounds, especially given that you remain frozen, asleep or paralyzed for a rather long period of time and poison, on top of being strong, does not wear off as long as you stay inside the dungeon.
Wyvern-kun is one of the game's bosses, as evident by its sheer size.
Not just the AI, but the enemy variety is quite pleasant as well. Enemies block, flank, stunlock, poison and confuse you, fly, jump, do leap and ranged attacks, cast powerful spells, heal themselves, float out of your attack or spell range, and move faster than you do. When defeated, they drop coins and occasionally treasure chests. In the very beginning of the game, you will fight bats who dive in on you at what seems like the most unpredictable moment and evade your attempts to reach them, slimes that deal quite a bit of damage with their tentacles if you get too close, snakes that poison you, and mothbees who put you to sleep and sting you from a distance if you stay in one place for too long. Later you will encounter lightning fast sabercats, ranged archers, mushrooms that release toxic clouds, kobolds more than capable of sword fighting and even blocking your attacks, acorn-throwing cocorats who can also jump-kick your butt, merkids with their long-range tridents and powerful magicians with devastating spells to accompany them, and other regular monsters not to count bosses, each with a unique pattern that is flexible, not rigid, and tries to adapt to your actions. And don't even get me started on the freaking harpies. As a rule, every enemy that appears brings something new - a new kind of frustration - to the table, and that is no small feat on the designer's part. That also makes discovering the best way to handle an enemy type extremely rewarding.
On both Normal and Hard, enemies are fairly tough and don't just go down in one or two hits, draining your MP and always eager to significantly reduce your not too high HP. Some of the enemy moves have a chance of knocking your character down, rendering her helpless for a fair bit of time. Things get especially dangerous when there are multiple enemies of different types on the screen that complement each other with their abilities. In such cases, you have to carefully pick the attack spot and choose which foes to focus on first and how to evade the rest while timing your moves to take advantage of the enemy's moments of immobility and interrupt their spellcasting. That is also when the combat gets the most tactical, requiring you to put thought into the situation and keep the whole picture in mind instead of just rushing headlong to your inevitable demise. The enemies are also quick to repopulate the previously explored areas - the good thing being, they do not seem to scale to your level, so that low-level areas will remain low-level no matter when you revisit them. Encounters are hand-designed, not random, and many of them are avoidable if you simply run past them fast enough; a welcome thing when you just need to get to the next destination quickly.
Another thing to keep in mind is that healing items don't take effect at once, but take some time to consume, which prevents you from getting through by simply spamming them.
Arche gets a fairly large number of fighting moves that grows as she goes up in levels, and mastering them makes for an unexpectedly deep combat system.
Items and economy
Your position on the game's economy may differ from mine depending on your play style, but personally I found it pretty generous on Normal and slightly less generous on Hard. It is unlikely that you will find yourself completely out of healing items if you play the game skilfully enough, and as far as money is concerned, thanks to the fact that enemies respawn over time you can always grind for more coins if you've been spending them a bit too carelessly. You will probably want to grind if you are the obsessive type who feels bad unless you can buy all the best gear at once, because the money you normally have doesn't allow that due to the really high shop prices (I still ended up with lots of money, though), but I will advise you to bear in mind that many of those items can also be found in treasure chests, provided you're willing to go off the beaten path and explore a bit more thoroughly. Another word of warning: Fortune Summoners isn't really designed around grinding, so if you overdo it you may break this non-level-scaled game by this kind of unimaginative powergaming and find yourself bored rather than entertained.
Towns serve as shopping hubs, and as the game progresses and you find yourself in other cities, better and more varied items and equipment are introduced. Unfortunately, there is no fast travel in the game so you can't just visit any town you want easily, which makes planning ahead and taking notes of the better items sold at a new shop you come across mandatory unless your memory is particularly stellar. At shops, there are sometimes slot machines that produce random items when offered 20 coins, and even though I rarely had them present me with anything particularly good, the process was so addictive that I feel like I wasted a fortune on them. Arche's father also runs an item shop and he will occasionally give you side quests that involve finding rare items that make it into the shop's stock (yes, your father actually expects you to buy items and not just gives them to you for free - after all, he doesn't want to go out of business just because his daughter happens to be an adventurer).
