Square Enix and I go way back. They used to be called simply Square Co., and I still remember buying — and falling in love with — the first Final Fantasy as a new release, when the now legendary company was on the verge of bankruptcy. These days, they have grown to become one of the world’s foremost developers of entertainment software (a.k.a. games) and milk their own fame near constantly, appending the words “Final Fantasy” to nearly anything and watching it sell like wildfire in southern California.
For their earliest forays into Apple’s App Store, they held fast to their bottom line, giving us Crystal Defenders and Vanguard Storm, defense games taking place in Ivalice, the same game world as their popular Final Fantasy Tactics series, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, and borrowing characters and classes from Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. Variations on a familiar tune.
I certainly can’t blame Square Enix for playing it safe, testing the early App Store’s waters with customary fare and guaranteed returns. They are a business after all, and businesses want/need to make money. In playing it safe, though, they also played it boring. And so I must applaud Square Enix for their recent string of releases which do not rely upon the Final Fantasy namesake. In as many months, Square Enix has given us three new titles: two wholly original properties, Sliding Heroes and Hills and Rivers Remain, and a remake of Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes, a game originally released on the click-wheel iPod and the subject of this review in particular.
Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore not only ports the original iPod game to the iPhone, but expands upon it with new Tune Troopers, a reworked storyline twice the size of the original, and the promise of additional surprises of the course of more than 30 hours of gameplay. The original Song Summoner was an odd bird, being a strategy RPG in the same vein as Final Fantasy Tactics, but with an unusual control scheme in the form of the iPod click-wheel. I enjoyed the game, but found the click-wheel such an awkward control mechanism that I was never able to finish it. If anything, Song Summoner was just too ambitious for its platform, the iPod.
I can’t remember whether Song Summoner or Phase came first, but one or the other was also the first game that attempted to tie your music library into gameplay. In Song Summer, you would select music tracks from your iPod to be used to generate Tune Troopers, the soldiers that populate your combat party. Outside of the game, you could power up your soldiers by listening to the music on your iPod. When next you loaded the game, it would tally the songs you’d listened to and would power up any soldiers matched to those songs. A pretty cool idea.
Now ported to the iPhone in this “Encore” edition, Song Summoner benefits from expanded content, updated touch controls and the larger screen. Square Enix has done an excellent job porting this title to the newer devices, and fans of the iPod original will definitely want to pick this up. But what about gamers that didn’t play the original?
Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore, hereafter referred to simply as Song Summoner, largely resembles console strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Tactics and Disgaea. In it, you deploy soldiers onto isometric, grid-based maps to engage in combat against opposing forces. Between battles, the story is presented in character encounters and conversations, and you may visit towns to manage or train your soldiers, purchase items or socialize with the locals. As previously mentioned, your soldiers — called Tune Troopers in the game — are each generated from songs you select from your music library; your music is accessed and your Tune Troopers created in something called the Hip-O-Drome. You may keep up to 80 Tune Troopers on your roster at a time. The game looks and feels very much like a 16-bit SNES title, complete with pixel-based sprites, but features exceptional character art for each of your main characters, enemies characters and your Tune Troopers.
While your actual songs are only used to create your Tune Troopers, the idea of music is integral to the game’s story, which tackles some serious themes in a lighthearted motif. As we first encounter our protagonist, Ziggy, he and his younger brother Zero are being pursued by members of the mechanized militia headed by the stargazer Full House and the mysterious Number 42. Incapacitated by his pursurers, Ziggy is unable to stop them from kidnapping Zero. Before meeting his end, however, Ziggy is saved by Soul Master, a conductor bearing an uncanny resemblance to James Brown. The mechanical militia flees with the captive Zero, while Soul Master takes Ziggy under his wing and spends the next five years training him to become a conductor.
We catch up with Ziggy at the end of his conductor’s training, as Soul Master bestows upon him the cube pendant that enables him to summon his Tune Troopers and he sets out to find his long lost little brother. The world he enters into is one oppressed by the mechanized militia, where humans are ground beneath the iron fists of robotic oppressors without music in their souls, automaton autocrats wishing to destroy all that is beautiful, musical and soulful in the world in the name of cold, clockwork perfection.
Artwork: Song Summoner features beautiful character designs by Naora Yusuke, known for his previous work on other Square Enix titles in the Final Fantasy and Front Mission series as both character designer and art director. Tune Troopers are illustrated to represent both fantasy and musical archetypes; one of the first Tune Troopers you encounter, for example, is a female Soldier class trooper styled after country music stars and donning a cowboy hat, while other troopers are modeled on hip-hop, pop and rock’n roll stylings, blended with traditional fantasy characters such as archers, wizards and fairies. Story characters and NPCs are marvelously detailed and joy to behold during cutscenes, while your Tune Troopers are represented in your roster on trading cards and so beautifully drawn that you will want to collect them all just to see them. From the game’s main menu, you can access the Troopers List to view Tune Troopers that you have collected; tapping a card brings up the image and description, while tapping this image brings up a full-screen version for your viewing pleasure.
