Summon Night: Twin Age

Summon Night: Twin Age has just enough of that engaging "Gotta explore the whole map" appeal that playing never feels like a chore.

Publisher: Atlus
Genres: RPG
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: Summon Night: Twin Age
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Banpresto
US release date: 2008-06-03
Developer website

The JRPG has always been a genre of formulas. The uncertain hero, the damsel in quasi-distress, the gruff fighter, the wise teacher, and all the other stereotypes one comes to expect. The game design comes with its own expectations as well: there will be leveling up, there will be new abilities, and there will be a shop to buy and sell gear. Yet like the animes and mangas that JRPG's draw their source material from, every now and then someone will do something fairly creative within the medium. The latest JRPG from developer Banpresto, Summon Night: Twin Age takes the typical conventions and uses them to tell a surprisingly good story about becoming an adult in a world full of racial prejudice, slavery, and moral greys.

The game design plays like a cross between Diablo 2 and Secret of Mana. You control the entire game with the stylus, tapping on monsters you want to attack and selecting various spells or moves in the same manner. Like the potion belt from Diablo 2, only a set number of skills or items can be put in the large number of slots for your two playable characters. One character is the brawler and the other is the wizard, with a third NPC being selected that is a variation of the two roles. Outside of a few basic instructions like “Attack Less” or “Cast Heal More Often”, you don't really have any input on the NPCs. You don't equip their items, and you generally pick them based on the three or so attacks they always seem to do. A typical level lasts twenty or so minutes and gives you plenty of space to run around filling out the auto-map and killing critters to your heart's content. There's no exploration or villages to visit in this game -- all levels consist of various dungeons broken up by dialogue and events. It's a good system and it has just enough of that engaging "Gotta explore the whole map" appeal that playing never feels like a chore.

Where things do get a bit bogged design-wise is that the difficulty curve is a bit low. Out of twenty chapters, I'd say you'll hit the phase where you no longer needed to plan much before attacking a mob of monsters at about chapter fifteen or so. This isn't due to excessive grinding either. Short of backtracking, there is a finite number of monsters to kill per level, and anyone who thoroughly kills everything that breathes will rapidly overtake the game's difficulty. The skill trees of all the main characters tend to be unlocked about three quarters of the way through as well. That tantalizing goal of discovering the ultimate attack has always been traditionally reserved for the last stages of the game or worse, requiring some ludicrous extra work to unlock it. Instead, in this game, they are reached well before the last dungeon, taking a lot of the fun out of leveling up. The best swords and armor of the game aren't even hidden in a dungeon -- you buy or forge them at the one shop in the game. It makes the game less stressful and easier to play for a younger crowd, but in a genre whose formulas generally base difficulty on the obsessive desire to collect crap and level up, the motivation runs out fast.

The game design does shine when it comes to the plot, however. You start the game being able to choose between hearing Aldo or Reiha's version of the plot. Aldo is a humanoid summon beast, a race enslaved by the humans to suck out their magical energy. Reiha is the human that summoned him. The game begins as their 'Coming of Age' ceremony is interrupted by a disturbance in the spirit world. This ceremony becomes the over-arching theme of the entire game as the pair are forced to leave their home and seek out the source of the corruption. Much of the game involves the duo encountering the harshness of the adult world and coming to terms with it. Their Kascuzan friends are often referenced with racial slurs, few acknowledge Aldo's humanity, and the realization that your island home is actually a tribal reservation are just some of the tumultuous discoveries for the characters as they become adults.

What makes the plot really compelling is that the game isn't content to just let you sit back and watch. Although nothing on the scope of a Bioware dialogue tree comes up, the game sacrifices quantity for quality. When Ayn, a Kascuzan, asks Aldo why people judge her for the way she looks you're given two distinct responses. When you're asked to choose between helping an abandoned girl or not, the decision is heavily weighted by her extreme prejudice of you. Do you give her the benefit of the doubt? Do you assume the worst and cut her off? Moments like this come up throughout the game and never once failed to make me pause and really think about the issues going on. These decisions have varying effects on the game such as characters leaving the party or sometimes just generating a different conversation, but the fact that the game stops to ask what the player thinks about what's going on is impressive in and of itself. It's a game design that supports the narrative by drawing the player into the difficult questions that Aldo and Reiha face as they become adults.

Still, the game sticks with its 'E' rating and its JRPG roots a great deal as well. Most of the characters are the usual stereotypes, and the basic MacGuffin of "We have to save the Spirits" drives the action. The awkward disconnect from the wanton slaughter your characters commit daily from their personalities is still here. At one point the cutesy healer character gets upset when an innocent creature is infected and must be slaughtered, leaving me wondering what she'd been thinking while I burned alive an army of crab people moments earlier. Still, each of the characters have flaws and even in the instance I cited you have the option to chastise her for being juvenile. The villains all exist in moral grays and some of your allies are equally difficult because of their prejudice and tempers. Ultimately, they each overcome their differences as they get to know one another and learn to exist within the cultural divide. With so many characters bitter about oppressed pasts or unsure what to do about the blood on their hands, the story's main message is that thinking about the past just to make yourself depressed is a waste. Once you become an adult, you take responsibility for your actions and come to terms with their consequences.

All in all, Summon Night: Twin Age has a reliable and engaging game design with a very good story to go with it. It's a coming of age story that blends the youth of its characters with the adult themes of the big world in a way appropriate for any player. At one point in the game, as one of the freed summon beasts leaves behind a trail of destruction to get back at his torturers, a Kascuzan named Nassau offers his opinion: "There are three kinds of people in this world. People ignorant of their past, people who are dealing with it, and people who are over it. That's just the way life is." The game, fairly successfully, takes you through all three of these experiences for Aldo and Reiha.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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