Released only last week, Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental stone is the third title to be released by Carpe Fulgur, a company that has been met with significant success with their previous translated releases of Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale and Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters at a hefty 170,000 and 50,000 units sold respectively. As with the previous two titles, the genre is different from anything they have previously released – a side-scrolling action platformer making use of some clever 2D designs and what I would personally consider a game system with a good learning curve.
Just to get a few of the specifics out of the way before I begin this review… The game was originally developed by Lizsoft Game Studios with this release being an English translated version with little other differences. The game is only available on the PC and I do not believe it is available on the Mac. A Steam Download code was kindly provided to me by Carpe Fulgur. Now to the review!
We have seen many series that make use of school-life to display a sense of youthful fun that make use of a variety of genres in order to make their mark on the gaming world. For example, with the Persona series you go to school by day and summon mythological creatures by night in a three-hundred something floor tower that is usually your school but this game tries to shake things up by not forcing the characters into these sorts of events but instead makes them seem like every day fun occurances and adventures that kids would usually go on. Following the adventures of new-comer to the town of Tonkiness Arche, she is enrolled in the towns Magic School despite being gifted with a sword… but there is a big problem!
All students are required to have an elemental stone otherwise they will not be able to harness magic power and as you may expect, they are costly and she does not own one. After making friends with fellow classmate Sana and on the advice of other students, they decide to travel the cave behind the school and come across a stone that is guarded by an elemental spirit known as Chiffon who sets them off on a quest to help power up the stone. From there, the three of them (and later a third human character Stella) are placed in frequent danger (No thanks to the rather difficult gameplay) but take it all as childish fun and are all gung-ho about doing so.
The storyline is essentially about Arche who has no ability to use magic, obtain her very own elemental stone with the help of her friends so she can take classes with the rest of her class. While there is not much in terms of actual plot over dungeon crawling with plot to justify doing so, it does capture that youthful charm and more importantly… comedy delivered through the characters different cultures and mannerisms that makes it hard to fault – providing a story you don’t have to think about but just go along with and enjoy.
The games four main characters are also comparably different and despite them all having the different personalities of young girls, actually makes the game interesting when they are plunged into a world that in most games would be filled with characters at least 15-16 years old not elementary school girls (Going with the stereotype that most RPG’s seem to have male teenage protagonists). While character development for them was slow and dragged on at times, I do think by the end of the game they were appropriately developed and I wouldn’t object to seeing them in some form of Fortune Summoners 2. For a game that sets itself out to look cutesy, it is what you would have expected mixed with some hair-tearingly tough gameplay – but more on that a little later in the review.
The game teased a cutesy side-scrolling world and in terms of designs it is exactly what I was expecting. For a doujin game with a small development team I must admit they did a pretty damn good job at capturing a sort of semi-modern world of swords and magic and of course bringing in the anime stylings to the CG artwork and character designs. In terms of the actual character designs, for the humanoid characters they actually put a fair bit of effort in making them reflect the environment and personalities of the respective character even if they are not the most detailed I have seen…. but they are either cutsey or play the role well. You are given a limited opportunity to customize the individual player character designs through the use of an in-game boutique which was a simple but nice touch.
The monster designs which also frequent the game are actually a lot more creepy than I would have expected with some of the more creepier looking slimes I have seen in any game. Unfortunately while the boss character designs are mostly unique and quite often pose an interesting contrast to the cutesy designs of the rest of the game – the monster designs are way overused as in the first two hours of gameplay I think there were just three designs used with one being used for several basic recolours. Moving on from this, the character portrait designs which are only used in dialogue has one for most characters with any role in the story and offers several different expressions for each character – so enough detail was added to keep me satisfied.
Moving on to the environment designs next, it is obvious that while the dungeon designs might have been a bit repetitive at points, the exterior designs were remarkable, giving that 3D multilayered feel to normal 2D designs. Something as simple as having detailed backgrounds to a classroom really helped add to the experience and should show that while the form of design isn’t as frequent as it was say five to ten years ago, it still is a system that can be built upon. A good degree of detail was put into building the world of Fortune Summoners albeit a couple of hindrances that showed the limitation of a side-scrolling system. For example, while these are minor issues you got used to over a period of time – in towns with multiple areas you could sometimes get lost finding the door to exit a house or go to a different area of town and more particularly in homes, going up stairs had a quirky design flaw.
As with many Japanese games of this nature do, they also included a number of CG artworks in order to showcase a particular event of interest in a way that the design and game systems used would otherwise not properly express. Of course, this game did not try and express any form of fanservice or anything too “at risk” but instead tried to highlight events that played a role in the story such as Arche and Sana’s first adventure into the cave (Beginning of a friendship sort of thing) and when the two of them met Chiffon (Which acts as the starting point of the games main plot). While they were well designed and “cutesey” CG artwork pieces, the occurance of them actually appearing were far and few between which was disappointing. On the other hand, the game menus and other system designs were appropriately designed with no font or text overlap issues that I noticed – however the actual menu and battle AI controls were hard to pick up at times as to some degree, images were used over text or text/images.
One quick limitation to note is that the game isn’t very new monitor friendly, only supporting either windowed mode, “Fullscreen” or a “Zoomed” fullscreen mode of 1280 x 960. None of these display types necessarily look ugly, but at the same time can look slightly more pixelated than you would like. I would strongly recommend either the Windowed mode or Zoomed as they at the very least looked the best on my 1920 x 1080 resolution monitor.
