Summon Night: Twin Age – Guest Review

Summon Night: Twin Age is a game I got for Christmas. It’s an action RPG that I found pretty disappointing.
To start with, the game is apparently part of a huge, long-spanning series, most of which was never released outside Japan. This is a minor spinoff game set in a larger universe, which leads to problems. I frequently felt completely lost when it came to the setting, with characters referencing feuds and events and magic mechanics in offhand manners that I didn’t understand at all. I get the impression the game assumes you’re familiar with the Summon Night ‘verse, but with the lack of exports that’s not possible. The end result is a standalone game that was never meant to stand alone.

From what I can gather, the basic setup is this: The world is filled with “spirits” that are the source of all magic and presumably keep the world functioning, but I’m not entirely clear on that last part. (Characters act like endangering the spirits endangers the world as well, but don’t give any specifics.) Most humans are “summoners” who evilly tap into the spirits’ power to fuel their magic. There are also “kascuza”, a species of persecuted elf-like humanoids, who also tap into the spirits’ power to fuel their magic but in a good way that is somehow different than the summoners. But there are also “summon beasts” who come from the same world as the spirits (or something?) yet look like humans. They’re attuned to spirit energy and can use magic naturally, and summoners enslave them and use their powers to fuel their magitech.

(I think, anyway. It’s all pretty unclear.)

The first thing I see after selecting “new game” is a protagonist choice:

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GASP the female protagonist is wearing real clothes! Help, I appear to have landed in the bizarroverse! For once, it’s the male character who’s wearing the ridiculous outfit! I mean, just look at that! He’s cold enough to wear a scarf but not a real shirt?

So I pick the guy, of course, and…

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Really, game? Really?

Guess we’re not in the bizarroverse after all.

I look at the girl and, sure enough, she’s a caster. So if you don’t like playing in traditional gender roles, sucks to be you! After some deliberation I pick the girl because I’m a sellout who cares about spellcasting more than immersing myself in the character. OH WELL.

(What’s especially weird about this is that the guy is a summon beast, you know, the natural spellcasters who fuel all magic? He should be the squishy wizard and Reiha should have to depend more on physical abilities! But instead he has zero magic skills and she’s a frail caster. He’s a guy and she’s a girl, what more do you need?)

And then it immediately turns out that this was a pointless choice because you can switch between them at any point in combat and all the protagonist choice affects are a few story scenes. So why was their fighting style the only thing you told me about them, game?! Was it too much to ask for a small blurb on their personality when that’s the only thing that actually matters?

That said, I’m actually glad I picked Reiha. She feels like more of a protagonist than Aldo. A lot of the plot and backstory revolves around her. Aldo feels more like the plucky sidekick character whose POV would make more sense as an optional unlockable after completing the story.

Unfortunately, while most of the female cast follows Reiha’s sensible fashion sense, there are some…exceptions.

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There’s not much I have to say, is there? Yeah, they’re summon beasts, but this guy is perfectly capable of wearing clothes even though he looks a lot less human than them:

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Oh, but it gets worse.

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This is Talij, the freaking ruler of the summoners. I actually really like her character – she’s cold, cerebral, and powerful, but still manages to be a reasonable and effective leader instead of the game flipping out over how THE WOMAN HAS POWER SHE MUST BE STUPID AND EVIL. Yet for all her power, influence, and intelligence, she apparently can’t figure out how to wear a shirt. (And what is even going on with her spine.)

That said, the game does manage to pull ahead of most jRPGs in this regard by not giving every woman a similarly ridiculous outfit.

Oh, what’s that? You want to hear about the plot? Okay, here it is: Racism is bad! Did we mention that racism is bad? Because racism is bad! So is slavery! Power of friendship solves everything! So, like every jRPG ever, then.