Yeah, well, there are different kinds of items in Fortune Summoners. The one highlighted above was a Valentine Day's bonus.
In general, items in Fortune Summoners come in four types: consumables, equipment, "fluff," and quest-related items. Consumables in their turn are broken down in two categories: some of them restore your HP and MP or cure status ailments, while others - understandably rarer and harder to find - offer permanent boosts to one of the six base statistics (the four attributes plus HP and MP). As previously mentioned, consumables take time to consume with enemies nearby, and you should always measure the type of healing item carefully against the amount of HP you want restored in order not to run out of the stronger ones too quickly. Which leads to one major complaint I have (okay, it is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but I found it irritating given the otherwise near flawless controls): the F2 key lets you automatically consume a healing item without going through the clunky process of accessing your inventory and manually choosing one, but what is quite problematic about it is that it doesn't at all take the amount of HP you need restored into account, often going for the rarer healing item when it doesn't make an ounce of sense. That ultimately renders it useless on Hard where you have to manage your items in an efficient manner. A more intelligent kind of behavior, where the F2 button would go for the more common consumable and actually take your current HP into consideration, would have been most welcome. Another annoyance, if minor, is that healing items don't stack, or to be more precise, they do sometimes stack but in rather unpredictable ways and there's no way to arrange them manually.
As far as equipment is concerned, there are four slots for it: one for weapons, two for armor (primary and secondary), and an accessory slot. Different equipment influences different stats, and in the standard RPG manner the gear available grows in power as you advance the plot. Equipment is also character-specific, so you can't just equip anything on anyone. The variety is solid yet nothing too special; if I felt like nitpicking, I would say having more unorthodox weapons - ones having special elemental effects, for example - would have spiced up things, but frankly the system gets the job done and the combat is gripping enough as it is.
There is also a fair share of cosmetic items, which offer the player the ability to match the color of the character's socks, dress, ribbon, and whatnot. In fact, there are so many of them that I got the feeling the game expected me to play dress-up all the time. Well, I guess there is a certain demographic that finds that appealing and even essential, and the game does a good work of catering to them too. One particularly unexpected - and truth be told a bit disturbing - sort of fluff item is the underwear that you can find in almost every house. Apart from the fact you can sell it for a few coins, it doesn't seem to serve any other purpose. Thankfully, I would add.
Dungeons and exploration
Apart from combat, another thing I love about Fortune Summoners is that it never holds your hand. The dungeons can get relatively labyrinthine and span many a screen, providing a nice contrast to boring linear "dungeons" in contemporary mainstream RPGs. Approaching exploration in an old school manner, the game does not have an automap, or any kind of map; and still, after the initial moment of shock you soon realize you can explore the dungeons fairly easily if you just pay attention, no graph paper required - assuming you can play a dungeon in one sitting, of course. There are also some basic puzzles that involve jumping, switch-pulling, crate-pushing, avoiding spiked traps, discovering hidden passages, and the like. They are never too hard, certainly not on the Lost Vikings level, and are mostly there for the sake of variety rather than as a hardcore challenge. On top of that, the final dungeon feels appropriately epic and features chests armed with teleporter traps (an homage to Wizardry?) that transport you to a different room, making it the only dungeon you'd be well advised to map out. Beating the game unlocks a bonus dungeon for those inclined to face even more monster and find more equipment.
Puzzles and dungeons go together, you know.