There is nothing all that special about the music or sound in this game, but at the same time there is nothing all that disappointing about it, making it an overall average experience to the ears. The soundtrack is one that I hoped would have had a greater range of tracks within it as what they offer was pretty good and suited the theme they were trying to get across, but I found it ended up too repetitive even at the beginning of the game with the same set of tracks. On a more positive note, the use of sound effects was pretty good in setting character motions, actions and spells and while there was a only a limited amount of Japanese voice acting (Carpe Fulgur only included the original dub), it was frequently used during battle sequences and had a good quality to it. The game did not include any sort of opening sequence or anything so I will leave my comments on sound there… an overall average listening experience.
Moving onto the gameplay now and this is the part where there is quite a lot to say – thankfully most of it will be good to fans of these sorts of games. You originally start the game controlling Arche and as the plot progresses you get other characters added to your party roster. The gameplay genre is a side-scrolling action RPG platformer and actually provides a pretty good gameplay experience when you take the different elements into account along with your gaming style. You generally go around different areas and dungeons, defeating different enemies that block your path while keeping your and your party members health and stats up to ensure success. This may sound like a walk in the park but the first note that must be made about the game is it much harder than your ordinary game… even on easy mode. Your only way to survive the battles at your current level is to go in both with a plan and a plan to adapt it if possible as the enemies have different battle styles that even on easy mode led me to more than one game over.
I think the best way to describe this games system is to briefly describe my experience when going through the first dungeon. The game provides plenty of simple yet enjoyable puzzles that makes use of each individual characters abilities so for example Arche can move heavy blocks while Sana can travel underwater but each of the characters have their own separate battle style that you will need to utilize to survive the levels you are set to travel through. For example, Arche is all about causing physical damage, Sana is more about providing buffs and healing magic (+ Ice Magic) and Stella is focused on more damaging magical attacks. Either fortunately or unfortunately, in the early stages where your characters are low leveled, ill-equipped and have very small HP and MP bars, the first challenge posed is that the game provides you with no items to resurrect your characters or heal your MP. Therefore while I would have rather been letting Sana perform her spells while taking control of Arche, I was left controlling Sana stopping her from depleting her small MP gauge before we got to the actual dungeon leaving Arche to deal only moderate damage while my Ice magic powerhouse was left running around dodging attacks. It does add an element of “keeping you from running through the game” as there is no means of resurrection early on, so either character dying means backtracking thus planning a more effective strategy.
Edit: Thanks to @Gemberkoekje for pointing this out to me but it is possible to change characters AI to only heal or conserve MP. Personally I found it reduced Sana’s efficiency to practically 0 in early levels so it will depend on your play style if it works for you. But it is something I would recommend taking into account for your battle strategies.
The games bosses are considerably hard as well, such as the first dungeons skeleton boss which can only be dealt decent damage by magic attacks and can put all your characters to sleep allowing for damaging blows alongside trapping you in the corner of a room and knocking out your character that way. This does highlight perhaps the games biggest downfalls – the control system. The controls are annoying to say the least when in battle, giving the impression that ever time you stop to attack that your character does a comical skid and misses where you wanted to stop by several steps. Not only does it make it hard to attack, but dodging can be difficult as well as there is a slight delay between attacking and moving, as well as being attacked and moving meaning there is a steep learning curve to ensure the game reacts to how you want…. especially as enemies are not so forgiving for this problem.
Fortunately there is one thing that at least in part counteracts this control scheme problem and that is the games AI control of non-player battlers. Along with the ability to tweak their battle styles to your preferences, they are not prone to the problems you as a gamer are faced with (Controls etc) and provide the enemies an ample barrage of attacks that if you were controlling them would most probably be only half as fast to get out. You will be required to shuffle through all your characters quite a bit during battle however, as the AI seemed more than happy to run into its own death against more tougher enemies. Along with this, enemies also share equally competent AI meaning they can quite as easily trap you against a wall and pummel you to death or go after your weaker character once they incapacitate you with a negative stat. This provides difficulty both ways so the battle system should not be a walk in the park by any means.
Moving on from the battle system, the dungeon and stage designs offer both complexity (At times at odds with the slippery movement system) and in some stages a labyrinth feel to them which requires good memory to remember where you in a stage and where your target destination is after completing a puzzle. An issue I found with the game, which may make completing the game in a short period of time better is that the game is very vague on where to go next and how to accomplish this. When searching for three wind shrines scattered around the world, I am suggested to try two places – one where the bridge had collapsed and one which is guarded by someone who would not let the girls in. No explanation was given on the lunch ‘n’ romance side quest that must be taken or more-so a hint of what I would have to do if I saved the game and returned a month later.
While the game doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability as once you are done… you are essentially done – the game offers two small bonus modes which might be up your alley. The first is a Versus Mode where you can face off against different characters from the game in a battle – with characters unlocking periodically throughout the game and the second being an auto-play mode where you can watch the computer play through the game as all three characters. For the purpose of this review I didn’t really dive into either but from a single play of the versus mode, I think it proved to be pretty fun after a few characters were added (Alternatively setting Arche/Arche vs Arche/Arche on Top AI difficulty and AI vs AI mode proved an interesting watch).
To conclude, while there were some elements that needed to be improved upon, the game proved to be highly enjoyable providing a more complex and difficult gameplay experience than I was expecting when I first started playing. I feel this should be yet another very successful title for Carpe Fulgur and is at around the same standards at least which I had for Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. This game will not be for everyone, especially those who do not enjoy cutsey storylines, designs or music but at the same time will be for those who are after a challenge. But if you are not all too sure, you can now pick up the games demo from Carpe Fulgur’s official website HERE… you have nothing much to lose at least downloading it right?
Storyline/Character Development: B
Music/Voice Acting: C
Personal Opinion: B+
Overall Score: B