The plot is an amazing example of how to say a lot while saying very little. Cutscenes can be quite long (to the point that they go on and on and on about how if I can’t defeat the final boss the world is doomed while the final boss just stands there politely) and characters are really chatty, but it contains so little substance. There are virtually no plot twists – I saw everything coming a mile off. Any opportunities the plot has for drama, tension, or surprise are systematically assassinated. Like for instance, at one point you meet an obviously evil guy who sends his bumbling apprentice to spy on you. Only we see his discussion with his apprentice in full, where he tells her exactly what his plans are and that he wants her to spy on them. No seriously, watch it. So of course, when the characters find out about it and are all shocked I just boggle. That could have been a competent dramatic reveal – the guy is already super suspicious and it’s odd that he’s all “let’s be friends, take my apprentice” immediately after I beat him up – but no, let’s spell out everything for the players like they’re goldfish, we are Flight-Plan and we have a deep understanding of drama.

There’s no group tension or anything either. Any rough patches or conflicts are smoothed over in the blink of an eye. Because why have interpersonal drama that challenges and changes the characters when we can have cardboard cutouts running through a generic jRPG plot? “GASP the sweet innocent girl was a mole for the evil guy???” “Waaah I’m sorry I didn’t know he was evil I never wanted to betray you guys!” “Okay I believe you you’re forgiven.” Or when Lila shows up and is a racist jerk, all it takes is one conversation from Mardin to dispel her years of ingrained racism and also convince her to assist the wanted criminals and enemies of the state. Or the hints Reiha’s dad may have been a bad guy then NOPE he was actually good all along (not that Reiha was ever that concerned about it of course). Conflict is a good thing, game!

But what’s most frustrating of all is Aldo. When the summon beasts were inevitably freed, I expected there to be some drama where he considers joining or is forced to join the other summons… but, as per usual, that potential conflict is smoothed over in like three lines: “You’re free now, abandon your master!” “NO REIHA IS PERFECT AND WONDERFUL!” “Well you’re an idiot then!” That’s it. Because we can’t have the protagonist actually be wrong about something, that would resemble real plot too much! In particular, it’s frustrating because their relationship embodied the plot’s major conflict on a smaller scale and would have been a great opportunity to explore it from a different angle. All the bad guys are cartoonishly extreme in their oppression of the summons, but Reiha could present a more subtle portrayal – even if she does truly care about him, their relationship can never be equal. You could even kick it up a notch by having her thoughtlessly ordering him around without realizing the deeper implications, and Aldo could understand she’s a good person but, deep down, still resent her because of all that.

Then, when the summons are freed, the party should have split and Aldo should have fallen in with the rogue summons. Reiha would be outwardly confident that he’d never betray her, yet after hearing about the abuses of the summoners and reflecting on her own behavior, she’d have niggling doubts that would grow more with his absence. Aldo, by the same coin, could come to realize that, even if Reiha’s a good person, not all summoners are like her, and just because he’s had it easy doesn’t give him a right to oppose what the rogues are doing.

Or, even better – switch places! Reiha falls in with the rogue summons and they’re forced to work together to survive, in the process learning more about each other just like in a Saturday morning cartoon. Aldo would be alone with the summoners without his protector, facing constant paranoia and fear for Reiha all mixed up with reflections on his own summoner-summon beast conflict.

I have no idea why they didn’t do this in the first place! The split-protagonist mechanic is perfectly set up for it, and having major plot threads segregated by character would actually give replay incentive. There’s even a perfect “disaster happens, party splits” point already, except Aldo and Reiha remain together and reunite with the rest of the party before the chapter’s even over because why have drama when you can… not have it.

(It’s also rather questionable that, for a story about racism being bad, we sure do spend most of the game fighting the oppressed class.)

This isn’t helped by the fact that characters are wooden, shallow, and static, often being defined by a single trait that never changes. Like, Jesus, Reiha, shut up about Banna berries already. With all the talking they do, they certainly have the potential for depth and exploration of their characters, but… they don’t. What’s particularly bizarre about this is that you’re occasionally given opportunities to have personal chats with other characters. I thought this would reveal character development and depth, but nope! They just chat about the most banal, trivial topics and I learn nothing about them. Maybe it’s different if you’re playing as Aldo – I found his chats to be the only interesting ones because he actually discusses plot events and Reiha’s backstory.

And the ending is absolutely ridiculous. Talij just swoops in and is all “Enslaving other species for our own gain is bad, so I’m abolishing it now despite being magistrate for years and having the power to do so for a long time!” And then everyone is all YAY PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER even though that’s the basis for their entire society, so how are they going to function now? It’s going to be a long and painful transition process as they give up all of their advanced magic and technology, but this is never mentioned. Way to avoid engaging with the interesting issues you yourself brought up, game.

