Review: Square/Enix Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes
Stop us when you think you've heard this one before. There's an army of robots. That kidnaps children. Then transforms them into robots. And their parents, powerless to help, don't call the police. Or an army. They wait around for the kidnappers to return. And luckily for everyone, except the robots, a kid with an iPod is taught how to transform songs into musical soldiers who can defeat the robots, free the children, and hopefully rescue the soul of the kid's long-lost brother. Who is now a robot.
If you’re still reading, you either haven’t heard the story before or you’re really tantalized by the plot of Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes ($5), the first role playing game for Click Wheel iPods, and also the first iPod game from vaunted Japanese developer Square/Enix. The company’s Square side has specialized in making games like this one for years, and its very presence as a developer for the iPod platform is perhaps more noteworthy than anything about Song Summoner itself—in the past, Square has made games that literally spelled success for one game console and doom for its competitors.
Song Summoner isn’t going to be that sort of game, though it’s definitely a standout by Click Wheel iPod standards, despite its untimely release immediately ahead of Apple’s higher-profile opening of the App Store for iPhone and iPod touch games. For the $5 asking price, players get an uncommonly complex turn-based strategy title, placing you in the role of Ziggy, a boy who is taught how to command an army of warriors generated dynamically from information embedded in your iPod’s music tracks. Depending on the track’s title and other factors, different points, character traits, and ranks are automatically assigned to created characters, who belong to a variety of classes ranging from monks to knights and archers, and you pick a handful of soldiers from your pool to fight each of the game’s numerous battles against robotic enemies.
As role playing games tend to have a dedicated audience that’s willing to accept certain well-worn storytelling conventions, we’ll cut short any criticisms of Song Summoner’s plot and writing beyond to note that they’ll be most interesting to teenagers and others who are similarly young of heart. The quest, namely to avenge your brother Zero’s kidnapping by an armor-clad villain named Number 42, ultimately sees you chasing around a similar-looking robot named Full House and his minions, and there are lots and lots of cut scenes in which you, a suspiciously human robot named Z.E.R.O., and your gang of troopers confront the bad guys and talk with scared villagers. It’s all fairly routine for the genre, and didn’t exactly rope us in, but we’ve seen far worse from RPGs.
Building your soldiers from songs in your iPod music library is initially interesting, but can become tedious due to a lack of in-game guidance. Most of the characters are built in a part of the game called the Hip-O-Drome, with assistance from a guy called the Soul Master. Only occasionally, he’ll clue you in that a word like “Hero” in a song’s title could really help you make a great soldier, but as it turns out, there are a handful of words—love, star, hope, song, power, and so one—that create especially strong soldiers, and there are also at least 50 types of soldiers that can conceivably be created through this process. The game’s limited iPod song selection interface, combined with its meager guidance on making great soldiers, and heavily number- rather than visually-driven character profiling, makes this process a lot more random and less fun than it could be for players; that said, it’s definitely a more novel way of creating soldiers than some of the alternatives Square could have picked. Unfortunately, your music doesn’t have much of a part in the rest of the game, but at least Square has included a pretty good soundtrack of its own.
Character creation aside, Song Summoner’s gameplay is pretty standard strategy-RPG fare, though the goals have generally been made clear for the player. There are towns to visit on a structured world map, each featuring dialogue scenes with villagers and robots, a shop to buy items, and at some point a new battle to fight. You’re also directed to an arena to train your soldiers if you’d like, which unlocks some additional soldier classes not found in the Hip-O-Drome. If you want to avoid progressing in the story and would rather just revisit old towns to build up more points, you can do that.
Action takes place in turn-based, grid-like isometric environments, where you can command each of your warriors to move, attack, or use items and “skills” amongst other options. Each character has hit points and skill points which are depleted during battles, and you can only trot out the same people so many times from battle to battle. You can earn points to boost characters’ skills, hit points, and other levels, cash to buy more items, and even the ability to call your favorite characters into battle more often. Enemies, of course, become more powerful as you’re doing so, and in order to defeat the really big bosses you need to have plenty of hit points and healing items in your arsenal; if Ziggy dies in a battle, that’s the end of the game. Song Summoner does let you return from whatever your last save point was.
While the strategy-RPG genre isn’t a big deal in the United States these days, and has never really been as popular here as in Japan, the presence of Square/Enix as an iPod developer is really good news for all fans of Apple’s pocket devices. By the relatively low standards of past Click Wheel iPod Games, Song Summoner is a real standout, both in terms of the amount of work that went into its engine, and the number of hours players can expect to spend playing through it. Though not a game we would consider worthy of our “universal appeal” high recommendation, it’s a very good value for the money—a must-see for iPod-owning RPG gamers, as well as fans of previous titles from Square/Enix.