Fortune Summoners [Review] – Don’t judge it by its cover
When young, I kept a budgerigar as a pet. It was a cute little yellow and green thing that would sit in its cage and sing merrily, and it appeared to be the friendliest, sweetest little bird there ever could be. The illusion was shattered somewhat if you put a hand near its cage, because it would then start to growl like a rottweiler with an amplifier jacked into its vocal cords. Actually put a hand in its cage and you’d spend the next few weeks mourning the loss of your fingers. Cage-cleaning was, as you can imagine, a joyous occasion filled with blood and tears and grievous bodily harm.
I relate this anecdote not just because you’re fascinated with all facets of my ludicrously interesting life, but because it’s a fair analogy for Fortune Summoners: Secret of the Elemental Stone. Looks cute, doesn’t it? Anime sprites! Little girls having adventures! Cute little slime monsters! And then it bites your finger off. Do not judge this game by its unbelievably twee cover.
Fortune Summoners is hard. Sufficiently hard that, when battling through another dungeon or forcing my way through another pack of bastard enemies, the one comparison that kept springing to mind was our favourite game of 2011: masochism-’em-up Dark Souls. And you know what? Thinking about it, it’s actually a reasonable parallel. While Fortune Summoners differs in that it’s 2D and party-based, the combat system shares Dark Souls’ demand for smart play and punishes button-mashing just as relentlessly.
Your party starts off containing only Arche, a girl with a penchant for large swords and little aptitude for magic (so little, in fact, that the primary thrust of the plot is to get her an elemental stone so that she can use magic). Again, looking at the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the combat might be a one-button affair – run up to enemies, hit the sword button, move on.
But Arche controls like a fighting game character. From the very start she’s got a few different kinds of slash depending on the combination of directions you push; a tap of the attack button is a mid-speed slash, while hitting forward and attack results in a slow but powerful thrust. Hitting down and a direction gives you an escape cartwheel, or a forward roll, and as she levels up Arche unlocks more and more moves. It’s all a bit Super Smash Bros., only it works fine on a keyboard.
The other two characters who eventually join the party lack Arche’s acrobatic swordplay but make up for it with magic, with one focusing heavily on buffs and healing and the other dishing out ranged damage. You can take control of any character at any time, with the genuinely competent AI managing to control the remaining two with far more skill than I’ve ever managed.
The enemy AI is also genuinely competent, though, and this is where the difficulty comes in. An example: towards the beginning of the game, I encountered bats. Bats are gaming shorthand for “incredibly annoying and hard-to-hit enemies that will leave you sobbing on the floor, clutching a snapped controller.” I know this. You know this. Fortune Summoner’s bats were still worse than any other bats I’ve encountered. They were so bad I took to Twitter to scream.
I’d leap at them, and they’d dance out of the way. I’d stand still and mash the attack button, and they’d swoop at me between my attacks and land a hit. When I actually took a moment to think, I realised that their shriek was an audio cue for an imminent attack, and that it coincided almost perfectly with the timing needed for an upward slash that would connect. Victory!
And then I encountered the mothbees, which are like bats with ranged attacks and the ability to put your characters to sleep. And the kobolds, who’re lightning fast, capable of blocking, and are better with their swords than I was with Arche. And… oh, hell. Look: the only reason I didn’t Tweet indignantly about every enemy that required thought and skill was because I realised I’d just be listing every enemy in the game, in order of appearance.
But with difficulty comes satisfaction, and working out how to best an enemy type is an air-punching moment of joy. An embarrassing moment of joy, but a moment of joy nonetheless, strengthened by the explosion of coins caused by every kill which has roughly the same effect as an electrode to the brain’s pleasure centre. Things are made somewhat trickier by the minor delay on the controls and the heavy momentum when your characters move, but I grew to like both of these elements, emphasising as they did the more thoughtful nature of the combat.
While the combat’s hard, it’s also fairly forgiving of failure. You can carry a large stock of healing items (intelligently auto-used at the tap of a key, if you don’t want to navigate menus) with a minor delay before they’re applied to prevent you from mashing your way through battles. Every single screen is checkpointed, too, so death never takes you too far back.
Slightly more problematic is the way late-game battles, with a full party, tend to devolve into a screen-obscuring mishmash of pretty lights as 300 spells go off in unison. Seriously, look at that screenshot below. What’s going on? Can you even tell how many enemies there are, or who’s hitting whom? I’m having trouble, and I took it.
Good grief, I’m nearly 1,000 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the dungeons. Right: they’re frequently labyrinthine, spanning lots of screens, and some of them nearly had me taking out paper to map them out properly (although none actually pushed me far enough to do it). Most are broken up with fairly simple puzzles – usually of the block-pushing or jumping variety – and all of them have a fairly distinct theme, both in terms of enemies and environments. They’re rarely too taxing, combat aside, although enemies respawning whenever you leave a screen may start to irritate if you get lost, particularly when flying enemies and ranged enemies are placed near pits of doom.
But the star of the show is really Carpe Fulgur’s typically sparkling translation job. Again: sweet as everything looks, there’s enough of a bite that you won’t drop into a diabetic coma. If you’ve played Recettear then you know roughly what to expect in terms of the moon-brained protagonist, but the exchanges between her and the surrounding characters are a joy to behold and are occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Rarely, I suspect, has a boss monster had to patiently explain that he really is planning on attacking, and that his previous lines were threats.
There are, however, two problems that must be noted. The first is the resolution. As far as I can tell, you’ve really got two choices: either have the game blown up to fill your screen, or play it windowed in its native 640×480. In short: if you run a modern monitor and a reasonably high res, you’ve either got massive pixels, or something so tiny and squinty your corneas will be dripping off your nose within an hour.
The second is the poor signposting, which admittedly might irritate me more than you because I had a deadline. Even so: there are frequent occasions when you have an idea of what you need to do, but no idea how to go about it, and the game doesn’t offer much help. Early on, you need to get into the Wind Shrine, but the guard doesn’t let you in. The only solution is to talk to literally everybody in town – which, if you’re like me, you’ll have already done once – until you bump into his grandmother, who forgot to give him lunch.
Will he let you in? No, now he’ll let slip a very vague clue about what you need to do next. As the game world gets larger and the possibilities become more numerous, this becomes more and more troublesome, although few are quite as bad as this example.
Fortune Summoners isn’t a game for everyone. Some will be put off by the controls; others, the difficulty. Some won’t give it a chance because of the way it looks, which is a genuine shame, because – while not without problems – this is a fine game. The combat’s clever, the dungeon-spelunking is enjoyably retro, and the dialogue is absolutely worth fighting through another dungeon.
More than anything, though, it succeeds in combining all of these things come together to create an adventure that reminds me of childhood. Remember going into a nearby forest with friends, using sticks for swords and pretending there were dragons around every tree? Here, admittedly, there are dragons, but Fortune Summoners perfectly captures the whimsical, joyful exuberance and thirst for heroic adventure from your youth. That’s got to at least be worth trying the demo, right?