By Brendan Caldwell on February 8th, 2012 at 11:14 pm.
We tasked young master Caldwell with exploring the dungeons of Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone, the latest translated Japanese indie title from Recettear Anglifiers Carpe Fulgur. He returned with these words.
As the son of a shopkeeper in real life I know for a fact that helping out in the storeroom is not a magical experience. So Recettear, while jovial in spirit and generally compelling, didn’t appeal to me in the same way as it did others. In the storerooms of the non-digital world there are lots of cardboard boxes to tear apart and smelly bins to stand on in an effort to crush rubbish and make space. Once, there was a fist-sized hole torn in the wall by an errant RPG of a completely different nature. It was dreadful and there was rubble in the 10p mix-ups. But that’s Northern Ireland for you, and another story altogether.
Fortune Summoners begins with an almost alarming tip-of-the-hat to its shopkeeping predecessor (I say ‘predecessor’ but Fortune Summoners’ original developer is actually Lizsoft – it’s just that their localisation team is the same). Again, you live in an item shop and again you are required to help out. Only this time your father is a responsible and retired adventurer, rather than a neglectful, debt-laden thrill-seeker. But this is a quickly dispersed smoke screen covering the rest of the game, which leaves the comforts of Recettear’s subversive buying and selling mechanic in favour of something much more traditional.
You play mainly as Arche, a pre-teen of the abominably upbeat variety, who has moved towns and is starting at a magic school. At the core it’s a dungeon-crawler presented as a 2D platformer across multiple screens, with monsters to fight in the caves and areas between towns, although the platforming itself is definitely secondary to the combat. Pitfalls are an almost token punishment – fall and you’ll simply reappear on the last solid ledge you were on. And in any case, Arche and her sidekicks can jump ten feet straight up, a well-known attribute of the common eight-year-old.
Aside from the quirky writing, which localisation wizards Carpe Fulgur have a definite knack for, the combat is where most of the satisfaction comes from. Incidentally, that’s where most of the gurn-fuelling frustration comes from too. Like Chatelise before it, it requires a kind of tempered button-bashing and your strikes often need to be meticulously timed. Arche’s reach with her sword is scarily short, so you’ve got to get right up next to every enemy to get the hits in. But even on easier difficulties your enemies have a fighting ability that borders on clairvoyance. In groups, even the ever-present slimes of RPG lore can be over-whelming if you don’t approach the fight in the right manner, combining jumps, rolls and sword strikes with the magical abilities of your computer controlled partners.
Some enemies are downright exasperating. There’s a peculiar type of insect early in the game that puts you to sleep. A band of these barbarous bumblebees (alliteration, ho!) ganged up on me at the edge of the screen at one point. I struggled to get free of their cycle of sleep spells and stinging attacks but in the end I didn’t stand a chance. I vaguely remember Jim demanding more bees in games. Having put up with this particular baddie I am now firmly opposed to this notion. No more bees, please.
I learned to deal with this type of beleaguering enemy eventually (there was much worse to come) and in essence this erratic learning curve grants Fortune Summoners its core fan – anyone looking for Dark Souls Lite. Which is an odd comparison because everything else in the game is so bloody cheerful. However, there were times when it simply felt like the computer was reading my keystrokes and randomly deciding when to intercept my blows and when to “let” me win. Like Chantelise before it, this insistence on proper timing in combat means it’s definitely more suited to a gamepad than keyboard. More so, perhaps, thanks to the underlying platformy feel.
Even though the combat can be sometimes eye-gougingly irksome, that’s not really Fortune Summoners big problem. That honour goes to its traditionalism. Whereas Recettear was humourously self-conscious of this – like watching a piss-take of This Is Your Life dedicated to the JRPG – Fortune Summoners sometimes feels like a retrograde step. It adheres to ye olde RPG principles of yore as strictly as if it was made a decade or two ago. The emphasis is on grind and levelling, dungeons and loot. Numbers go up, and then they go up again. All of this without the same level of self-awareness seen in Recettear.
