It’s a bit bizarre to think that we’re reviewing a PSP game in the year 2015. Then again, just this year we reviewed a new Dreamcast game, so who knows what’s happening anymore. Regardless, Summon Night 5 comes to us from Gaijinworks, a localization studio headed up by Victor Ireland of Working Designs fame who gave us Class of Heroes 2, as well as its enhanced PS3 port 2G, and who is now giving us an SRPG that originally released back in 2013 in Japan. While this game is a tad dated on paper, it is not dated at all in heart, charm, or gameplay conventions. To put it bluntly, this is the type of roleplaying game that, despite its age, could stand toe-to-toe with many of its modern competitors.
Right off the bat, Summon Night 5 establishes that it wants players to have a degree of control over how they experience its tale and overall gameplay. Despite being a story and content-rich JRPG, developer Felistella allows players to pick between two primary characters (the male Folth or female Arca) to play as before appointing one of four partner characters for that hero’s journey, dubbed “Crosses” in this case, which further discerns the type of events the player sees. When looking at the number of pairings, Summon Night 5 offers a total of eight unique playthroughs, extending its already lengthy adventure to something rather massive.
Because of how many branching paths there are as a result of this, it might be easy to assume that the game doesn’t have a coherent or even a compelling story to tell simply because it has to cover so much ground by essentially writing eight different routes complete with unique dialogue exchanges and character interactions. Despite the various paths and over 40,000 lines of dialogue on display, however, there’s a strong narrative in Summon Night 5 that never falters because of its covering too much ground.
Summon Night 5 presents us a tale revolving around the Eucross, an order-keeping society that houses Summoners who are responsible for maintaining balance in the world. Arca and Folth are both paladins of the Eucross and, like in good old JRPG fashion, get swept up in a much larger plot that isn’t immediately obvious in the beginning. Truly, Summon Night 5‘s tale, when looking at it without context, isn’t all that unique. It has the usual tropes and story hooks we’ve been seeing in the genre for the past three decades, but transcends its cliche premise in the character dynamics. The cast in Summon Night 5 is why its story is so hypnotizing. They are cleverly written and realized, with nuances that make them feel alive, flawed and repeatedly relatable.
It’s not easy to accomplish that in a genre that usually has fifteen-year-olds saving the world, but here the characters each have such distinct personalities and are given enough screen time to develop organically that it’s hard not to get swept up in their conflicts, be it with themselves, each other, or with their enemies. The localization work has a lot to do with these excellent characterizations, as it strikes a nice harmony of comedy and seriousness, seemingly knowing when to pull back one in favor of showcasing the other, and vica-versa. An experience as dialogue-heavy as Summon Night 5 could be broken if the prose aren’t up to snuff, but the the translation and editing work has been given love and attention, rarely ever faltering in the area of grammar and sentence flow.
Summon Night 5 has gameplay to match its story, though. After all, this is a strategy-RPG, so while there are plenty of lengthy talking scenes sometimes going on a bit too long for their own good, there are also long stretches of gameplay. In fact, as most would expect from an SRPG, combat is not a quick endeavor. This is a tactically-ripe roleplaying game that on the surface may look cute, but has excellent depth thanks to a variety of systems. Merely glancing at the battle engine, one may assume this is nothing more than a “move characters around on a small playing field to align attacks” à la every SRPG since Final Fantasy Tactics, but it makes sure to employ its own ideas in addition.
In the most rudimentary explanation, Summon Night 5 plays out in a turn-based manner where players position characters across a grid-map in relation to how far each can move according to their attributes and then execute some kind of action, be it an attack, using an item or assisting another character. Like any SRPG, the objective here is for the player to defeat the opponent’s team of characters. So that’s the combat dumbed down to the absolute basics. Beyond that, however, Summon Night 5 uses what it calls the “Brave Battle System.”
A player’s team contains a numerical “Brave Points” value that represents the team’s overall combat morale. When something bad goes down on the battlefield — such as one of the player’s characters dying — brave points are lost. If they drop to zero, the battle is over and therefore effectively lost. On the flip side, by executing positive actions — like being the first to initiate an attack, defeat a certain number of a certain enemy type or meeting other particular “brave conditions” — brave points are accumulated. By successfully achieving brave conditions, players can earn “brave medals”, which can be used to purchase new attacks and abilities for characters to use in future battles.
It’s a simple system, really, but a really great addition to the combat in that it keeps battles from feeling monotonous or without meaning. Naturally there will be some inevitable grinding (this IS a JRPG, you know), which can be grating or dull, but the mere inclusion of the Brave Points and their accompanying special enhancements makes for more dynamic encounters. But make no mistake, Summon Night 5 is not an easy game. It’s not going to rip out one’s soul and eat it for breakfast, a la Natural Doctrine or even the under-appreciated Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth for PSX and DS, but it nevertheless is a challenging game. Thankfully, the challenge seems to strike just the right balance so as to not demoralize players, but also not provide them a cake-walk of a time. Overall, the gameplay here is really quite excellent. In fact, it’s one of the best SRPGs to come out of 2015, and that’s saying something as this year we’ve already been given Disgaea 5, Devil Survivor 2, in addition to non-Japanese titles such as Shadowrun: Hong Kong, Hard West and Divinity: Original Sin – Enhanced Edition. It’s just really rock-solid in what it brings to the table, especially in the amount of customization and outfitting the player can do, so as to ensure that they are building their ideal team. And the affinity/relationship mechanic only serves to enhance and strengthen the team building mechanics.
On top of that, Summon Night 5 is beautiful. Even though it’s utilizing the PSP hardware, it gets as much out of the aging system as possible, giving us bright colors, beautiful character models, a wonderful art style that harkens back to older JRPGs as opposed to the newer ones with its classic character designs and clean interface. Even the animations and maps, be it battlefields or towns, all look like they were given great care. There have been some delightful PSP games over the years, but this is one of the strongest visual representations, at least in the JRPG scene, that we’ve seen. And yet, somehow even better than its aesthetic is the soundtrack. Landing itself somewhere in our top 5 favorite OSTs of 2015, Summon Night 5 is pure bliss to listen to. Whimsical tunes, rocking combat themes, laid back orchestral pieces between fights, compositions that tug at the heart strings during those romantic, more intimate moments all serve to enhance an already great experience.
If there’s anything wrong with Summon Night 5 it’s that it doesn’t try many new things, instead opting to maintain the SRPG status quo, and sometimes feels a little too talky for its own good. We love us a story and character-driven game (hell, we just reviewed Yakuza 5 — quite possibly the most pontificating game out there — and loved it), but there were times when scenes just went on a bit too long. In fact, the first hour is almost all dialogue and there are plenty of other instances where you’ll have to slip into visual novel mode because the talking segments will go on for so long. This would all be fine if those scenes that were a bit on the long side felt narratively important or meaningful to character development, but occasionally it seems as if the game just wants to hear itself talk. Still, some of this is to be expected from a strategy-RPG, so your mileage may vary.
Summon Night 5 is an SRPG that needs to be played by anyone who likes the genre. It’s a love letter to fans of a somewhat bygone era of Japanese roleplaying games and manages to deliver on nearly all fronts, be it story, characterization, gameplay or presentation. 2015 has been kind to the strategy-RPG genre and there are plenty of great titles out there vying for players’ time, but do yourself a favor and play Summon Night 5 before nearly all of those. It feels uniquely magical and unlike most other games on the market right now.