Last time I decided to take a small looksie at Summoner in a preview running on the site, you can use this for reference as I expand on my original thoughts a little. After playing through quite a decent chunk of the story.
Summoner is a large RPG and I mean large, the graphics are detailed and lavish on the scenery and the characters. It has many features that make a RPG Successful and brings a complex and fairly innovative plot to the genre.
Summoner also has the nifty Summoning skill which is firstly gained by finding one of the many in-game rings that hold the power that the main hero, Joseph: wields. Once you have one of the rings you can use it to bring another ally into the fight, in this case something called a 'Blackfire' Elemental. This character is fully controllable by the player, using the abilities and spells the creature possesses. Unlike Final Fantasy where you watch the long winded but lavish sequence in which something bad happens to your enemies, in Summoner you can be part of that bad, hurling lightning or fire until the Summon's magical energy is exhausted.
One word of warning, when your Summon is dispelled or dies you lose a portion of your health, always keep your HP's high for Joseph as you'll need them for some of the boss fights, they're hard and challenging.
The more you play Summoner with the ring's equipped the stronger your Summoning power will become, because the ring's gain xp from battle as you do, gaining new Summons and powers. This is another refreshing, and cool as a snowball thrown by an angry Yeti feature; that makes Summoner special.
Summoner's combat system is real time and taken from a free-roaming camera angle. Anyone you don't directly control will automatically attack or defend based on the AI type you've set in the options for that character. For instance set your ally to healer/caster and she'll sit back out of the enemies range and throw damaging spells at them. But if you or another ally are dangerously damaged, she'll switch to a healing spell and make sure that the character is brought back from serious danger before continuing her magical assault.
At times the AI in Summoner is extremely helpful and at other times the AI is utterly useless, but most games suffer from that kind of problem, overall the path-finding and intelligence is enough to satisfy my gamers soul, rarely will your allies get stuck or catch you with a mistimed spell, but then again if you're in the radius of that fireball when it goes off you better back off quickly because you'll be caught in the backwash.
With the ability to quickly switch control from one character to another with a click of the shoulder button, and change armour and weapons during a battle it kicks the backside of games like Orphen and Final Fantasy for ease of use. The interface is solid and slightly confusing to the newbie at first, but as soon as you've played through the first tutorial village you'll get the hang of how to attack and mess with your items. Thankfully the game goes into pause when you select options and equipment/spells/powers/skills so there's no need to worry about the bad guys getting a few sly licks in while you're not looking.
Summoner does suffer from graphical pop-up and quite badly, but don't let that put you off at all, because under the glitches is a really good game. Volition have gone for massive locations and when I say massive I mean it in the grand scale, often the cities are broken into chunks which have to be loaded separately and with good reason, buildings such as the grand temple in Lenelle are so large they dwarf the screen with it being impossible to actually see the top unless you're quite far away. There are people on the streets that go about their daily business and some small amount of scripted scenes that run now and again, drunks being press-ganged to work in the King's army. It does create a nice feel and helps to add to the immersion.
The main heroes story runs throughout the game and is told in a mixture of static narration and lip-synched cut-scene; that use the game engine. I found the voice acting in Summoner to be some of the best I've heard in a while, with Fleece being my favourite character next to Joseph. Alongside the heroes story and that of the world Summoner is packed full of small side-quests which can gain you that important Experience Point reward that might see you on the right side of beating that hard-as-nails boss.
Quests such as finding the Beggar's eyes from a selfish apothecary are usually linked to another task you must perform, and some of the smaller quests are broken up into a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the game's world map. Rather like the Final Fantasy games except it's very hard to navigate with the chance of totally losing your way sometimes. There's no smaller map to show you the whole of the continent and the compass is highly confusing to someone who's not a seasoned vet of RPG's like me.
The special effects in Summoner are what set it apart from a lot of the RPG's out there, the spells are gorgeous and the actual Summons are superb when you get some of the later ones such as the Red Minotaur and the Wraith you can marvel at the detail and the sparkles. Combined with well chosen and meaty sounds the whole game comes alive with a rarely seen ambience, combat sounds like combat and a fireball crackles menacingly as it homes in on its target to burst with a rustle of flames.
The models are very detailed taking advantage of the PS2's graphics engine to imbue faces with character and personality, clothing has creases and wrinkles, armour either shines or sits there looking used and dull. You can buy a large range of equipment in Summoner with the small amount of gold that you gain from questing and random world map battles. Importantly these items appear on your character, wear a suit of plate and the model will too in the inventory and in game, give Fleece a crossbow and she'll be carrying it around with her. It's about time that more RPG's recognised the importance of actually seeing the changes on your characters, again it all adds to the feeling of immersion.
It's probably one of the other main reasons I like Summoner so much, at first glance I didn't really rate it, but the more and more I played it and the deeper into the story I got, the more I wanted to continue, to find out what was around the next bend in the story...and Summoner's story does have quite a few twists and a couple of kinks in it. One of the more refreshing aspects of the game is that the adventurers are not all pally, in-fact one of the party hates you so much I get the feeling he'd rather kill you than look at you.
The only character that seems to be slightly sympathetic towards you is the female thief Fleece, she's dark, she's cynical but at least she doesn't ram what you did down your throat every chance she gets. I feel like I have to finish the game just to prove that I'm not as bad as the other characters think. Which means that the storywriters of Summoner got that part absolutely right. I'll level with you and it's probably a great injustice to the games but I never finished either of the Baldur's Gate series, probably because the story never grabbed me, or sucked me in the way Summoner's has.
So after all this, is Summoner the ground breaking RPG that it promised. Yes and No, it adds a few new things to the genre that were missing and most importantly it adds some really gritty characters and a cracking storyline. But it falls short of sheer greatness due to some graphical glitches and problems with the world map and camera. Still as I said before do not let these faults put you off because Summoner is a large game with lots of hidden things to unearth and side quests galore. It provides a decent challenge and a powerful feeling of magic. It has kept me busy for a fair few days and nights as I've been trying to get deeper and deeper into the game.
Persevere and you'll be rewarded with a great story and some unexpected twists and turns. And with that said, I'm off to see if I can't find another one of those rings and return the lost sword of someone to its rightful place.
Oh one more thing, be sure to view the credits and press the X button for a cool skit on D&D.