Forrest Gump's mother got it wrong. Life isn't like a box of chocolates, but role-playing games most definitely are. No matter how appetising that box may look though, when you open it up there's always some kind of crap nougat creation that sticks to the roof of your mouth, pulls out all your fillings and makes you sound like Don Corleone on a bad day. And, of course, there's always, always the bloody orange cream chocolate.
When I first started playing Volition's Summoner I thought it was a total orange cream, in fact, I thought it was worse than that, I thought it was a strawberry cream. You play Joseph, the obligatory tormented hero, born with the mark of the Summoner, he became ostracised from society as a child when a demon he had summoned to protect his village from raiders went on a killing spree and wiped out most of his family and friends.
Joseph is now an adult and you pick him up in the ruins of a town that has been wiped out by a mysterious army bent on looking for the 'one with the mark'. For the first half an hour or so the gameplay runs like so: click, run, kill soldier, click, talk to boring villager, click, run somewhere else, kill another guard, fall off chair in mild coma. However, once you get out of the village and embark on your quest to find your former mentor Yago and search for the five rings of summoning, which are needed to defeat the dark armies that threaten your land, the truffle filled beauty of the game is revealed. The game's powerful 3D engine is given the full run around and the execution of the graphics, both during spell casting/summoning, and the general unfolding of the scenery is up there with Sacrifice.
Voices Of Reason
The storyline, which is your usual fantasy fare, edges towards giving you a gentle massage around the throat rather than actually gripping it. This is simply because Volition has chosen to keep voice-overs and party interaction mainly in cut scenes, so most of the interaction is text based, which becomes at best tedious and means that a few of the more subtle nuances in the plot get lost. A few carefully chosen voiceovers could have really lifted the game somewhat, after all someone has to keep Tim Curry and David Warner in a job.
During the game you gain three other party members as well as the ability to summon a number of creatures, such as the Red Minotaurs, Stone Golems and Dark Elementals, to become your temporary fifth party member. The characters are an integral part of the storyline, so you will acquire them as the game progresses rather than having to actually seek them out. All the basic RPG character classes are covered in the game, there's Flece the thief who's rather like a less sassy version of Annah from Planescape: Torment, Jekhar, your typical brawny warrior; and Rosalind who has the best spell casting abilities. Many of your missions will be party based, but some of the more sneaky operations only require one of your party members and some pretty stealthy talent.
Another unfortunate strawberry cream aspect of the game is that although the gaming world is vast, there's simply not enough 'stuff' to satisfy a hungry role-player and those that feast on the likes of Shadows OfAmn will not be happy with the lack of depth on many of the subquests. There are too many crates and barrels that can't be opened, too many doors with nothing behind them and like a crap shag they leave you bored, dissatisfied and wondering if you should just give the whole thing up.
Despite some unwanted chewy bits Summoner is ultimately a good game, but it's frustrating in the respect that it could have been a truly brilliant game, except it misses the bull's eye in a few key areas, such as network PC and PC interaction as well as in its overall depth. But by far and away the most redeeming factors are the visuals, which will bring a tear to the eye of even the hardest of men.
The past few years have seen role-playing games leaving the dark dungeons of nerdom and becoming part of the mainstream, with titles like Baldur's Gate producing the spectacular sales normally reserved for a less hard-core market. This is partly due to players being introduced gently into the genre; the watering down into more accessible action-oriented games such as Diablo, the mass-market linearity of console titles like Final Fantasy VII and the fierce competition that has lead developers to blend genres in search of an original recipe for success, have all brought RPGs to the attention of a much wider audience.
Of course, the blurring of boundaries means that pure RPGs are a rare breed, if indeed they can be said to exist at all. Ultima Online and Everquest may look like the traditional stuff, but they're missing the essential ingredient of a strong storyline. There are three titles that should establish the way forward for the genre: Ultima Ascension, the awesome prospect that is Vampire: The Masquerade (both of which should be out later this year) and, making a stake for the future, Summoner (out in late 2000).
