You'd assume that a union of two cultural giants like Square Enix and Apple would be of such earth-shaking significance that it would buckle pavements, bring skyscrapers sighing to the ground, and trigger mass extinctions around the globe. But, as a downloadable iPod game, Song Summoner is not built with posterity in mind. Wisely, it's built with bus journeys in mind instead, and as such it will have to leave the pomp and circumstance for other titles. That's not to say Song Summoner is a bad game - it's actually quite a good one most of the time - but it is, by design, fairly slight, and it's also home to an uneasy mix of the gimmicky and the traditional.
The gimmick first. Song Summoner's big idea is to take the music in your iPod library and transform it into Tune Troopers, fearsome warriors who can then be sent into battle. (Although, in my case, it takes the music in my library and transforms it into a selection of foppish and wheezing weaklings, who slink onto the field of conflict ripe only for dismemberment - serves me right for a lingering fondness for Elastica, presumably.) After you submit a track of your choice, the game uses the music file to generate the class and abilities of your party member, turning Elvis' "Burning Love" into a defensive archer, for example, or yanking an underpowered monk out of Lionel Richie's moronic "Dancing on the Ceiling". The venue where this all takes place is called the Hip-o-Drome, incidentally, which I mention only because it sounds like an intriguing retro-futuristic osteoarthritis clinic, which probably isn't the effect the designers were going for.
With your songs rendered into a broad cross-section of spiky-haired and be-zippered anime cliché, it's time for the more conservative aspects to take centre-stage. Song Summoner is, at heart, an enjoyable but generic strategy RPG. It's broadly cut in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics, but with much of the depth stripped away, by necessity, so it can be played between stops on the Northern Line. So while there are battles to win and a smattering of tactical options available in the turn-based gameplay, there's little in the way of genuine challenge or variety for those who have already peered into the near-bottomless well of a Disgaea or Fire Emblem.
There's no doubting the fact that the game works, though. The click wheel turns out to be a surprisingly effective input device: movement is taken care of by scrolling through a series of highlighted squares, and the radial combat menu makes selecting whether to use an item, attack, or stay put, a relatively pain-free experience (although the fat-fingered of you may run into some accuracy problems).
The gameplay itself is equally solid, if a little workmanlike. The story mode is expansive, given the price-tag, and there are plenty of maps and replay options, but the characters and isometric screens can be a little bland, and if you're looking for depth you're going to be disappointed. Battlefields are small and tend to be simplistic, and the options available never get much more complicated than choosing whether to attack directly or use skills to strike from a distance.
Team members can be levelled-up by the addition of Pitch Pearls, which are gained in battles, and there are plenty of different skills to mess around with, but each trooper you create has a limited number of deployment points, and when they're used up, the character's gone forever. While it makes you think carefully about whether to waste time and resources levelling somebody who's not going to be around for long, it also makes it harder to feel any kind of long-term involvement with your team, adding a strange hint of Logan's Run to proceedings. Rather than going into a battle with a hardy and fresh-faced squad, hand-picked from the best and the brightest, you feel like you're being dropped into a war zone with a haphazard B-team composed of the terminally ill.
But the biggest problem is that, despite the platform, storyline, and character creation method, Song Summoner doesn't really feel very musical. There's no rhythm component to speak of, and your iTunes library never rises above its role as simple raw material. You soon realise that, were the iPod an enormously stylish and status-heavy washing machine rather than an audio player, you'd be generating characters by feeding in cardigans. That's fine in theory (it actually sounds quite good), but when games and music come together, past experience with Vib Ribbon or even the iPod's own Phase, means that people are probably expecting a little more than a fresh take on Barcode Battler. It does get a bit deeper than that - you can boost a Trooper's stats by listening to its song when you're not playing - but you'll have to do so over and over again in such OCD quantities that it renders the whole thing something of a chore.
And the Tune Trooper generation system seems a little arbitrary. While the idea is that the song choice dictates the character's abilities, it does so in a pretty random manner. My experience was that the same song will generally render the same class each time it's submitted - Beth Orton's "Absinthe" consistently turned out soldiers, while Roxy Music's early years created an endless run of monks - but the stats themselves change every time, and if there's no obvious patterns to spot and exploit, there's little incentive to keep fiddling around.
There's undeniably a strong novelty thrill the first time you head into battle alongside The Waitresses' era-defining "Christmas Wrapping" and the A-side of "Diamond Dogs", but it's an experience you may tire of quickly. Song Summoner is a pleasant and lightweight strategy title that's colourful and chirpy enough to help out on a long train ride but, unlike a good piece of music, when you take the gimmickry out, it doesn't really have much in the way of a genuine hook.
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