Story: Song Summoner hums oft sung themes of Man vs. Machine, the Human Spirit and the importance of the Soul, and explores notions of what makes us human. Throughout, Music is upheld as a symbol of all that embodies humanity, while the opposition — those who do not value music and are therefore soulless — are embodied by machines. The story sometimes ventures into cheesy territory, but does so while playing tongue-in-cheek. In general, it’s told with heart and very well penned. I may be going out on the limb on this one, but Song Summoner offers up some of the best writing yet seen in an iPhone game. At least, I’m really enjoying it.
Plus epic one-liners, such as Full House threatening one woman, “Be silent … and grateful. Soon your soul will be free of rhythm’s tyranny.” 🙂
Depth: Song Summoner contains a great deal of depth for a mobile title, offering nearly as much depth in character and combat mechanics as we’ve come to expect from Square Enix’s console titles. You will find yourself juggling five classes of Tune Troopers with various attack and defense affinities and abilities, job compatibilities, card ranks, character ratings and levels, play points and other attributes.
Accessibility: Despite its immense level of depth, Square Enix has taken great efforts to make the game accessible. Concepts and game mechanics are introduced gradually as you play, and encyclopedic help files are available at all times via the options menu. When you summon new Tune Troopers, Soul Master breaks down each soldier by job to help you evaluate whether or not the recruit might amount to a worthwhile soldier, and the Hip-O-Drome includes a “Pick of the Pops” feature that helps to eliminate some of the hit-or-miss nature of selecting songs on which to base your soldiers, locating good tracks for you should you choose to use it. The game is deep, but always manageable owing to the accessibility efforts made, and yet it never feels as if you are being subjected to hand-holding.
Combat: Song Summoner keeps combat interesting in a number of ways. Different types of troopers have different attack types with varying degrees of effectiveness against particular enemies, and so it pays to deploy your troopers strategically. Harmonic Attacks occur when one of your troopers attacks while standing adjacent to allies. Allies can form chains by standing together, adding to damage for every adjacent character, and so character positioning in the field also plays into strategy. You can move characters in any sequence during your turn, giving you ample opportunity to setup your troopers to greatest advantage. Groove Boxes can be triggered on the field in some areas, boosting morale and improving your troopers’ attacks by “raising their volume”; but if the mechanized militia activates the Groove Boxes first, they can amplify their own mechanical noise to drown out the power of your songs. Some levels include triggers that must be triggered to advance, and levels each have their own conditions for victory and defeat. You are also graded following each battle based on your performance in combat, and rewarded accordingly.
Use of Player’s Music: Back on the iPod, Song Summoner was one of the first games that attempted to utilize players’ music libraries in gameplay mechanics. We now see this feature in loads of games; The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures and Space Invaders: Infinity Gene are but two recent titles to display similar ties to your songs. It’s commonplace now, but when Song Summoner first released, it was pretty revolutionary. And I still love the idea that I can power-up my troops when not playing the game, just by listening to my music, which is something I would have been doing anyway. While it’s something of a bummer when your favorite tunes make for crappy soldiers, wupping robot can with Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” makes up for just about anything!
Musical Nods: Song Summoner includes some great nods to legendary tunes that music aficionados are sure to appreciate. The protagonist, Ziggy, is likely named after David Bowie’s stage persona Ziggy Stardust, and Soul Master looks an awful lot like the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Sprinkled throughout the game, you will find special abilities named after songs like the healing spell Getting Better, and attack spells Purple Rain and Burning Love (in order, those are songs by The Beatles, Prince and Elvis Presley — for those who didn’t know). There’s even a city called Electric Ladyland!
Curse of the Port: The character art is lovely, and no bones about it. But some players may find issue with the pixelated battlefield sprites, especially when zoomed in closely to manipulate them in combat. It doesn’t bother me at all, personally. I like the SNES-chic of of the pixels. But the hard fact remains that Song Summoner has been ported from an earlier device, and one less graphically capable than the iPhone. I think the game wears its age and its history with pride and honor, but that’s my opinion and some may disagree.
No Multiplayer: I would love to have the option of pitting my forces against those of my friends in turn-based, network battles similar to those found in Scrabble and Uniwar. Take a turn, email or push notify your opponent to take their turn, and let the scrimmage take place over the course of several days if that’s what it takes. I would love to beat the hell out of my country and pop loving friends using my mighty forces of rock’n roll. Who wouldn’t enjoy kicking the crap out of Miley Cyrus with an Ozzy Osbourne song?
Frankly, I was really hoping that Square Enix would choose to port this game to the iPhone. It seemed a waste to have a game of so much personality and depth languishing on the click-wheel iPod, an ill-equipped device for gaming. But Square Enix took the idea further, not only porting the original game, but expanding upon it greatly. Song Summoner offers up a whole lotta game for $9.99. And while that may be considered premium pricing on the App Store, I think its a steal giving the amount of depth and play in the title. While some of Square Enix’s other iPhone titles feel kind of slapped together and shaky round the edges, Song Summoner seems to have been built with a great deal of care and polish, and holds up well on the iPhone despite its age and origins. I have no reservations recommending this game as a Buy to average gamers, and a Must Have to fans of the SRPG genre. Casual gamers may want to pass this one by, though, on account of the learning curve. Before making a decision, you can play the Lite version.
Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore is sold by Square Enix Co., Ltd. For the pithy price of $9.99, you too may pwn soulless robots using the power of Rock. For this review, robots were pwned on an iPhone 3G.