Swords & Sol­diers II

EDGE - - PLAY - Wii U Out now Ron­imo Games

The role of a story mode in most re­al­time strat­egy games is to ed­u­cate. It should teach you the idio­syn­cra­sies of each playable fac­tion, the nu­ances of each unit and the art of com­bin­ing them skil­fully, plus how to care­fully reg­u­late your lim­ited pool of re­sources, all in or­der to pre­pare you for bat­tle against an­other hu­man. It’s a tu­to­rial, in other words, and Swords & Sol­diers II has one of the genre’s very best.

Its gen­er­ous and var­ied cam­paign al­lows you to con­trol units from all three sides, be­gin­ning with the Vik­ings, the game’s de facto heroes, be­fore mov­ing on to the Per­sians and Demons. The dou­ble-cross­ing plot line is amus­ingly silly, the flimsy nar­ra­tive cen­tred on a mys­ti­cal lamp and a se­cret recipe, and it al­lows for some truly aw­ful puns and ac­cents: the Vik­ings all speak in a bizarre hy­brid of Nordic and Glaswe­gian, while a Per­sian food shack owner is named Al’Yu­ca­neet.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, it af­fords Ron­imo the room to mix things up, with a se­ries of stages that im­pose se­vere re­stric­tions – some curb your spend­ing, oth­ers take spell­cast­ing out of the equa­tion – or in­volve un­usual win conditions. Win­ning here is rarely a case of sim­ply over­pow­er­ing the en­emy; in­deed, on more than one oc­ca­sion, we fin­ished with sub­stan­tially fewer units than our AI op­po­nent. On one stage, you’ll be asked to re­trieve some heav­ily guarded hot sauce to sum­mon veiled dancers to de­mol­ish a row of ser­pen­tine stat­ues. Shortly af­ter­ward, a swirling sand­storm forces you to clear the way for a crocodil­ian con­voy as you send gob­lins rid­ing ex­plo­sive bar­rels on kamikaze mis­sions to blow up ob­struc­tive bomb tow­ers and keep things mov­ing. Later still, you’ll find your­self in a one-on-one race, forc­ing you to make snap de­ci­sions about whether to spend your re­sources on push­ing your op­po­nent back or main­tain­ing your own for­ward mo­men­tum. Such in­ven­tive flour­ishes are rife. One quest asks you to ma­noeu­vre a siege troll into po­si­tion to hurl units across a chasm so they can hit a gi­ant but­ton that ex­tends the bridge, a neat twist on Mario’s age-old method of dis­patch­ing Bowser. It’s not the only overt Nin­tendo ref­er­ence, ei­ther. The top-down world map has en­e­mies pa­trolling the routes be­tween each node, and bump­ing into them trig­gers an op­tional skir­mish. Here, you’re given a choice over your tiers of avail­able units, al­beit re­stricted to ones you’ve de­ployed so far.

Of­ten it feels more like a puz­zle game than an RTS. That’s most ob­vi­ous dur­ing a se­quence where you’re asked to drop en­try and exit por­tals to move be­tween two planes, while oc­ca­sion­ally lay­ing down a bar­rier to bring your ever-march­ing band into a tighter for­ma­tion. It’s also high­lights the in­her­ent con­straints of Ron­imo’s sidescrolling setup, serv­ing as a re­minder of how rarely you’re af­forded such di­rect con­trol of the move­ment of your charges. Once you’ve sent them into the fray, you’re of­ten en­tirely re­liant on your mana pool to as­sist them with spells, whether it’s plonk­ing down a frozen Mjoll­nir to bat en­e­mies back – and give ranged units a tem­po­rary de­fen­sive wall from be­hind which they can lob their pro­jec­tiles – or to tar­get in­di­vid­ual foes, hit­ting them with bolts of light­ning or turn­ing them into sheep (in a cute touch, you can com­bine the two, cre­at­ing a hunk of meat to feed your front­line war­riors).

Yet too fre­quently you’re left feel­ing help­less, as five float­ing fakirs in a row fall vic­tim to the same pro­jec­tile at­tack, sim­ply be­cause you’ve no way of ei­ther halt­ing their ad­vance or speed­ing them to safety. Sure, you can con­jure an ovine Kata­mari to gather up your troops for a pow­er­ful joint as­sault, but such op­por­tu­ni­ties are rare. Oth­er­wise, it’s usu­ally a long way be­tween your base and where the ac­tion is, and by the time you’ve massed your ranks, it can be too late. At­tack isn’t so much the best as the only form of de­fence, and the ag­gres­sive AI rarely gives you much think­ing time. There are bonus ob­jec­tives on each stage, with re­wards for fin­ish­ing within some im­prob­a­bly strin­gent time lim­its, but by the cam­paign’s fi­nal third you’ll likely be happy to have sim­ply tri­umphed and move on.

Still, it’s hard to mind much when ev­ery of­fen­sive is over­loaded with charm. This is an im­mea­sur­ably bet­ter look­ing game than the orig­i­nal, with each sor­tie a car­toon­ish cav­al­cade of coura­geously ex­pend­able troops, each unit vis­ually and func­tion­ally dis­tinc­tive. The Co­bra-like Naga look shocked at the im­pu­dence of their killer as they turn to stone. Prodi­giously mous­ta­chioed Vik­ings yomp into view with the fear­less­ness of the hero­ically drunk. Trolls shield-bash en­e­mies with a dis­mis­sive swat, as­sum­ing their throw­ing stance with the re­luc­tant weari­ness of an ex­hausted par­ent asked by their hy­per­ac­tive off­spring for yet an­other pig­gy­back. It doesn’t sound quite as pleas­ant: de­spite some solid voice work and fine ef­fects, the rep­e­ti­tion of sound­bites and the sheer vol­ume of units on­screen makes for a ca­cophonous racket of shouts, clanks and bangs.

Yes, the ac­tion can get busy, and at­tempt­ing to tar­get in­di­vid­ual units amid the melee can feel like a fool’s er­rand – while the orig­i­nal was sim­i­larly af­flicted, these is­sues are harder to for­give a sec­ond time. And yet the lack of re­fine­ment isn’t ru­inous, and cer­tainly not in lo­cal com­pet­i­tive play, with one player fur­row­ing their brow at the GamePad’s dis­play and the other plot­ting via the TV. With a wide ar­ray of bat­tle­fields and op­tions, you can tai­lor the game to your in­di­vid­ual pref­er­ences, too. It’s fi­nally pos­si­ble to play out a cagey bat­tle with lim­ited units and re­sources, though it’s of­ten more fun to sim­ply let loose, un­leash the hordes, and watch the pretty py­rotech­nics that fol­low. Swords & Sol­diers II may not be the most re­fined of strat­egy games, but it’s an en­ter­tain­ing, ac­ces­si­ble and out­stand­ingly pol­ished ex­am­ple of its type.

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