In the past, Volition achieved critical success with its Freespace franchise. Technically, it took the often recycled Wing Commander / Star Wars space sim formula, not to the next level, but rather to a more refined level. On the other hand, artistically, they created a universe of their own, populated by races like the Vasudans or Shivans along with the human Terrans. This time around, however, Volition is trying to launch a new franchise with a fresh artistic backdrop and another often recycled genre; the 3D RPG game. Summoner begins with the story of Joseph, a young common boy who, early in his life, unleashed (i.e. summoned) an unmistakably strong being to save his village. We are informed that events went awry and instead of helping, the young boy destroyed everything. As such, he went into exile but as expected, some events that transcend his humble life as a farmer begin to brew. The plot does not sound spectacular but like Freespace, Volition is able to weave a universe that is somehow convincing by the end of the game, although for my personal part, Volition had to try harder this time around. Space sims and alien races seem a bit more realistic to me than swords and sorcery.
Nevertheless, no expense is spared in crafting the exotic names for all the backdrop material in Joseph's world but none are too strange that it is beyond belief. For example, the monks at Ionas were once warriors clad in armor but now protect with a robe and books, which to me, seemed rather like the Vatican Templar order. As the story moves along, Joseph evolves from a fighter into a summoner; a class unique to himself. Thus, he is able to raise creatures that follow him throughout the level. They cannot exist in towns nor are they permanent companions. Joseph can also lose control of the creature (in the case of his death) and the creature will begin attacking other party members. There is nothing too special about this concept as we have seen everything between the familiars of Lands of Lore, to the mass summoning found in the necromancer of Diablo II. What this title brings to the table is a new view on the subject matter as all of Summoner is rendered in 3D fashion. Joseph is accompanied by various companions to form a maximum party of five. However, the title only lets you control one person at a time and there are moments when this is desirable. Sometimes the developers throw simple puzzles at you, involving, very loosely, someone staying behind to keep a door open for someone ahead. Other times, the developers require you to execute some stealth and infiltrate a castle using, naturally, only the thief character. With that said, Summoner is not like the ubiquitous Thief franchise in that it is very lenient on how one achieves the objectives. With the aforementioned case, being detected will not result in immediate death or end of game. Rather, the developers let you start again with subtle hints on what to do. Repeated failures will eventually lend to more overt help or even a way to skip the entire sequence altogether. My main complaint about this is that help comes only after far too many repetitions, as such I prefer to use the quick-save/load technique. Both level loading and saving time are lightning fast so none of it is a chore.
The hero of this story will traverse many terrain types in order to achieve his quest but some of the visuals are a mixed bag. There are gorgeous panoramic views of palaces or at the top of islands. At the same time, however, fog-clipping and dry textures within the urban populace of Lenele, for example, detract from this epic feel. Some environments are intricately crafted, especially with structures that rise up above ground level. In particular, I was charmed by the view when going down a staircase at the temple of Ionas. These views, I believe, are unmatched in any 3D RPG but overall quality suffers when one examines the 'dungeon' sequences. Not only do they exhibit very little creativity, there are sometimes texture stitching problems. Furthermore, even though the Summoner engine renders everything in the game, the backdrop of the sky is a bit muddled and artificial, like in Quake 3: Arena.
The greatest tragedy that befalls a game is not inconsistent visuals, as these can be easily overcome by compelling gameplay, but rather, poor direction. This defect is becoming even more prevalent in titles as they migrate to the 3D world where camera positioning becomes key in a title's presentation. Summoner gives you the ability to rotate your camera around you and also lets you zoom in/out. The camera can also be manipulated to a 3rd person behind-the-back perspective and also a slightly slanted top down view. For much of the game, I preferred the latter simply because the Tomb Raider-esque view did not work well with the party system and often I had trouble manipulating the environment from that view. The top down perspective, which is default in indoor games, effectively prevents you from seeing too far since the zoom goes out only as far as the ceiling height. Thus, you get a Resident Evil like phenomenon, where the camera never seems to be where you want it to be. The developers seem to be aware of this and some walls become transparent or fade away to make up for the shortfall but solid rock, so common in the 'dungeon' sequences, do not seem to possess this ability.
