Summoner: Of an era, though a not altogether good one.

More people will probably recognize Summoner by it's PS2 boxart. Which, to be fair, is way better.

Having a PC capable of playing actual games has been a super cool experience, despite it being entry-level stuff. I haven't really had any kind of a gaming PC since I was a little kid and played the usual assortment of first person shooters. The Quakes, the Dooms, the Hexens of the world. Played Everquest a bit as a kid. Nothing fancy. Since then, though, it's been almost exclusively console games for me. It still mostly is, and probably will always mostly be; nothing wrong with that afterall. But still, the flexibility the platform provides, particularly for on-a-whim purchases has been quite pleasant.

I did pretty much the same thing with putting a PC together as I did when I bought one of those cheap knock-off NES/SNES twins: Put something together competent enough that will allow me the ability from then on to pick up games as I see them on the cheap and play games at least a couple years old really smooth. Think of it as an investment that can be iterated on, upgraded, and refined over the years instead of something I blow all my cash on up front instead.

As opposed to garage and yard sale hunting, though, in this case it's constantly taking advantage of the myriad of bundles, flash sales, and outright giveaways that have blanketed the fucking PC platform these days.

Enter: Summoner. Not exactly pushing the bleeding edge, but I guess this is what I get for purchasing anything even remotely appealing that gets as low as $1.24.

Having fond memories of Summoner's Playstation 2 roots definitely helps.

Summoner's origins are sort of weird. Despite being a fairly traditional sort of CRPG, it had it's debut as a PS2 launch game, not even actually coming out on the platform you would think it's far better suited for until months later. I remember playing it back then and loving it quite a bit, but judging from my memories (which are at this point from 14 years ago) I didn't get much further than about a third of the way through the game, if that.

Say hello to our hero, Joseph, his stats, and his very peculiar cheekbones.

Let's get the plot setup out of the way: Joseph grew up in a little village called Ciran, and he was born with the mark of the Summoner. Every so often, these individuals are born to play out a particular prophecy in the ongoing Cold War between the Gods of the world, though much of the details of these legends have been lost to time. When trying to experiment with his power, Joseph summoned a demon that burned his village to the ground, and so he swore never to summon again, keep his power a secret as best he could, and live out his life as a simple farmer.

However, gosh darn-it, things just don't work out that way, do they? Eventually a neighboring nation known as Orenia, led by an Emperor who sought to be a God himself, declared war on Joseph's home country of Medeva, and marched in search of the Summoner's power. And so the story begins. From there, Joseph and his companions seek out the varying Rings of Summoning to fulfill the prophecy that a Summoner would one day put an end to an evil Emperor's reign and bring peace to Medeva.

There are twists and turns along the way, of course, but it's a straight-forward premise. It's straight-forward for a reason, though. It works surprisingly well. The writing is solid, and the mythology of the world is more in-depth than you would initially expect from "launch title RPG." Despite that, Summoner doesn't often rise above the promise of its first several hours.

At the very least, Summoner makes a great first impression.

Before I turn into a Debbie Downer, I feel like it's important to note Summoner really does start off pretty effectively. Events move just quickly enough, the game wastes very little time over-explaining what is going on when things open, and the tutorials are short and to the point. The first major city you come across (Lenele, City of Gods) is huge and has side-quests bursting out the ass. The music is good, dialogue is witty and informative, there's a stealth section that isn't total garbage, and you're sent off on your first major quest in the plot after being shown all the mechanics you'll need.

What's better than a skeleton with one head? TWO heads.

In small to medium scale engagements, the combat also works pretty well. In a similar manner to The Witcher, Summoner has an atypical combat system based around chaining attacks together with increasingly precise timing. Cumulatively based on how many Chains you've performed with that particular character, you unlock other chain attacks that have particular attributes. For instance, Joseph has a chain combo that, when activated, will heal a bit of the entire party, or a Chain Push that increases the effectiveness of the next chain attack, such as a Chain that expends Action Points (used for spells and skills) for increased damage.

It's a simple but effective combat system that maintains a sense of constant engagement in otherwise by-the-numbers CRPG dicerolling gameplay, and encourages you to fight with different characters throughout the game to unlock their specific Chains.

The music is also pretty great almost across the board. Each track slowly builds to such a great, distinctive sound, that play so well to their respective environments. The Khosani Labyrinth track is a great example of this, slowly building to the memorable tune of the dungeon. The second Iona Island track opens ominously, the drums leading into a distorted theme that subtly incorporates elements of the original Iona theme that exactly fits the state of the scene. The composer of the music apparently did very little other work, which is a shame. His music perfectly created the mood and atmosphere of the game that I will remember when I look back on this game in the future. It did the game more favors than probably anything else.

