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Fortune Summoners is a story about being young,” or so its website description says. “It’s a story about finding adventure, about doing good even when doing good is hard. It’s a story about owning up to your mistakes and making them right, and facing down danger no matter what”.

Well let me tell you right off the top that in Fortune Summoners, doing good can be very hard indeed.

Take a gander at the few reviews the game has received and you’ll find a generous helping of teeth-gnashing over combat ineptitude fueled by a failure to grasp the game’s control scheme, compounded by a rather high overall level of difficulty. As difficulty can only ever be assailed if it cannot be overcome through skillful play, there is admittedly some merit to this barb. More on that later.

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As much as we’d prefer not to believe it, there is always going to be a layer of subjectivity regarding the quality of any given control setup, but I have a hard time giving credence to anyone who couldn’t get a handle on Fortune Summoners’ unorthodox movement style within the first few hours; blaming the game on your inability to adapt reflects poorly. The inertia-heavy movement presented me with more problems positioning myself to converse with shopkeepers than it did fighting the game’s relentless foes, as horizontal precision is never really required to succeed when you can attack at any moment.

I’ve seen critics of the game whine that the controls are outright unresponsive, which comes across to me as a weak and bitter excuse for getting consistently savaged. If anything, the opposite is true: it’s downright impressive how well the game received my frantic inputs for what ended up being over a dozen different moves.

And I had the stones to play this bastard on hard, so I’m really not going to be particularly sympathetic to the slings and arrows of the incompetent who likely struggled on normal. As such, I should point out that the rest of this piece is informed by my experience on the hard difficulty setting; while the criticisms still hold up on normal, they aren’t nearly as frustrating.

I’m here to tell you why Fortune Summoners, a Japanese doujin game created by a one-man developer Lizsoft, sets a standard for core 2D combat mechanics that the rest of the industry — those still making 2D games, that is — should aspire to match, while simultaneously committing a few costly errors that hold it back from greatness.

fsimage2The comparison to Dark Souls is trite but apt, at least in certain respects. Combat is often requires a very tactical approach, with maneuverability, punishment, and some good old fashioned patience being absolutely critical to keeping yourself alive longer than five seconds, though the game does have more than its share of nuisance foes. Most players I imagine, myself included, are mauled on the game’s opening jaunt to school, treated in such a sadistically lackadaisical manner by the inhabitants of the central town of Tonkiness as to make one wonder if it’s not some tribal death ritual.

While Fortune Summoners is far from Dark Souls’ equal in the department of enemy design, encounter design, and AI, one of the great strengths of Fortune Summoners’ combat is the wide array of offensive maneuvers drip fed to the player over the course of the game. Impressively, it is to the player’s advantage to incorporate as many of those moves into their fighting style as possible; nearly every attack exists in conjunction with others, and finding your preferred combos is a large part of what makes Fortune Summoner’s combat so satisfying. There are no overpowered moves, and few that cannot justify themselves.

Earlier days will make an accomplishment out of stringing together two or three attacks without being slaughtered in the attempt, while a seasoned swordswoman can become a whirling flurry of steel on command, a stark relief from the omnipresent whining of critics who found the controls to be “unresponsive”, which would be news indeed to the hundreds of monsters vanquished over the course of leading-lady Arche‘s deceivingly saccharine adventure.

fsimage3That isn’t to say the game ever gets easy, or even anywhere near it. Unfortunately, Fortune Summoners’ greatest failing lies in its enemy design, with far too many omnipotent rushdown foes that give the combat no chance to establish the cadence it deserves, most of which lack the appropriate hitstun to make their overaggressive nature punishable; many a frustrating moment have been had watching Arche tumble through the air, sword clanking feebly to the ground nearby, after a particularly nasty thrashing in the blink of an eye to some hyperactive skeleton.

While these enemies are no trouble on their own when you can dictate the pace, it’s when the game sees fit to toss groups of them your way that the combat really breaks down into a desperate buttonmash to clear the screen before your party is unceremoniously wiped. It will do so often.

Compounding the frustration are the multitude of status-inflicting monsters occasionally mixed into these death squads. It’s more than hard enough to handle the game’s stock opposition, so when you have spore-spewing fungi ranging around, laying your characters to sleep next to that hyperactive skeleton, things can get out of hand in a hurry. That’s to say nothing of the enemies who can inflict confusion, which causes you to attack recklessly anything nearby, friend or foe — essentially a sure-fire game over. You are given very little chance of interrupting or avoiding their deployment in the frenzy of battle, making survival in these cases more an exercise of luck through repetition than anything else.

I’m left feeling like the sterling underlying mechanics are betrayed by the game’s frustratingly poor enemy design, something like a Resident Evil 4 where Ganados could not be stunned by gunshots and had the ability to sprint. Give a few of them flashbangs while you’re at it. Laid bare, there is a profound and fundamental disconnect between the tools provided to the player and the obstacles they are meant to conquer.

Despite these severe misgivings, I still feel the positives far outweigh the negatives in Fortune Summoners, and I believe it has some very important lessons to offer its contemporaries in the 2D action genre. Combat need not be fast and free-flowing by necessity — it can be of a more deliberate and strategic style without sacrificing excitement. Variety is always welcome, especially in such a niche corner of gaming.

Thanks to the relative thrashing Fortune Summoners has received from these folks, however, those lessons are likely to remain unlearned. A pity.

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