You’ll get dialogue choices in cutscenes, but they don’t really do anything as far as I can tell. I liked them, even if they seemed to just be there for flavor – it can be nice to tweak the exact tone and wording of what my character says sometimes.

Mechanically, the game is a mess. It’s a rather repetitive action RPG. There’s little strategy involved other than spamming the best skills over and over again. The game makes a token effort towards variety by giving the generic elemental skills slightly different effects (like, the electricity one goes through enemies, the wind one is homing, etc.), but the “ultimate” spells are all exactly the same anyway aside from elements. To be honest, I think it would have been best if the game ditched the elemental mechanic altogether and just expanded on the idea of distinguishing spells by functionality, encouraging you to use different spells for different situations instead of just exploiting weaknesses even when the spell’s suboptimal for the situation. (I feel like they cheat here, too – the strongest single-target spell in the game is lighting-elemental, but most of the endgame bosses are resistant to lightning to the point of making the spell useless.)

I was also rather annoyed to find that fighters were way better than casters. Reiha’s regular attack is crap (long cooldown time and terrible damage), but her spells are awful too even though that’s supposed to be her whole schtick! I frequently found Aldo clearing the screen of enemies before Reiha finished charging even a single spell, and Aldo’s normal skills generally deal damage on par with Reiha’s when she’s hitting a weakness! Maybe I’m just terrible at the game and the AI’s better than me, I don’t know.

But what really breaks the game in half this: in defiance of most video game conventions, charge time renders you invincible. Yes, really. You can stand there charging your uber-spells and the enemy can do absolutely nothing to stop you. I exploited the heck out of this after I got the SP charge skill, which has a long charge time. Just execute it continually and marvel as the enemy flails at you ineffectually. The same exploit is available to human enemies, though, and it’s what makes them approximately ten times harder than monster bosses. Battles largely come down to luck – will your attack hit them in the split-secord they aren’t charging, or vice versa? I suppose you could theoretically time your spells to hit them in the right moment, but you can’t see their charge times and their attack patterns are pretty unpredictable anyway, so.

Characters jump at the flimsiest excuse to fight you, too, and defeating them feels pointless. The battles honestly feel more like interruptions than anything else; they could all be replaced with characters saying whatever they say after the battle to calm them down. It’s just “RAWR I’M ANGRY AND WON’T LISTEN TO YOU” [battle] “I’M STILL ANGRY but you said something so I guess we can talk like reasonable human beings now.” No visible damage or exhaustion or anything, the cutscene just continues right along. It’s especially ridiculous with Mardin, who fights you twice even though he’s supposed to be your beloved sole surviving family member because of that utterly garbage “You must fight to prove your worthiness” excuse. But nah, call down the wrath of the gods and finely mince him, I’m sure he’ll be fine.

Oh and the final boss is really dumb. Why have an epic final battle against real characters I care about and would enjoy taking down when I can fight a generic giant monster? (What’s funny is that you do fight an actual character boss before it and it’s way more satisfying as well as like five times more difficult.)

Also the voice acting is terrible and I turned it off as soon as I could. I don’t know if this is just another example of the English dub phoning it in or if it was this bad in Japanese too, but I couldn’t stand it.

And the filler. Dear God, the filler. I swear you could cut out half the dungeons in this game and nothing of value would be lost.

Despite all that, the game isn’t a complete wash. It’s got some interesting ideas – scientific magic, for instance! And the characters, though static, do manage to have distinct enough personalities that, in the hands of a better writer, they could have developed in interesting directions. The faux dialogue choices are a good idea that I wish more jRPGs would try – they’re not a lot of effort, but they manage to instill at least the illusion of choice and interactivity.

Mainly, this has reminded me why I’m into indie games. For all the critique and nitpickery I’m heaping on it, I can confidently say The Reconstruction is better than this, for instance. I wonder if it’s a matter of different priorities and creative interests? Mainstream developers seem more interested in letting you fight everything and stare at pretty visuals (whether that’s their own interests or what they think will sell), while indie developers care more about niche, literary elements like character development and plot.

