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Published July 15, 2008

Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes is a conceptual nightmare, no doubt about it. A traditional strategy RPG on the button-deficient iPod? Doesn’t exactly sell itself. However, many folks are paying close attention to this particular iTunes release because of its Square-Enix pedigree. The Japanese giant has made a mint releasing spinoffs and sequels to some of its most cherished franchises*, and it seems within reason that it could work the same magic on our shores. If this first showing is any indication though, Square’s more interested in cashing in on its namesake than it is in offering worthwhile software.

Then again, Square isn’t ripping anyone off. The 129 MB download features an extensive campaign, a fully localized story, 50 different troops, and enough other bullet points to entice even the most skeptical fan. Rather than cashing in on the Final Fantasy name, the developer sought to create a new IP, a fantasy take on “The Matrix” with a pervasive music theme (seems like the starting point for a bad rock opera). The “mechanical assimilation” angle may not be entirely original, but the world is fully realized and the dialogue is competently written. Song Summoner follows a standard SRPG rule set, with the familiar grid layout and five distinct classes. Fans of Final Fantasy Tactics will know exactly what to expect.

This sprite may look cool now, but wait ’til you see her other frame of animation!

Unfortunately, that’s also the game’s biggest shortcoming. If you’re reading this review, it’s safe to assume that you have a half dozen similar titles scattered about your game room, begging to be played. Hell, you may even have one or two still in their shrink wrap. These games are notorious for being huge time investments, and I found it hard to justify my time spent with this Strategy 101 approach when Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is lodged in my DS. The game has a basic Fire Emblem inspired weapon hierarchy and a few other twists such as the power-boosting Groove meter, but this is about as by-the-books as you can get.

All of these problems are compounded by the prosaic presentation. The iPod may not be a graphical champ, but I have to believe that the game could have been much further optimized. Song Summoner is rife with slow down, long loading times, and anemic animation. Whereas a round of FFTA2 can be completed within twenty minutes, there were later missions in this game that were pushing the hour mark, simply because of this constant sluggishness. The art direction fairs no better. The games color palette is depressingly muted and the character designs are uninspired at best, with many looking surprisingly mundane for a game with a David Bowie reference as a protagonist. What I wouldn’t do for a Tetsuya Nomura belt buckle or two to spice things up.

Whether you like Mr. Electrochemical or not, he’ll be dead after five missions. Each troop can only be deployed a handful of times before they’re stolen from you, so try not to get too attached.

By now, hopefully I’ve done enough to deter you from a purchase, but you may still be curious about the game’s much touted “Tune Trooper” feature. Using mp3s, you can create randomly generated soldiers to fight alongside Ziggy, presumably encouraging players to use their entire music library to see who they can generate. But even this idea is poorly executed. After dozens of trials at the Hip-O-Drome (where these Tune Troopers are born), there was no discernable pattern or logic to how characters were produced. Furthermore, using the same song twice usually produces different characters entirely, essentially negating the value of the game’s sole interesting feature.

It’s a shame too, because further music integration could have worked wonders. You’re rewarded for listening to songs outside of the game (via Groove points), but why can’t I customize the soundtrack to my own liking? Battle fanfares, village themes, even the game over screen could have all had a personal touch. And why are there no rhythm-based or record scratching attacks? I know that these ideas are within the realm of possibilities.

Even though Song Summoner has a lot of factors working against it, Square-Enix could have made it work if the product had its own identity. Harmonix proved last year that a successful iPod game only requires a little ingenuity and vision, so it’s a shame to see this SRPG experiment stumble so badly. Even though this game offers plenty of missions at a very attractive price, it’s hard to recommend when there are so many better ways you could be spending your time.


Overall: 2 Stars

*I cannot attest to the quality of any of these titles, but it’s common knowledge that cell phone gaming in Japan is light years ahead of what we have here.

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