A kind soul uploaded the OST to YouTube in this handy-dandy playlist. It's solid background music.

Bad news, though: Summoner's boobs are totally not real.

The last save time on file was 21 Hours, 42 Minutes, just before the final boss area, so total gametime was around 22 hours, not counting deaths or the couple crashes I had where I lost about an hour and ahalf. Reasonable length for an RPG of the era excluding those errors, I guess, right? Here's the rub: While Summoner makes a great first impression with its environments, there's a metric fuckton of backtracking and revisiting areas. In fact, an entire leg of the plot is just outright re-used in the final act of the game, requiring you to do a slightly different series of boss-hunts that you had to do in the beginning, in more or less the exact same locations.

Ikaemos Swamp is thankfully one of the least offenders, requiring only two lengthy visits.

Not even counting the amount of backtracking and revisiting of areas you would have to do to complete most of the sidequests, there are huge areas that the game requires you to trudge through over, and over, and over again. The Lenele Sewers (yes, there's a sewer level that is as frustratingly mediocre as you could imagine) require you to make the same run through them at least four times, and that's not counting sidequests. Iona Island, multiple times. Ikaemos swamp, twice. Lenele is revisited in various states tons of times.

This goes on and on. There's a frustratingly low amount of truly unique environments to the game, and the length is padded out by probably around a third of my total playtime, perhaps more, by making you run through the environments almost in their entirety multiple times, with enemies always respawning when you revisit. This gets very monotonous, very fast.

There are several other (at times, minor) annoyances, too. The run speed is far too slow for many of the large areas, only compounding the backtracking problem, and the map does a very poor job of telling you where things are. The hotkeys are weirdly bound; I can't figure out for the life of me why R is what brings up the stat screen. S doesn't bring up the spell list, despite that being what you're going to want to open up the most, that's instead bound to C (for 'cast'). On the rare occasion spells will also just randomly not cast for any discernible reason, too. The icon will come up, you hover over another character you wish to cast on, and can spam left-click all you like, but it just won't work sometimes.

And the path-finding? Atrocious. For a game built around chaining combos, the ability to stand still and maintain the chain is sort of key. Instead, at even the slightest movement, and particularly when on inclines, characters will constantly move around, reshuffling party placement and resetting the Chain back to 1.

It can be incredibly difficult at times to get the party members to focus their efforts.

By far the most infuriating thing, however, is how hard it can be to get your companions to pay attention to a single enemy. Once they've decided to attack a particular target, that's usually it. You can take control of the party member and manually direct them over to another enemy, but as soon as you take control off of them, they'll often just turn right back around and resume fighting whatever they were before.

In small scale engagements, this can be managed fine. However, when you're swarmed, there's really no mitigating things. Any party placement and aggro management falls the fuck apart immediately. It becomes every man and woman for themselves, and half of the party usually can't deal with shit on their own. It's also impossible to just blitz right by people, because as soon as someone is targeted, they will not leave them alone. You have to slowly and methodically deal with each enemy. Fine on the first way through an environment. Less fine on your third or fourth.

Enemies are also not well-scaled when the party is split up for plot reasons. All of the "you can only use ___ character(s)" sections were by far the worst of the game.

Summoner is ultimately somewhere in the middle, but there's something endearing about it.

Oh, stop teasing me!

Maybe it's not a completely fair thing to hold in Summoner's favor, but can you imagine a new RPG series coming out today as a launch title? Perhaps it's an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations, but for this game's specific place in time, Summoner is a lot more than it probably had any right to be, or even needed to be.

The hype of the Ps2 was marching along with or without Summoner afterall, and after last year's new console launch, you do sort of have to give a certain amount of slack to launch games. Summoner isn't without it's problems, but I'd still take a game of this depth and type over a Killzone: Shadow Fall, Ryse, or "New" Super Mario Bros. when it came to picking up a new system. At times it can come off as bog-standard fantasy, but the world is well realized enough, the writing solid, and many environments have effective atmosphere.

For those who are patient with the era it's from, and who are way into this particular genre, Summoner at least has plenty of time for being $4.99 at full price on Steam. It's a game that I very much want to love, despite a myriad of issues. Prior to Dragon Age, it's the sort of game that just sort of faded away for awhile, and the universe of Summoner just feels unusually fleshed out and distinct from other series. I can imagine some alternate universe where Summoner became an actual franchise beyond its two games, but it just couldn't close the deal.

At least we'll always have the music.

Perhaps now I should blog about something that better makes use of a modern PC.

14 Comments
14 Comments
Edited by ThunderSlash

I was so close to buying this when I saw it for like a buck a few weeks back, but I couldn't justify adding another game that I probably will never play into my backlog even if it's only a dollar. Glad to hear that it is a somewhat okay game though.

