In many ways, Saviors of Sapphire Wings / Stranger of Sword City Revisited is about a year late to what was probably the perfect release window. A bundle containing hundreds of hours worth of high-quality dungeon crawling, split across two titles, which are each wonderful in their own right? This would have been a great comfort in the early days of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
However, it’s here now and ready to be enjoyed by fans of the original titles and newcomers alike! And with the release on Switch, this is an excellent way to pass the time curled up in bed, on the couch, wherever your gaming takes you.
STORY – COMPREHENSIVE CHRONICLES
As this is a bundle, I’ll be reviewing both titles here. It’s important to note that there are no narrative connections between the two games; they’re just both really great. Saviors was originally released as Azure-Winged Chevalier, a PlayStation Vita title that launched in 2019. Stranger was initially on Xbox 360 in 2014.
In this package, both games have been upgraded with various improvements. Having them both available again on a modern console is really exciting, especially for those who might not have owned a PlayStation Vita.
Both titles are pseudo-related to each other. They share the same monsters, terminologies, and celestial references, but characters, locations, and time periods are all different. As such, you don’t need to play them in a particular order; you’ll just notice different little commonalities as you play.
The story of Saviors will probably seem familiar to anyone who has played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A great evil has invaded the world and defeated the Knights of the Round, a group of warriors who served as the last bastion of defense. 100 years later, the leader of the Knights is mysteriously resurrected and must gather a new team of heroes to take on Ol=Ohma, the Overlord of Darkness, once and for all.
Even though this premise has been played out many times before, the pacing and characterization at play here are both really top-notch. New party members are doled out at a rate that isn’t overwhelming, allowing you to get a sense of each character and decide who is the best fit for your play-style.
Saviors is filled with people who are dealing with past trauma, abandonment, and high expectations. I really loved the support mechanic, which is probably most analogous with Fire Emblem: as characters fight in your party, you may choose to have conversations and meals with them back at your base. This boosts their relationship with you and also draws some backstory out of these characters.
It’s not perfect, and certain stereotypes are surely at play, but there’s a distinct depth that you’d find in a flagship RPG title. Everybody has a purpose and meaning. That’s one of the core tenets of the game. They’re all where they are supposed to be to succeed.
There are some pretty thinly veiled references to some racism tropes that we’ve seen for years in systems such as Dungeons & Dragons and other long-reaching fantasy material. I haven’t seen any explicit racial stereotypes, but more in the manner that characters interact with each other. The intellect of dwarves is questioned, or you’ll hack through dozens of trolls only to find that their leader is capable of human speech and runs an organized government.
These things aren’t challenged. Nobody steps up and asks, “Why’d we just murder all those guys?” I think that this would have been a worthwhile discussion for the characters to have, but that’s not what this game is. We’re just supposed to enjoy the burgeoning relationships between races that haven’t historically interacted and be glad about it.
Stranger hits us with a more modern setting. The story starts with a plane crash in a mysterious world, and your character awakes in ruins. Much like Saviors, fantasy staples such as dragons, magic, and swords are prevalent, but the setting is an alternate dimension to the modern world, and some characters were brought over from the real world.
You quickly find out that those of you from Earth, known here as Strangers, are tasked with exploring labyrinths to fight monsters. Furthermore, as a Chosen One, the player character is tasked with collecting Blood Crystals from enemies to unlock your innate magical abilities.
From an ensemble standpoint, Stranger is front-loaded with a lot more characters to keep track of at the beginning. The natural and expected introduction to Sword City is full of many different folks coming and going, each with their own purpose and destination. While you can’t follow all of them right away, they are still unique and somewhat overwhelming to keep track of.
Your party isn’t naturally filled through the progression of the story; you’re instead assigned five completely unknown party members without warning. Unlike Saviors, there aren’t chances to meet and learn about these other warriors before you’re responsible for them.
This wasn’t my ideal way to play. In titles with large narratives, I prefer a slow burn of introductions so I can really form connections (and, admittedly, better remember) those that I’m expected to guide through the journey. Especially when coming straight from Saviors of Sapphire Wings, this didn’t feel as conducive to my own play-style as I would have liked.
That being said, there are still chances to learn about everyone as the game continues, as you’ll be fighting a lot of battles together. Aside from my issues with this initial party introduction, the story of Stranger is still rock-solid and compelling. As this is the “Revisited” version, there are also deeper character customization options, items, and equipment than was found on the Xbox 360 version.
GAMEPLAY – (DUNGEON) CRAWLING IN MY SKIN
All in all, there are going to be a bunch of similarities between these two titles, including the gameplay. Each game plays utilizing a first-person viewpoint to traverse dungeons and areas. Party and item maintenance are managed via menu screens. The overall style should be familiar to anyone who’s played Etrian Odyssey, or honestly, any other NIS America title.
That’s not to detract at all from the quality; the studio is known for some pretty fantastic games! This is especially evidenced by this release of two older titles. It still feels good to outfit and oversee party members, and the dungeon crawling feels almost intimate.
But while some things have the same feel, there are some pretty distinct differences between these two titles, for better or for worse. I obviously can’t say for certain which one will fit you better, but they’re both worth checking out.
In Saviors, everything comes across as substantially more polished and user-friendly. Plot details and abilities are organically revealed and introduced as players progress, and menus are easy to navigate. If you’re ever stuck or forget where to go, it’s especially easy to reread the quest info to look for a hint. The party management and shopping mechanics are extremely straightforward.
Leveling up is done automatically in a way that is common to the genre. There’s no additional work done for the sake of realism; it’s a fantasy game! I really enjoyed how accessible it all was, and it is certainly a title that I devoured as fast as possible.
Stranger, on the other hand, almost seems like it’s trying to be a representation of tabletop gaming. Leveling is done automatically, so if you forget to increase your stats, you’ll never see improvement. Menus are a more laborious affair, relying on a player’s patience and determination to get to where they need to go.
There are more “hardcore” mechanics available to players, such as hiding, which lets you sneak up on unsuspecting enemy leaders for a chance to get better quality loot. This doesn’t work everywhere, but it is essential for those that want to have an advantage.
The thing about Stranger is that it’s definitely not made for more casual players. Everything is just a step more complicated than in Saviors, which made it a bit more frustrating and harder to get into. That might not be the case for you, individually, but acclimating yourself will definitely take more of an effort.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – ANIME FOR EVERYBODY
Just like the gameplay, there are some graphic similarities between both games. Environments and monsters are similarly styled. Characters, however, deviate in style. Saviors has more of a classic anime look, in the vein of Fire Emblem.
Stranger, on the other hand, is invoking more of a high-art style, reminiscent of the old art pieces created for Final Fantasy in its 1990s heyday. Both are filled with beautiful visuals, and I have a particular fondness for the bleak world depicted at the outset of Stranger, which even contains a serpent enemy living inside a broken television set.
If you’re a fan of RPG soundtracks, both of these games feature some stunning atmospheric tunes to fill the background of your life. Specifically, there are some horns in the battle music that have been stuck in my head for weeks. On top of that, the sound effects are, how can I put this, satisfying.
I don’t typically pay much attention to things like sound effects in games, but the navigation sounds you hear in battles almost sound like tiny swords clashing, and I can’t get enough of it. Hey, NIS America! I wouldn’t mind a couple of soundtrack releases for either of these titles. Just saying.
Saviors of Sapphire Wings / Stranger of Sword City Revisited was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by NIS America.