Reborn, but not rebuilt.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Maybe you'll get it right the next time. Or the time after that. Hell, I took a nap during my first attempt at the SAT's, but by the third time around, I did fine.
The original Summoner also put me to sleep. Despite a fair deal of hype, the game plodded along and was marred by long load times and bland gameplay. But thankfully, Volition listened to the classic adage and made leaps in the right direction with their sequel.
On the third go 'round, Summoner 2 was ported to the Gamecube as Summoner: A Goddess Reborn. It's the same game with the same real-time hacking action and fussy camera, but now there's now a new character model for the main character, Maia.
Maia has been touted as the goddess Laharah reborn. At the tender young age of four, she usurped the throne, aided by the King's own brother, Taurgis. Twenty years later, she journeys out with a small band of followers to discover exactly what destiny has in store for her.
This messianic, linear story is influenced greatly by classic Dungeon and Dragons traditions like the first Summoner, but takes on some Middle Eastern touches. The writing effectively uses period language to create a unique atmosphere, but the overarching events and plot take priority over in-depth character development.
The melee action is in full real-time. There's a timing structure to the attacks, but it just comes out as pure button-mashing. Blocking is not as useful as it should be - a small delay before initiating the block keeps the character vulnerable. At times you can accurately predict when to block, but mostly, it's a crapshoot. At its heart, attacking becomes an issue of stat improvement, but the action half of this "action/rpg" really should have been refined better.
You can lock onto enemies, but the opponent-centric movement of your character is rather sluggish. Another dodge move of some kind would have helped out immensely. Combat mostly ends up as walking right up against your foe and whittling away with your weapon, stopping or running off for the occasional block or spell. Summoner's sword action, though different, pales against the finely tuned timing of Zelda Ocarina of Time.
In Summoner: A Goddess Reborn, being attacked by more than two opponents is a sure death knell. You just can't really keep your health up while sustaining multiple attacks, and you often cannot counter-attack quickly enough. Frantic escape ends up as the best response.
To help you in this regard, Summoner: A Goddess Reborn gives you a backup team of two computer-controlled warriors. Their offense and defense styles can be adjusted through the options, allowing you to create a strict melee man or a humble healer. But unlike Kingdom Hearts, you're able to take control of either support character at the push of a button. It's certainly more exciting to actually control the other characters and gives the game much more variety. Still, I would have liked the ability to send support commands in as well, such as directing a teammate to attack a specific opponent. And leaving characters up to the mercy of the AI usually means the AI will stupidly waste resources.
Advancing in levels earns each character in your party points to distribute across their different skill sets. Different properties can be built up, such as stronger attacks, better defense or more specialized character traits like stealth, heavy weapons, and specific spells.
This game wouldn't be 'Summoner' without any summoning, now would it? Over the course of her adventure, Maia gains the abilities of four upgradeable summons - Blood, Eye, Sand and Tree. With each summoning, she transforms into a fabled creature; for a limited window of time, she wields the added strengths and powers of the beast. For the most part, the summons are very effective and add some visual flair.
Summoner: A Goddess Reborn is a big game. There are scores of quest items to find, each playing some part in the larger scheme of things. You'll have to figure out the right time to use an item, which gives the game a nice classic adventure element.
Graphically, though, the game is mixed. Between the PS2 and the Gamecube, there are some marginal improvements. Summoner: A Goddess Reborn has thankfully eliminated the ugly draw-ins and long load times of the original Summoner while maintaining huge environments, but the close-up details are muddled and lack detail. I find myself pulling back the camera so I won't have to look at the game up close.
The camera feels more awkward than before, with a tendency to zoom in when it's completely unnecessary. The bulk of the cut scenes are devoid of mouth movements, a step backwards in FMV design. Rather than heavy work on animation, there's some fancy video editing sharply done with artful filters to progress the storytelling.
Most of the voiceover cast has done a commendable job; emotional intonation is fitting and there are appropriate accents for most of the characters. Much of the music is background ambient filler rather than full melodies.
However, the new Maia doesn't seem to fit the original voice as well. The new Maia looks less angry, with a less angular face and lips that have a Catherine Zeta-Jones curl to them. At least the new cover of the game box looks far, far better compared to the lopsided original.
Plus, it seems like some other extras were eliminated, such as interviews with the staff and the Summoner 2 animated short that featured the original Maia. While the Summoner 2 short wasn't as funny as the original Summoner D & D short, it was still an appreciated addition.
Summoner: A Goddess Reborn has come a long way since the original and is headed in the right direction, but I find myself happier with Summoner 2 on the PS2. I disagree with the "improved" character design, feel irked by the hateful camera, and in all, the game has aged in the short time between the PS2 and the Gamecube. Three times a charm, but not this time.