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TUAW Hands-On: Square Enix's Song Summoner for the iPod


Square Enix dropped a huge bomb at E3 a few weeks ago with the fact that their latest Final Fantasy title, number 13, was coming to Microsoft's Xbox 360. But a week before, they dropped another piece of surprise news on iPod owners: that they had released a game for the music player, and that not only was it an RPG, but it was actually a tactical RPG that used the iPod's own songs as characters.

If you're a Squeenix fanboy, your mind is probably just blown by the idea, and as we reported last time, our Nintendo-biased friends were thrilled to hear about the game. But how does it actually play -- is it worth picking up if you're not a Square fan, and/or you just want to hear music on your iPod?

Short answer: Probably not. While Square Enix's Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes is a pretty amazing game for the iPod, the iPod is meant to be a music player, not a game platform, and a few hardware drawbacks keep Song Summoner from shining as a game just for iPod owners. Square fans will enjoy it very much, RPG gamers will probably get their money's worth (the game is only $5, cheap by any estimation), but anyone looking for a pick-up-and-play iPod game will likely get mired in the slow pace.

What's probably most impressive about Song Summoner is that Square Enix really did translate their console RPG genius to the iPod -- all of the normal moves of their tactical RPGs are here, including moves, jobs, great turn-based gameplay, and the standard Eastern RPG story -- a nobody in a small town takes a journey to save someone they love, is both betrayed and joined by other characters, and eventually saves the world. Some of the complexity is lost -- there are only a few jobs to choose from, and the item system isn't quite as deep as other Square games -- but it's impressive how much Song Summoner plays like a deep Square RPG.

And they did do a fairly nice job at bringing the game to the iPod -- controls are handled by the wheel and the center button, and you navigate a series of menus and/or options on the battlefield to set up and control your characters. Square Enix has done a great job predicting what you'll do next in game, so that most of the time, you'll just be pressing the center button to confirm what the game is asking you to do. Battle works just like any other tactical RPG -- it's all turn-based, so your character goes, along with all of his "tune troopers" (more on them in a minute), and then the enemies get to have their turn. You move around the battlefield by choosing a destination after scrolling around a series of possible squares, and then you choose an enemy to attack (or a friend to heal) by cycling through the possibilities, and then hitting the center button for your choice.

But the most amazing way Square has brought their game to the iPod is with the "tune trooper" system. Early in the game, you're allowed access to the Hip-O-Drome, where a groovy mentor will show you how to turn the songs in your iPod's library into actual soldiers -- a Fountains of Wayne song becomes a Monk named "Flat Spin," an MGMT song becomes an Archer named "Little Sister" and so on (there are a ton of silly pop music references in the game -- the game's lead character is named Ziggy). And then these troopers, which each have their own stats, abilities, and classes, can then be summoned into the tactical RPG part of the game to fight for you. Plus, whenever you listen to the songs out of the game, Song Summoner will track it, and you'll get Play Points that will power up your troopers (you can also get power up points by defeating enemies in game). It sounds complicated (and it is -- the depth is a little overwhelming), but the system does a good job of handling things for you. And there's probably even more depth than I found -- at one point, the mentor told me that songs with "soul" in the title would make better tune troopers, so I have no idea just how many criteria Square built into the game for choosing songs -- even the folks writing the guides for how this works are a little confused by just how it's done.

Unfortunately, while the game definitely doesn't disappoint, the hardware does. The iPod is made to play music, and it does that very well, but it's not so good at running a complicated Square Enix RPG -- there are loading times aplenty, and lots and lots of annoying lag in the interface. The wheel isn't very exact either -- there were more than a few times that I selected the wrong thing, and had to go back (and even a few times where I hit the wrong enemy, never a good sign in a battle that depends on tactics). The music was good (the game is a 129mb download, and there are some fun old-school style tunes on there), but I was disappointed that, as far as I played, the music I chose to become my tune troopers didn't actually get played during the game at all. And finally, the iPod's screen is just too small to show a game like this clearly -- Square Enix did a great job getting everything on the screen, but especially compared to other handheld devices like the PSP or the iPhone, everything just seems cramped.

Song Summoner is a good game, and if you're a fan of RPGs at all, you should shell out the $5 to try it out, if only so we can convince Square Enix to make a really deep RPG for the iPhone. It's too bad the iPod's hardware limits as a game device hold it back, even while the game tries to do something new with the iPod's status as a music library. It was a huge surprise to see a strong, deep, original game like this on the iPod of all things, and we only hope that this bodes well for the future of Apple's other handheld device.

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