Review: Behold the awesome power of the "YMCA!"
As one of the few strategy role playing titles available in the Apple App Store, Square Enix's Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes - Encore does a respectable job of delivering a full-fledged console strategy RPG (SRPG) experience onto the iPhone. It's long, clocking in at around 30 to 40 hours. It certainly doesn't lack in features and it's one of those games that frankly, many more people would probably expect to find on a portable gaming device such as the Nintendo DS. The question many gamers may be asking themselves though is whether or not the game deserves to be mentioned alongside other popular SRPGs and if it's worth their hard earned gaming money.
Without diving too much into the story, the game's narrative takes place in a world where music, appropriately, is the heavy theme. Telling the story about the main character Ziggy who is searching for his brother throughout the country, players use units called Song Troopers in order to fight the evil Mechanical Militia. Aiding him in his quest are characters ranging from a James Brown look-alike to a Led Zeppelin wannabe wielding a guitar.
If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is. All of your basic Final Fantasy classes are here: warrior, monk, soldier, archer and knight making the game feel more like Final Fantasy Tactics lite than anything new. Which is a shame considering that the game itself actually has some pretty interesting features.
At the center point of the game is a system that seems to be eerily reminiscent to the Monster Rancher series from the 90s. Where players used to create monsters from discs, troops are created via the songs on the player's iPod library. Each song randomly generates one of 50 characters, spread among the five base classes, whose names and skills are often modeled after what song they're created from. For example, choosing the song 'Seasons of Love' from the Broadway Musical Rent ends up creating a kick ass female warrior who appropriately uses the power of love to defeat enemies. If defeating mechanical beasts with hit Broadway tunes isn't your cup of tea, then I'm sure units made out of Muse or Saliva songs will work as the system will pretty much use any song on your iPod.
While this initially appears to be a pretty deep system in large part due to the sheer amount of endless possibilities, it gets old pretty fast thanks to its repetitive nature and a lack of direction. Since each class has their own unique ability and attack range, players will often find themselves generating troops for hours on end in attempts to create the perfect army. Additionally, with the lack of any proper guidance on what type of song generates which of the stats or classes that the units may end up with, many people may end up dismissing the game's novelty after only a couple of hours. However, if you're one of those who finds trial and error rewarding, you'll find plenty of things to cheer about.
Before each battle, players must strategically decide which unit(s) to bring with them into battle as each one possesses their own limited number of times they can be deployed. And taking a page from Fire Emblem, once their turns are up they're gone for good. Thankfully, items can be purchased to extend the life of your units and leveling them up isn't limited to just fighting them in battle. While the first method isn't the most creative in that you just go into rehearsal mode and let them gain experience without using up deployment points, the second way is. When players listen to the songs that they use to generate their units outside of the game, characters gain experience points as well as a morale boost which gives them extra strength. What I found amazing about this method was that I ended up listening to songs that I normally wouldn't listen to even though they were on my iPod. Unfortunately, this is where any connection between the game and your music ends.
Whether it's because the game is on limited hardware like the iPod or if the game designers just got lazy, there isn't anything that hasn't been done before in battle. The player and the computer takes turns moving their units across the isometric chess-like battlefield while trying to complete objectives and use the same basic attack, defend and skills commands that have been used for years. In other words, it's a bare bones strategy game. Although the controls are intuitive, unless you're a hardcore strategy RPG nut it really becomes hard for most casual gamers to continue beyond only a few battles due to the uninspired battle system and unoriginal story.
Don't get me wrong however, as the game is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. As one of the more artistically inspired games on the iPod, the game certainly proves that the system itself is actually a viable gaming device. From its rich 2D backgrounds to the game's rather detailed sprites, this is easily one of the better looking games on the system and runs pretty smoothly despite the vast amount of activity on screen. So kudos to Square Enix for being able to pull out that part. Also helping the game's presentation is a rather decent and varied soundtrack. Although since the game allows players to listen to their own music while playing, many gamers may find this point moot.