Common RPG sins are continually noticeable, right down to the point where you find yourself gallivanting all over town, chatting hurriedly to every NPC until someone gives you a clue as to where to go or provides the ‘trigger’ for progress. There’s a disagreeable amount of back-tracking which seems designed to strengthen your characters while deliberately stringing out the game’s lifespan, rather than introducing new areas to explore. And it takes a long time to get control over the final key character, a snotty rich girl called Stella Mayberk.
Actually, let’s talk about Stella.
There’s one sequence where you finally get control of her and it becomes clear she’s to join Arche and her friend Sana on their little quest to seek out some special stones and perhaps gain the magic of the elements (even though everyone knows the ultimate magic is friendship). Alone, you fight your way across valleys and drag her disgustingly wealthy curls all the way through a dungeon you’ve already been through, taking her from useless china doll impersonator to fire-wielding badass and using all your healing goods in the process. Then the story decides to give you back control of Arche and pits you against the newly anointed Stella ‘I Give Povvos Third Degree Burns’ Mayberk. The resulting fight wasn’t very fun for me, not least because I was constantly chiding myself for not seeing this RPG trope coming.
In this instance, I had to go buy a stack of new herbs by quitting the dungeon, which penalises you by taking 10% of your money. But there were also times I had to quit a dungeon whenever a sidekick snuffed it. In these cases, Sana and Stella will continue to follow you around but you can’t take direct control over them unless you have a revival drink to resuscitate them. Considering you need their elemental abilities to complete many of the dungeon’s puzzles it’s a major pain to find yourself unable to control the necessary character even though they are standing right there in front of you. “Stella!” you scream, “Set fire to that fucking rose bush!” But Stella does not heed you. Back to the last town you go.
Despite these capitulations to genre, there is clearly still some of that jocular Japanophile spirit in Fortune Summoners. Dialogue goes between cringey ‘lets-all-be-fweinds-foweva’ fare to being fairly chucklesome. There were times I just couldn’t tell when the narrative was being genuine and when it was lapsing into parody. Among the characters there’s a teacher who is a typical finger-wagging pedagogue for the most part but who is scarily blasé when considering the safety of her over-adventurous class. “Be careful on the way home, children,” she says summarily. “There are many monsters.” Indeed there are. There are vicious bees with infinite projectile stings that are bigger than your students, Ms Sophia. Would it be too much trouble to organise a school bus, or something? But then, this is just another absurdly wonderful RPG trope in full swing – grown-ups so disinterested in the activities of their children that it borders on the criminally negligible.
As if this wasn’t Japanese enough for you, the whole story takes place in the fashion-conscious realm of Scotsholm. Arche’s new hometown, Tonkiness, is a sort of Jacobean Inverness via Tokyo, with all the batshit fashion accessories that would come from such a mad chimera-town. Among the item shops, weapon shops, inns and bakeries of the many settlements of Scotsholm, there is also the odd Boutique. In these you can buy from collections of coloured outfits for your three wee lassies to wear. None of these clothes give you a stats-boost like the other items. They’re purely superficial and – although you can go the whole game without ever equipping them – there’s a nagging feeling like you’re expected to play a bit of dress-up on the side.
I was fond of blue ribbons and matching socks myself.
I recognise that the arguments against traditionalism can only go so far. Even if it did (sort of) reverse the roles of adventurer and shop-keeper, Recettear itself stuck to a lot of genre conventions and was no stranger to grind and repetition. With that in mind, it’s not hard to recommend Fortune Summoners to anyone who has adored Carpe Fulgur’s previous efforts. But ultimately it feels like the games coming out of said localisation kings are going backwards in terms of novel mechanics, even if the dialogue and characters haven’t lost any of their linguistic charm or paradoxical quirks.
Put simply, Fortune Summoners isn’t bad. The combat is strong and challenging and it’s often as characterful as its precursors. But it’s also tied to the immovable customs of its genre, when what I expected was something more explosive – an RPG of a completely different nature.
Fortune Summoners is out now