Like Vampire, Summoner is viewed from a third-person action perspective but provides a more traditional fantasy background. The Summoners are a chosen group of people who are able to call forth demons, golems and supernatural creatures, wielding such power as to make them both venerated and feared. You are cast in the role of Joseph, a Summoner who tried to save his village from attackers as a child by summoning a demon only to watch in horror as it destroyed his family and all the villagers.
As you would expect, Joseph has more than his fair share of major psychological problems as he sets out on an epic quest for some ancient rings, fulfiling a prophecy and saving the world. Okay, so it's not the most original of plots, but from what we've seen so far, the basic story is just an excuse for amazing third-person graphics, lots of sub-quests and missions, and the chance to control a party of characters through a large hazardous landscape of fallen empires, monstrous wastelands and lost civilisations.
On his journey, Joseph will be joined by other characters who will provide greater variety to your party. Among them are Flece, a cynical rogue with cunning and dangerous abilities; Jekhar, a warrior whose family was killed in Joseph's childhood fiasco and, not surprisingly, he has an enormous grudge against him; and Rosalind, a mage-priest on a search for divine power. The combat will be in realtime, in a similar vein to Baldur's Gate, but promises to solve the problems inherent in trying to control a complex set of characters at the same time.
Summoner has been in production since June '98 but isn't expected to see the light of day for another year. We can hardly summon the patience to wait until then.
Finally we've had some hands-on playtime with the launch RPG that THQ hopes will lead the pack this October, and there's no question it's quite a departure from the console role-playing norm. Summoner features immense, detailed 3D environments featuring diverse locales, from city slums and sewers to burial catacombs and monasteries. While the action-oriented battles are still being tweaked, the ability to switch instantly between characters (either the humans in the party or summoned creatures) at the touch of a button is a welcome addition--especially considering the bonus multipliers you get from doing rear and higher-ground attacks. Once THQ adds a more acceptable frame-rate and a more fleshed-out conversation system, this could turn out to be a deep, engrossing RPG. It looks like the stable of PlayStation 2 launch RPGs is gonna be sweet!
If you haven't had a chance to yet, jump on the Web and download the "Summoner Geeks" animated short from Volition Inc.'s Web site. That will give you an idea of the creativity and wit that these developers are capable of, but couldn't quite convey in Summoner. The game really tries to pull off some cool ideas, like Vagrant Story-esque chain combos in battle, and a separable party system that lets you wear a lot of different hats and solve some neat puzzles. What it's lacking is the technical polish to make these good ideas play out effectively. The animations suggest that poking a huge armored beast meekly with a rapier will actually have some sort of effect on its well-being. A limited tile set deadens many levels by depriving them of a very basic natural element: variety. Moreover, the character designs give everyone this odd malnourished look, and though not detrimental to the game, it's really hard to believe in a sickly little hero wearing full-plate armor. On the bright side, the three characters who join the protagonist during his quest and their unique fighting styles add a lot to battles, both visually and gameplay-wise. A reasonably coherent plot and some admirable voice-acting help to fill some of the execution holes left by the game's other facets, so the overall product just comes across pretty average. Try out a wealthy friend's copy before plunking down half a bill on Summoner.
This is one of the most aggravating RPGs I have ever played. Summoner has a great story line and a well-constructed ambience, but the list of things it does wrong is comprehensive. A horrible framerate, a stunning amount of pop-up, a really sluggish, ineffective battle system, insanely long load times--wait, there's more--and towns are too big, sprawling cityscapes hard to navigate and with way too many NPC's to talk to. It's also difficult to tell what structures are accessible and what are not. Volition certainly had some great ideas, but the execution lets the side down. Not nearly as fun as the Summoner Geeks movie.
I wanted to like Summoner, I really did. It's got a great story line, excellent voice acting, and some amazing architectural design. But, at the same time, it's one of the ugliest games I've ever played. The textures are incredibly low resolution, and the draw-in, especially at the first city you'll visit, is horrendous. This is PS2? Another problem is it's almost like Volition tried to pack too much into their first RPG, and it shows. Locations are too big and daunting, the backstory is overly epic for its own good, and the battle system, a hybrid of real and turn-based fighting, ends up a clumsy mess. Which, sadly, also comes close to describing the overall game.