Swords & Soldiers, the WiiWare debut from de Blob progenitors Ronimo Games, oddly reminds me of PC games in the mid-90s – and not because the era saw more knockoffs than a guy selling DVDs out of his trunk. At that time, developers mixed as many genres as possible in every game, somehow convinced that more was better in every situation. What happened then is what happens now – these games deliver entertaining experiences, but the crossover genres contradict themselves and prevent the game from gelling. Swords & Soldiers mixes elements of real-time strategy and tower defense, and while the game never manages the best of either genres, it offers a new and worthy experience.
Like tower defense, player input in Swords & Soldiers is simple. Using only the Wii Remote, players choose which units to create, which spells to cast, and what to upgrade. Matches consist of a two dimensional scrolling battlefield with a stronghold on either end. Each side employs units and magic spells to battle to and topple the enemy base. Fighting units advance and attack automatically once created, just as harvester units automatically gather gold. Most of the player’s influence in the battle lies in the decision when and which units to create and managing mana-consuming spells. These spells are all unique in utility and implementation, featuring standard healing / damage dealing spells along with more esoteric implementations like setting traps and sacrificing friendly units for mana.
Unfortunately, the title’s flow subverts itself. Most games are won by maxing out resource gatherers, pumping out diverse and numerous combat units, and peppering in spells to grease the advance. Cycling through this procedure is fun, but isn’t as thrilling as crushing an enemy with directly controlled units as in an RTS, or as sublimely entertaining as watching a group of automated attackers dismantle enemies as in a tower defense. I really wanted to either control the units directly or find some way to automate the process as I played. The game strikes a middle ground that never explodes in entertainment.
Horrendously cheating AI exacerbates these issues by creating mountains of units from bottomless coffers. Around 60% through the game, toppling the enemy’s stronghold becomes nearly impossible due to a constant river of units spewing forth (despite the AI not having any resource gatherers). Grinding through a ten-minute deadlock isn’t very fun, and suffering a slow and crushing loss is even worse.
S&S’s balance creates a slippery slope wherein a player can do nothing to overcome the AI’s constant stream of units after a certain point. It’s very frustrating to constantly make units and drop lighting bolts like Thor on a sugar high and still slowly lose ground. Then again, cheating AI and soul-crushing defeats are hallmarks of RTS games, so this is all par the course. S&S’s challenge can be overcome with smart playing, but it will take a healthy level of trial and error and experimentation to trounce the AI in later levels.
Players inclined to tackle this challenge will enjoy the game’s production values. Swords & Soldiers features clean and bright 2D artwork, lending a great deal of character to the game’s three factions. Vikings waddle around in oversized helmets that obscure all but their thick beards, while ninja monkeys are both monkeys and ninjas. Ronimo restricted the violence to Looney Toons levels, presumably to avoid traumatizing the Wii’s younger audience, so don’t expect cutsey gore akin to Castle Crashers. Sound reinforces the goofball humor of the game, though some unit creation sounds grate after a while.
Aside from balance concerns, the game plays well mechanically. Ronimo considered lots of details when piecing together the nuts and bolts of this game. The round buttons that create units all zoom when the player passes the cursor over, and even display short descriptive tooltips if held for long enough. What’s even more impressive, the game automatically selects which unit inside a stack to apply a particular spell. Say a player throws a heal spell at a group of five fighters – only one of which is actually hurt. Since the game is 2D, the player can’t do anything but point at the clump of stacked fighters. The game automatically heals the injured fighter. Sounds simple, but most developers would overlook something like that.
Swords & Soldiers offers a decent amount of game play too, though below the surface it’s not varied. Ronimo tried to mix up level objectives, but play boils down to either you get a base or you don’t. Achievements will give players hungry for longevity some more goals as well, especially since Ronimo offers a real-life prize for players that unlock them all. Multiplayer is present, but simply pits two local players against each other on varying sizes of maps.
While Swords & Soldiers never captures a core mechanic that really works, it still offers fun and a challenge that sometimes crosses that throw-up-your-hands-and-give-up line. Players looking for RTS thrills on the Wii with an iron-clad patience to find that razor-thin window of victory (and any other hyphenated-items) will love this game, but those with heart conditions should seek more peaceful pastures.