In the audio department, the developers seem to have a firmer grasp of how to do things. The musical score is not entirely orchestral or what we expect of fantasy RPGs. In fact, the soundtrack is quite modern and on paper it seems out of place but in practice I appreciated its accompaniment. There are almost no scenes without some form of ambient music attached to it. Yet the quality is in my opinion, not in parity with Volition's Freespace 2. Much of the storyline is presented via on-screen text but within the in-game cinematic sequences, we hear conversation narrated by the characters themselves. The recording is crisp but the voiceovers are not entirely spectacular and certainly do not reach the tense drama found in the developer's space sims. With that said, there are no technical flaws with it. The recordings are crisp with no volume variations, hisses, scratches or pops. Plus, EAX users will be able to use that feature throughout the diversity of landscapes the story takes place.
There aren't many role-playing elements to the game, nor is Summoner stats-intensive like the AD&D titles, and a clear influence from console RPGs is illustrated through its handling of the combat system. Basically the combat is real-time, but turns still take place. Since you control only one character, you are given the ability to make chain attacks on the enemy by performing the right moves at the right time. It is similar to performing combo moves in Street Fighter or fatalities in Mortal Kombat. Doing certain moves will allow your character to gain experience and get access to even better moves. Since the characters all fight automatically by themselves, this option alleviates the boredom in the sometimes drawn out combat affairs. You can switch between the different characters during combat as well but like the actual gameplay, only one character can be active therefore making much of the title rest on the AI. In my experience, none of the characters ever got lost in the expansive settings, nor did anything too stupid happen in combat, like with characters standing still or people becoming trapped. You can set specific postures on the different party members with everything from healing to melee. In narrow confines, the AI will sometimes exhibit the brilliance to move their battle away so other party characters can participate in the battle but this does not happen, for whatever reason, all the time. There is an ability to pause during the battle but you won't have to pause as much as say Baldur's Gate, in this outing.
Summoner still proves that no amount of AI is better than a human-controlled ally. Using a PXO model on thqmultiplay.net, Volition lets players create a user profile, free of charge with no hassles, and play co-operatively online. The experience is somewhat similar to Diablo II only the maximum number of players is much smaller and only one summoned monster can be active at one time. The co-operative multiplayer component does not follow the main story arc although all the locations of the single player component become available in multiplayer. The developers have populated the locales with monsters and basically the game is about as complex as Phantasy Star Online, without the persistent universe. Your party members will travel with you to slay monsters, develop better chain attacks and pick up better weapons. There are some extremely simple quests involved but none that match the quality or scope in the single-player component. This part of the title was again, a mixed bag. Co-operative playing is fun, especially with a unique combat system like Summoner's, but I have already seen a full co-operative game implemented in Diablo II or Baldur's Gate. Why the developers did not try to emulate this model is beyond me. But still, there is quite a following on the THQ servers, at least at popular evening hours.
Recent press coverage of Summoner has tried to compare this title to another epic, Planescape: Torment. They cite the similarities between the styles of gameplay. Both worlds are rather alien to the modern crowd (Planescape being one of the most under-appreciated of AD&D worlds). Both present much of their story with the written word and frivolous NPCs who do nothing but flesh out the game world (luckily the important ones are marked with big icons above their head in Summoner). Both feature courier-like quests along with larger more involving ones in various locales. But Torment is a much more serious RPG compared to Summoner. The latter seems to place the emphasis on fun and simplicity rather than on the profound material of the former. Even the multiplayer co-operative component is streamlined for simplicity. Rabid mouse-clicking, popularized by the Diablo franchise, is taken to a more refined level. Now you click in a more logical manner to execute aesthetically pleasing chain attacks. Thus, inconsistencies with visuals and camera control hamper what is innately a fun RPG game. With fun, it seems the developers are consistent though. The original Freespace was criticized for not including Newtonian physics but Volition's aim was to make the existing genre even more fun, not more realistic. Certainly, Summoner's aim is no different and can be no different, as long as one is willing to overlook some of its flaws. The potentiality for a new franchise is definitely there.