Designing a role-playing game is somewhat like training for a decathlon. The game must excel in many areas, including character building, storyline pacing, battle mechanics, world design, and others. Summoner performs heroically in many events, especially in rendering the rural lands of Medeva, but fails to win gold due to torpid plot development and apathy-inducing characters.
Nine years prior to the start of the game's storyline, Joseph called forth a demon to help save his hometown. Unfortunately, after the demon killed the invaders, it then turned on the townspeople after Joseph lost control. Trying to avoid another tragedy, he fled to Masad to renounce his gift and become a simple farmer.
The game begins as our hero flees Masad, which has been set ablaze on the orders of Murod, the evil ruler of Orenia. Murod, in classic Oedipus Rex tradition, had been warned that the youngster with the mark of the Summoner would bring his demise. You must help Joseph master his gift and defeat the evil of the land.
After such an interesting beginning, one would think the young protagonist would gather his party, seek guidance in using his power, and face his foes as quickly as possible. Instead, Joseph spends the first four or five hours of the game wandering through forests and cities mired in side quests and random encounters before meeting the first member of his party, and even longer before gaining his first summoning ring. Obviously, the numerous sub-quests are designed to add more hours of gameplay, and the random encounters are helpful in building up the hero for the trials to come. However, it is too easy to wander the vast streets of Lenele and miss the crucial device needed to advance the plot.
The game's sluggish start isn't helped by the fact that Joseph eventually finds the most basic RPG characters to accompany him on his journey. The party members are reduced to cookie-cutter thief, warrior, and magic user templates seen in so many other role-playing adventures. Even though the character system allows you to customize characters by assigning points to favorite skills, individual personalities are woefully absent. You're also limited to all human characters, when a host of creature characters with unique personalities could have been added. Even Gauntlet, released 15 years prior to Summoner, included a Valkyrie and Elf for variety.
The actual summoning, when the first ring is finally acquired, is enjoyable. Fifteen monsters can be summoned forth to fight with Joseph, each with unique powers and appearances. If the hero dies, however, the creature is free and will attack the party. It's a good gimmick that works well in the game. However, considering the game is named after the skill, it is surprising how long it takes to gain said ability. Perhaps adding an extra dozen monsters or specific monster personalities would have spiced up the act of summoning.
Summoner's graphics are somewhat of a mixed bag. The characters are blocky and gaunt; Joseph is especially spooky, looking neither the part of farmer or hero. The cityscapes are vast and full of folk, each with something to say about the current state of affairs in Medeva or offering a quest. The buildings look fine on the outside, but suffer from clipping issues inside. It would be easier to overlook such issues had the outdoors not been so beautifully rendered. Water, rain, and sun effects are superb. Random encounters in the forest put you in areas populated with trees, stumps, and animals, while the land undulates with gentle slopes and sharp rises. But the imbalance between inside and outdoors in the different zones leaves the game feeling somewhat incomplete.
Combat is one of the most crucial components of role-playing and Summoner offers solid real-time combat. Characters can chain attacks together with a well-timed right mouse click, adding a special effect and stopping counter-attacks. This unique melee system is simple yet surprisingly addictive, as each weapon swings at a different speed. Twenty-nine spells are tossed into the mix with sharp displays of pyrotechnics and energy beams. Battle AI for computer controlled party characters is easily modified and surprisingly adept. Although the AI is exceptional, ill-conceived camera angles, limited to high or low perspectives, block your view and make stealth or sniping a major hassle.
As a complete package, Summoner is playable and a better than average addition to the RPG genre. The particle effects for the spells and treatment of the landscapes are well done, but graphics alone don't make the game. A lethargic storyline and cast of 2D characters becomes slightly tiresome and players are not compelled to advance to the next chapter. The game admirably attempts to overcome these challenges, but in the end simply isn't engaging enough for all but the most dedicated gamers. The groundwork was laid for a unique experience, but Summoner fails to clear its self-imposed bar.
Graphics: Outside, the hills are alive with lush flora and unique fauna. Inside, the textures are pretty, but clipping issues detract from the effect. Characters are blocky and uninspired.
Sound: The clangs and smashes of battle ring true and spells sound almost as good as they look. Ambient noises lack conviction.
Enjoyment: Summoning creatures is a blast, but is it worth plowing through hours of side quests and random encounters?
Replay Value: Par for the RPG course: Volition, Inc. tries to distract gamers from the linear storyline with a multitude of skills to hone and arbitrary quests to solve.
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