Posted by hollitz

I remember this game being universally shat upon when the PS2 came out. Pretty sure it was a launch title. About the only redeeming quality was that weird little extra video.

Edited by SirOptimusPrime

I loved this game when the PS2 launched, though the things I only remember about it are a shitty stealth sequence, a bug where spells and items would auto-cast by opening the sub-menus, and the back half of the game being really unusual with the pseudo-Asian elements coming out of absolutely nowhere.

The opening few areas were really cool in, like, 2002 though. Fun times.

Edited by Jesus_Phish

I never played this one but I played and enjoyed Summoner 2. How different are the two games, if at all?

Edited by Marokai

@jesus_phish said:

I never played this one but I played and enjoyed Summoner 2. How different are the two games, if at all?

It's been a bit since I played Summoner 2 (which I remember liking much more) but the biggest difference is probably the speed and control of the gameplay. Summoner 2's combat is more hack-and-slash. The first Summoner is D&D dicerolling for damage and resists and such, with auto attacks that require timed inputs. It takes a bit more patience when shit goes wrong. Summons in 1 also work differently; they act as separate party members as opposed to something that the main character transforms into. The world of the first game is also probably a lot smaller and less open.

Universe wise they're peas in a pod, though 2 is a bit more colorful, and they share the same sort of skill system and style of menus, but 2 is significantly easier to play.

Regardless, if you did enjoy Summoner 2, at $4.99 the first Summoner is worth a try at least.

Posted by Zirilius

My fondest memory of Summoner

Posted by EuanDewar

Thank you for writing this and making me realise that I've been confusing Summoner and Shadow Man in my head for years now.

Posted by Brodehouse

I remember running around a city and being full on fucking lost. I remember load times. I remember fighting skeletons with obnoxious controls. And I remember watching my friend complete a major quest and then get his hand burned off and gigantic demons show up.

Posted by Slag

I can't say I enjoyed Summoner or Summoner 2. I found the games to be Ps1 ugly, muddy dull worlds,with stories & characters I could care less about. Seemed like out of its league when placed against the JRPGs of that era.

You're right though it definitely felt like it had it's own unique mythos, which I kinda of took for granted back then.

Posted by Veektarius

I think you're underselling how good and uniquely dark the story was for its time. Everyone either hates your guts or is totally untrustworthy and the atmosphere is dismal as hell, to the extent they succeeded in executing it.

I really thought there was something to the game when it came out, though I acknowledge its faults and probably wouldn't play it today.

Edited by Marokai

@slag: @veektarius said:

I think you're underselling how good and uniquely dark the story was for its time. Everyone either hates your guts or is totally untrustworthy and the atmosphere is dismal as hell, to the extent they succeeded in executing it.

I really thought there was something to the game when it came out, though I acknowledge its faults and probably wouldn't play it today.

The writing and tone of the game are far and away its best attributes, and is what encouraged me to keep playing despite the game's other shortcomings. For the era, in particular, being as utterly grimdark as it was is a great accomplishment and helps make the world feel distinctive and memorable. The fiction they created was really solid, and it's a shame the series has been left to rot when Summoner's universe has such an interesting look and tone. You're right that despite the game's messy combat and general mechanical stodginess, it has a certain.. je ne sais quoi that makes me sad it was left behind.

@brodehouse said:

I remember running around a city and being full on fucking lost.

I give the game credit for constantly having NPCs or items around every corner and in every nook and cranny, but Summoner's atrocious map and slow speed in getting around makes that frustrating more often than not. I went through Lenele loads of times, and still managed to miss obvious quest NPCs, and the general winding samey-ness of certain areas was occasionally a nightmare. In the PC version you're able to move around with the map open, which is basically necessary sometimes, but it doesn't stop the map from being a piece of shit anyway.

I did enjoy that the game forces you to play with a one-handed main character for awhile though.

Edited by Veektarius

@marokai said:

I did enjoy that the game forces you to play with a one-handed main character for awhile though.

Yeah man, only game I can think of to do that and it made an impression.

Edited by cloudymusic

I remember very little of this game at this point, but I recall enjoying it decently for what amount of it I played, even though it was clearly just "all right for a launch game." I'm pretty sure I spent New Year's Eve 2000 playing this game, oddly. It didn't hook me enough to make me finish it or even get particularly far, though.

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Edited by Grelik

Necroing this blog as I came across it just now:

But I absolutely loved this game when it came out. It's just one of those weird games that seems to be "bad" but for whatever reason I just grabs you and sticks with you. I really liked the dark story and dismal atmosphere of the game (also a pretty damn sweet twist midgame if I may). Man. I played through this fully twice on the PS2 and at least once later on when I got the PC version.

Summoner managed to claw and scrape it's way on to the list of my favourite games of that generation.