Few game companies are as near and dear to my heart as Carpe Fulgur, a small video game publisher founded with the sole intent of localizing games from Japan that would otherwise never make it to western shores. They hit it out of the park with the first game they chose, Recettear on which I still look back fondly at not only as an interesting and unique game but one of the funniest localized games I’ve ever played. Carpe Fulgur’s latest endeavor is a small game developed almost entirely by one man under the company title of Lizsoft. So, is Fortune Summoners another surprise gem like Recettear, or a decent but forgettable title like Chantelise?
Fortune Summoners is the story of Arche, a young girl of eight to ten years who moves with her family to the small town of Tonkiness where she enrolls in the country’s only magic school. Arche quickly finds out that she isn’t completely prepared for school, as she hasn't read the “required materials” memo which mentions that you have to bring an elemental stone to magic class in order for practical application. Her classmates let her in on how much an elemental stone will cost and Arche doesn’t have the heart to ask for money from her parents, who she knows just started up an item shop and aren’t in the best financial situation. Luckily a boy in her class mentions a cave near the school which is rumoured to have an elemental stone within its depths. Arche decides to explore the cave for fun and hopefully find a free elemental stone to save her parents some money.
This kind of endearing childlike quality is rife throughout the story and character interactions. Arche will eventually team up with two other girls from her class: one of whom is a shy but kind healer, and the other a fire wielder with few friends and an initially harsh demeanor. Interactions are mostly about watching kids be kids, albeit in a strange magic using fantasy world. Worrying about a friend who got sick after you took them adventuring, inviting your classmates over for a slumber party because you’re afraid of the ghostly moans coming from your nearby graveyard, the first completely non-sexualized hot springs scene I’ve ever seen, and even a schoolyard crush complete with teasing the target of your affection are all examples of these. Sure, Arche and her friends get caught up in more than just their personal stuff - they save villages by bringing back their wind for windmills, and they’re on an overarching quest to unseal the powers in Arche’s new elemental stone - but it’s these smaller interactions that I found the most charming.
Some may take issue with how the story ends, but I think it ties up the most important parts of the narrative quite well. There’s still a larger problem and enemy to face that Arche and her friends don’t solve so the series has room to grow, but I didn’t feel like it cut off too early even though some of the mysteries in the story had too simple and short a solution for my taste, like why Arche’s father stopped being a swordfighter. It fits with the story in general, whichtries to keep things on the lighter side and from a child’s perspective, but I was really hoping for a more in-depth reason than what was given. The issue with the story is that being endearing is really all it does very well. There are humorous parts but nothing on the level of Recettear, and there is little drama or action in the story to be had, so whether you like it or find it to be worthless tripe will depend on what you’re looking for in a story. If a cute little adventure with a bunch of little girls doesn’t hurt your manly pride too much (assuming you’re a guy of course) then give it a shot. It won’t change your life, but it’s enjoyable in its own way.
Well that was more than I usually write for story, so let’s get on to the meat of the game and what it does particularly well, gameplay. Fortune Summoners plays kind of like an RPG version of The Lost Vikings with less facial hair. It’s a 2D Action RPG with puzzle aspects and the ability to instantly switch your control between the three girls in your party. Sana and Stella are the two magic casters, Sana can heal, breathe underwater and douse flames with water magic, while Stella has more damaging spells, and can destroy otherwise impervious brambles and light torches with her fire magic. They’re both nice support characters and necessary for many of the game’s puzzles, but when it comes to fighting monsters there is really only one correct choice. Arche is kind of the flunky of the magic school with no spells to speak of but she’s learned quite a lot of swordplay from her father and she can push around objects that should probably be physically impossible to move. She’s the most fun character to play as since her attacks have a fairly in depth input and combo system that keeps you on your toes while fighting and she has the most powerful attacks that don’t require any kind of MP. The scarcity of MP means that it’s actually usually harder to fight through a dungeon than it is to kill the boss at the end. None of the bosses took any particularly puzzling strategy to take out and once you know you don’t have to worry about saving your MP you can change the casting frequency of your other party members to let them cut loose. Between all the fire, ice, and sword swings going around, few bosses stand much of a chance.
Much of the difficulty in Fortune Summoners comes from how hard it is to get a character back after they die, and how important it is that you don’t let them get to that point. You can use healing items if your casters are too busy to put out a healing spell, but it’s not instant so you have to keep an eye on things and anticipate when it might be needed. This also means that it’s sometimes better to just stand still and block an attack than to go all out sword swinging, which is always a plus for me in an Action RPG. There’s also a good variety of enemies with different attack strategies and therefore take different ways to kill them if you want to get out with as few scratches as possible. Puzzles and platforming can also take quite a few trials to master; with one puzzle in particular perhaps being a bit too unforgiving (apparently putting pots back together can be quite annoying).
Unfortunately some of the difficulty comes from a lack of player direction. I don’t really mind when you have to explore and talk to people to figure out what to do next, although it got me stuck quite a few times during the game, but I think Fortune Summoners could really use some kind of map system. It’s great that the dungeons are all very non-linear with many different areas to explore, but it can be difficult to find a specific place in a large dungeon like this when there aren’t many notable landmarks and you can’t just head in a general direction in three dimensional space. Navigation only became an unforgiveable annoyance when I had to go to one place in the dungeon to find a key to a door, only to discover how hard it would be to figure out how to get back to the door that I could now open. That said, I did like how some dungeons required some outside of the box thinking in order to progress, like leaps of faith to unseen passages below, or torches that have to be extinguished instead of lit up to open doors.
While the overall game design makes it hard to believe that a single person accomplished this largely by themselves the visuals have the telltale signs. I like the general aesthetic style but it’s one of those games that doesn’t impress when you take a closer look at things. There are no cutscenes to speak of but there are a few scenes punctuated by more detailed still images which work well to illustrate things that would’ve been difficult to do with the game engine. Voice acting is minimal and really only used for a few sound bites like Arche exerting herself when pushing a stone block, but what’s there never gets annoying. The music is quiet and is never really used as a centerpiece, so it doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Price has been quite the subject of contention from fans when they heard the planned price of 25 dollars, but I think that the new launch pricetag of $20 is reasonable for the 19 hours I ended up taking to beat it. There are a number of difficulty levels (unbeknownst to me the game actually sets you at easy automatically), collectibles to find throughout the world and a new dungeon that opens up upon completion so the fun doesn’t have to stop completely when the credits roll. A bonus menu in the title screen also contains some stranger options to take your time if you feel so inclined. One is versus mode in which you can pit the girls against each other with various level choices either to play against the computer or watch the computer play against itself. It’s actually kind of disturbing, watching these kids beat the crap out of each other after seeing them become friends over a span of 19 or so hours, but to each their own. There’s also an autoplay mode where you can watch the computer mow through enemies. Neither is too fleshed out, so they won’t take up a ton of time, but they’re a fun little distraction nonetheless.
So Fortune Summoners is definitely more like Recettear than Chantelise, but I’d still say it falls a bit short. Perhaps if the humour had been more on point and I didn’t spend so much time lost without a map it could have edged its way up to greatness, but as it is, it's not quite up there. Fortune Summoners is a fun little title with good value, a fun and often challenging battle system, and the most endearingly cute characters this side of Happy Tree Friends. So give the demo a try, and if it seems fun, remember that there’s a guy working a day job in Japan who would just love to keep producing games like this if he could live off the money. This is another successful localization for Carpe Fulgur, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got coming up next.
This review is based on a digital copy of Fortune Summoners for the PC, provided by the publisher.