I’ll never forget the first time I encountered a Golem in the sewers beneath the city of Lenele. They were huge and the character I was playing was an underpowered farm boy whose village had just been destroyed. It was also my first time playing a fantasy RPG and I had no idea what magic missile was, let alone how to cast it. What followed was a mess of pointing and clicking and hoping for the best; luckily the farm boy knew how to use a sword.
It’s a fond memory of a game that I’ve replayed more than any title I’ve gotten my hands on in the last decade or so. And there’s a reason for that.
I’m not alone in my fierce love of this game either. When it was first released by THQ (RIP) in 2000 for both the PS2 and PC, it managed a respectable 70+ scoring on metacritic. Pretty good for a console RPG at the time. The developers, Volition, Inc. are responsible for other more well-known series such as Red Faction and Saints Row as well, but that’s not how they won this little gamer’s heart.
Summoner is a story about that farm boy, Joseph. The plot follows an immersive fantasy arch, leading us into a medieval style world both dark and brutal. The opening scene presents Joseph’s home on fire and his neighbours being slaughtered and a narrator suggesting that it is all happening because a dark Emperor is searching for him. Because our farm boy is a Summoner, a person with a distinctive mark on their hand, able to call forth and control mighty demons using unique rings. Panicked and almost defenceless, you help Joseph fight his way across the village to a boat. Your destination is the capital city of Lenele, in search of your former companion Yago. He and Joseph didn’t part on the best of terms, but the old man is the only way to find out what’s going on and why some distant ruler is suddenly intent on killing him.
The story twists and weaves itself across two continents, with our hero being joined by three other equaling interesting playable characters. Flece steps up as our thief/rogue archetype, older and wiser and born in the gutter she remains one of my favourite fantasy characters ever. Rosalind joins Joseph in the mage roll, though her powers are played better towards healing and Jekhar completes the party as the tank, though his hatred of Joseph soon becomes apparent (and understandable).
The controls are adaptive but clunky at times. The game is entirely 3rd person but the complete freedom over the camera behind you and the ability to zoom in and out at will, is a great help when searching for items well hidden. The battle system allows you to control one character at a time and choose their attacks either from the menu screen or your quickbar. Item descriptions are clear and easy to understand how they can help you and your character armour can be modified as you level up and progress through the game. None of which will surprise any RPG gamer.
Perhaps what I love most about this game and its story is how compelling it is. Although it lacks any customisation or moral compass effecting the storyline, I felt the importance of the actions my characters took. And it was mainly due to the strength of the dialogue, voice acting and amazing cutscenes.
The above kept me going when the sidequests had me wandering around the map for half an hour hoping to god the next random encounter would contain the enemy I needed to defeat. And when the learning curve was so steep the first boss wiped me out in one hit because I hadn’t leveled up correctly.
For all it’s little foibles when it comes to enemy AI and game mechanics, the thought and depth into the world Volition, Inc. thought up overcomes all of them for me. It was an amazing place to get lost in when I was fifteen and it still is now.
Check out the intro to the game and embrace the polygons!