At times the game expects you to utilize Sana or Stella's spells to proceed ahead, and that can be problematic if your companion has died on you - another reason to keep them alive. There are both main and optional areas, in dungeons and overland, only accessible with the help of magic: Sana can travel underwater in a magical air bubble whereas Stella can burn through the vines blocking the way. Every major dungeon has its own theme and set of enemies, and inside there are many secret rooms and optional paths to discover and fight your way through. In return, Fortune Summoners rewards the thorough explorer with treasure and healing fountains, located to the side of the main track. Healing fountains always feel welcome since HP and MP attrition is an important factor when getting through a dungeon, especially for the first time, even with all the healing items you can carry. There are also pits, and falling into them strips you of a percentage of hit points - not too high, yet high enough for you not to feel like repeating the experience.
Scattered around the dungeons are special items called Marks of Heroism that increase your maximum level and the size of your wallet (that is, the amount of coins you can carry), so finding them is highly recommended and provides a good exploration stimulus. Luckily, they aren't too hard to find.
And block-stacking and pushing is just what dungeon crawlers do.
Fortune Summoners doesn't hold your hand when outside the dungeons either. The game's quests tell you what you need to do, but not how you should go about actually doing it. Unfortunately, that also comes with the displeasure of back-and-forth design that often expects you to find the one and only NPC that would say something to advance the plot amidst a hundred other NPCs, and there is no way to tell beforehand which NPC will prove to be essential. Quests are mostly fetch quests (to use an early example, how about bringing lunch to an NPC and then delivering a love letter for him across many screens?), and some of them can even make you scour the entire explorable game world until you find the correct chain of NPCs to talk to! (Or maybe I'm just dumb.) Anyway, it would be okay if all quests were merely excuses for more combat, but some of them only involve in-town to-and-fro that serves no gameplay purpose. Now I know I said I enjoyed talking to each and every NPC - but not two times in a row! Another annoyance is that the game sometimes has you go through the same dungeon or overland segment with a different character. That is obviously meant to teach you that character's play style, but all the backtracking can be just a little too much. Thankfully, it tends to end fairly quickly so it isn't something I would feel too strongly about. Still, "it's already late so let's return here again tomorrow" can only be used as a backtracking excuse so often.
Don't get me wrong, though: many situations do actually make sense, such as exploring the cave close to the school, finding your way blocked by a pool of water, and realizing you should bring Sana with you since her magic allows her to breathe underwater - a fairly simple but elegant exploration puzzle. It is all the more irritating, then, in the rare case when the game wants you to memorize something completely arbitrary - like the number of gargoyle statues you encounter along the way - only to be able to answer a riddle at the end, which, if answered incorrectly, sends you back to the beginning of the dungeon. And even though there is in-game dialogue hinting at the correct answer, it is pretty cryptic and seemingly unrelated, and it comes even earlier than the dungeon itself so it will likely go unnoticed by most players. Again, your tolerance for such things depends on your attitude to old school game design. Mine is rather high, but I felt like I should warn you anyway.
Fortune Summoners features a checkpoint save system, but it is fairly forgiving. You can write the game to a save slot when at school or at the inns, as well as at healing fountains when inside a dungeon. In combat areas, every screen is check-pointed, so party death only makes you replay a single battle sequence. Alternatively, when you die you are offered an option to give up and be transported outside the dungeon at the cost of 10% of the coins you currently have, which is useful in case you run out of healing potions or find yourself too weak or underequipped to beat the area.
Stella Mayberk is just a tiny bit condescending. Understandable, since she tends to kick major ass.
Refreshingly devoid of modern conveniences, Fortune Summoners takes pride in its old school design, with good reason and to good effect. Many players will probably be frustrated by the game's difficulty, yet it is not the cheating kind and those who are willing to take effort to master it will be sure to have around 20 hours of challenge - not bad for the $20 price tag. The combat is fairly deep and tactical for a game of this kind, the writing is upbeat, charming and well-translated, and the dungeon crawling, while at times artificially prolonged by backtracking, is enjoyable with many secrets to find and without being too frustrating. All in all, despite a number of problems, Fortune Summoners is the perfect kind of game to play in small or larger chunks after a long day or on a slow evening. Give it a try if the anime presentation doesn't turn you off too much.