Swords & Soldiers II
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.