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.