We spent some time with Joseph and his friends and learned that Summoner is one of the most innovative RPG's to appear on a console yet.
Summoner tells the story of Joseph, a novice summoner who must hone his powers and quest for ancient rings that will help him defeat the game's villain. Though the story sounds like standard RPG fare, the game stands out with its distinctive North American flavor. It only takes a few moments with the game to discover that Summoner is unlike any console RPG before it. Differences as subtle as non-Japanese character design and differences as radical as the game's third-person perspective and RTS-like combat system give Summoner a fresh new feel and are obviously laying the groundwork for next-generation RPGs to come. And while it remains to be seen if Summoner will be able to dethrone certain popular Japanese RPGs, the game's distinctive new elements and style will no doubt leave their mark on the entire genre.
The story starts with a small tutorial that actually takes place in the game world and within the story. Joseph has returned to his village after a trip to find that royal swordsman have slaughtered the townspeople and set the village ablaze. A few of the townspeople are still breathing, either teetering on the edge of death or hiding from the king's troops, and they'll explain that the troops are apparently looking for you and that your best bet is to escape via the river to Lanelle, the king's city. After you kill a few of the swordsmen and learn the basic control scheme, you board a boat and view a small cutscene that, in a very fairy-tale manner, explains more of the story.
When the cutscene finishes, you're treated to an overhead view of the land. The map is set up in a fashion similar to that of any other RPG map these days - you move your character about from a top-down perspective and travel to areas that will, once entered, change the gameplay back to the more detailed third-person perspective. While you are traversing the land in the map view, you'll stumble upon all sorts of random events, including the fairly common enemy attack. Once you've finished with the event, you can move to the area's exit - a yellow border that, once walked over, takes you back to the corresponding area.
Once you get to Lanelle, you have to enter the city just as you would in real life, starting from the outskirts and working your way inward. As you progress through the city, you'll notice that locations start to get more exotic and there's more activity the nearer you get to the heart of the city. Shops, markets, characters, and obstacles litter the area, making the environments more alive than those in any other console RPG yet. Because there are tons of characters scattered about, the game places an emphasis on certain characters that you'll need to talk to in order to progress through your game. Talking to unemphasized characters, while not essential to the game, can give you more detailed information, lead you to side quests, aid you with items and special weapons, or give you absolutely nothing and be a complete waste of time. Since you're off to find a contact of yours in the royal palace, you eventually come to the gate only to be denied entry - you're a ragged farm boy who has no business in the royal palace. This is where you run into Flece, a female thief who knows of an alternate way to get into the palace. After a brief cutscene, she joins your party and leads you to the sewers, through which you can find your way to the belly of the palace. After you fight plenty of enemies and figure out a somewhat interesting puzzle, you eventually make your way up to the secret entrance of the palace. It's here that you get to test out your new party member, as Flece has to sneak into the palace and find your contact without being seen by any of the royal guards. Once you find your contact, you're treated to another scene, and Joseph rejoins you. The plot goes on from here, but there's no reason to spoil it any further.
The combat system is pretty interesting. All of the combat is done in real time, and it's handled much like a real-time strategy game. You pick who you want to command and assign him or her a target. You can then either give commands to a different character or try to improve the original character's attacks with special button presses. Once characters are given a task they simply go to it, and they only stop when the job is done. If you tell Joseph to attack a golem, he simply attacks until the golem is dead. You don't have to press buttons or select different attack types, although you can expend an extra amount of energy to chain attacks together. The chain attack system allows you to extend your attack by pressing an appropriate button on the D-pad in time with each attack that you chain together. If you're too slow or too fast with the D-pad, the chain will break and you'll have to wait before your character can attack again. If you're good, it's not uncommon to chain attacks endlessly until the enemy is dead. While this new system is certainly interesting, it may end up hurting the combat more than it helps it. You can also perform spells and use special skills while in combat - while your controlling a character, you can simply pull up a submenu and pick a skill or spell for that character to use or perform as soon as he or she has a free action. After the skill or spell duration is over, your characters will go back to whatever it was they were doing before you distracted them. Since all the combat is in real time, the computer will control your party members when you're not directly controlling them. To that end, you can set how the computer will play each character independently at any time from a list of several distinct AI sets, so you can be sure that your party's weak healer won't go charging headfirst into combat whenever she sees a beefy-looking enemy.
Like in any RPG, the characters grow stronger and learn as they progress through the game, and just like in most RPGs, this is roughly handled by assigning a power level to each character. Joseph starts at level one, but quickly moves to level five by the time he reaches the palace. When you up a level, most of your stats are automatically improved, but you're given a few points to distribute to your skills as you see fit. The skill screen is different for every character, as they all roughly represent different character classes, but the universal skills - sword weapons, melee, and dodge, among others - are present in every character's list. The unique skills, such as Joseph's summoning ability or Flece's lock-picking skill, are appropriate for and specific to each character. Magic is also handled in the skills section, with magic being broken down into several groups that contain the appropriate spells. In this case, you improve the entire spell group instead of spending points on individual spells. You only get a few points per level, so improving the right skills is essential to the game.
There are more elements to Summoner - like the game's dynamic conversation system or summoning and controlling monsters - that add depth and innovation to the game's already ambitious nature. In several different areas, Summoner definitely feels like Interplay's Fallout for the PC, another North American-developed RPG, and it's obvious that Volition is familiar with that game. But there are several important differences that set this game apart; not only from Fallout, but from every console RPG to date. With creative new ideas and a fearless attitude, THQ and Volition are attempting to change the entire RPG genre, and regardless of whether or not Summoner lives up to its expectations, the game will no doubt inspire future RPGs. Summoner will ship alongside the PS2 this October.