9 Comments

  1. Ember says:
    I played the other two games released in America (the “Swordcraft Story” spinoffs) and loved them to pieces, particularly the first one. But I gave this one a pass because the same person who recommended those two to me told me this one wasn’t worth it. Looks like that was the right decision.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      What’s irritating is that I read up on the mainline Summon Night series (and Flight-Plan’s earlier series Black/Matrix) and they actually seem pretty interesting, but I can’t read Japanese and no one seems interested in fan translations so they are forever barred to me. I suppose I’ll never know what the heck was going on in this game.

      I don’t know much about the Swordcraft Story games other than that they exist. If you think they’re good, maybe I should try them sometime.

      (Also I just read over this again and noticed Talij is wearing high heels because of course she is. Why do you do this, game.)

      1. Ember says:
        The plots were only average for an RPG, but the gameplay was enjoyable, and I ended up growing awfully fond of some of the characters. Plus, queer romance options! …which I realize isn’t as much of a plus for you as it is for me, but don’t worry, most of the romances are pretty understated.
        1. Guest Reviewer says:
          Well, that’s certainly an improvement over this one.

          I did actually like how tastefully the romance plots were handled in this one. There’s never even any explicit romance or declaration of love, it’s just that you get a short after-credits scene of your player character hanging out with the person you spent the most chats with. Is it like that in Swordcraft Story? (This was why I felt nervous about hanging out with Aldo even though I liked his chats the best, because they call themselves brother and sister and I will tolerate regular romances but not ones with creepy incest subtext seriously what is wrong with Japan. I did get his ending anyway, but it fortunately seemed very platonic so I dunno.)

          1. SoxyOutfoxing says:
            I’ve played both Swordcraft games and Twin Age, and the romance/friendship system is the one gameplay aspect that’s fundamentally the same. I can’t remember much about Twin Age since it was such a blah game, but in the first Swordcraft game, it is made pretty clear that certain people are in love with your character, but there’s nothing conclusive about if your character feels anything beyond friendship. The most overtly romantic option is completely avoidable, because the character is one of four potential options for your guardian beast. (She considers you her future husband whether you’re playing as the male or female character, but it’s played for laughs more than anything.)

            I second the rec on the Swordcraft games, by the way. In particular I enjoy the battle system a lot. It’s random encounters but rather than the standard ‘press A to choose from a static list of options’ the game turns to, well, something like a platformer without the platforms? I lack proper terminology but basically you get to hop around like a flea while beating up monsters. It’s fun! So yeah, they’re nothing world-shaking, but I do consider them well-designed fun little games, especially the first one.

            1. Ember says:
              Yep, that’s about it! Also, in the second game, there’s a character that your character pretty clearly DOES like, and who is also extremely flirty with you, but that relationship turns out to be… more complicated than it looks.

              And yeah, the random encounters work sort of like platformer boss battles! They’re pretty fun! And the big gameplay hook of the game is that you make your own weapons, so the strategy is in both choosing what to use your resources on to create and what to use in each individual battle. Personally, I was a big fan of the drills. They weren’t always the greatest for small, fast opponents, but you could learn how to wield them effectively for those battles with practice, and they were great for whittling down the health of large, slow opponents who would pulverize you if you let them touch you. Other players prefer different strategies, though.

              Reply
          2. Ember says:
            Oops, double post because I wasn’t paying attention. See below.
  2. Septentrion Euchoreutes says:
    I don’t think the angel-thing is in the same league of bad character design as the leader or that other summon. I guess I mean her appearance shows a lot of things about her. Without any knowledge of the game, what I can tell is “magic-medic in poverty.” I course I may be completely wrong.

    Overall, it must have pretty good design with only 2 or 3 strike outs. I don’t know if there are many more questionable designs from this review. The tropical setting would be tempting to many creators. The sprites are cool as well.

    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      The angelic summon beast’s official art surprised me with how non-terrible it was (pants!), but keep in mind that in the game, character portraits are from the waist up only. I didn’t even realize she had a reasonable lower body outfit because all I saw of her was the weird (and painful-looking) bra thing.

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