Before I get started, I want to state that playing 2000’s Summoner over the past few days reminded me of two things: How subpar the PS2’s launch lineup was, and how far away Western RPG developers were behind their Japanese counterparts 20 years ago. How times have changed.
Role-Playing Games were Essential to Console Launches Thanks to the Japanese
Final Fantasy VII drove Japanese RPGs into mainstream prominence in 1997. Given its record-breaking sales (10 million units) for the genre, every Japanese company began to bring their RPGs overseas. The PS1-PS2 era was kind to RPG gamers, and even western companies began to try to sell their own titles on consoles to cash in on the popularity of the genre.
When the PlayStation 2 launched, it needed some RPGs to carry the day for the system’s initial library. At this point, the Dreamcast had some excellent ones, including Skies of Arcadia and Grandia 2. However, the PS2’s brilliant backwards compatibility features made it so that players could play the superior PS1 RPGs on the system with some visual enhancements.
Technically speaking, the PlayStation platform (PS1 and PS2) had the greatest library of RPGs available despite the PS2’s paltry launch lineup. Still, there was no better time to ‘cash in’ on a popular genre than at a much hyped console’s launch.
Summoner Was an Interesting Experiment
Summoner had all the trappings of a western role-playing game, but it was clearly influenced by the wave of JRPGs that had conquered the PS market in the previous console generation. In fact, as I played Summoner, I often wondered if the game’s development had started with the original PlayStation hardware.
For a launch PlayStation 2 game meant to showcase what new generation hardware could bring to the role-playing game genre, Summoner was not impressive. Not surprisingly, the game has actually aged worse than I thought it would.
Summoner was ugly in 2000 and featured large 3-D terrains. In the early days of 3-D that in itself was a novelty, but the game looked far worse than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and many other Nintendo 64 titles which also featured large 3-D terrains.
When you compare Summoner against the Dreamcast’s best, the game falls deeper into the abyss. The textures are flat, the sky box is composed of a lifeless low-resolution drawing, and its over world map looks far worse than many PlayStation 32-bit renderings in far superior RPGs.
Visually, Summoner is a disaster on many levels. The game has a big issue with terrain streaming (pop up). Pop up was not uncommon during the early days of 3-D. Heck, Elden Ring currently suffers from it. Nintendo EAD had figured ways to get around and to minimize it with Ocarina of Time. Yet, two years later with infinitely more powerful hardware at its disposal, Volition’s Summoner manages to feature constant pop up of actual in-game terrain.
Given the fact that I hunted this game down on Amazon in order to finally play it 22 years later, I have found myself in total disappointment.
A Case for Action Combat
Like I said before, Summoner does have a lot of western flair, but it also borrowed a lot from JRPGs of the time. Its party-based turn-based system seemed reminiscent of turn-based JRPGs but with freedom of movement and a lack of JRPG polish.
The fights have interesting “timing” mechanics that allow players to pull off strings of attacks, but battles are slow and cumbersome. Summoner would have benefited from full action combat, as at least the added level of interactivity could have masked some of the game’s deficiencies.
I would rather dodge and hack and slash myself than have the computer perform these moves randomly (driven by my character stats). But the year 2000 was a different time, and turn-based RPGs ruled sales. Thus, Volition decided to take the more popular approach with Summoner.
The game also has issues with clunky controls. Joseph’s animation is subpar and his movement is imprecise. On that note, perhaps going turn-based was for the best.
Summoner is Not Without Some Redemptive Qualities
The game’s music itself is surprisingly mundane, but what makes the package all the more frustrating is the fact that Summoner has a good story line and great written dialogue (for its time) as a byproduct of being an original English work. No translations were needed, and thus, Summoner’s dialogue read naturally and as its developers intended.
It has an interesting plot that kept me going despite the numerous and horrendous visual flaws. I have a bit of a sadistic obsession for early 3-D games, so that also helped. Still, despite my negative rant about the game, I have a tough time not recommending this title to anyone who is curious about it. Summoner does have a story that I feel will entertain most gamers that are willing to plunge some cash into finding a copy.
The game’s story inherits its linearity from its JRPG influence, so unlike most western RPGs of note, there are few choices to be made here. That is fine, Summoner arrived on consoles (and PC) before Morrowind and Knights of the Old Republic. Most console gamers in the early 2000s expected linearity from videogame plot lines.
If you can get past the game’s crappy visuals, terrible controls, subpar music, long loading times, and overall lack of quality, there is an entertaining story than can be enjoyed here, at least within a single play-through.
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