As special attacks go, Swords & Soldiers’ giant boulder is one of the most satisfying. Manoeuvring the huge lump of stone harmlessly over friendly troops before guiding it into your enemies is a tactic that’s more than capable of turning the tide of a struggle, while the risk of flattening your own team by accident, coupled with the lengthy cool-down period, means you won’t find yourself abusing it. But there’s something else, too: the giant boulder’s not just a useful tool, but a thoroughly enjoyable one, a chunk of twitch skill flung into the technical, occasionally ponderous, world of the RTS.
And it’s only the start. Ronimo Games’ debut WiiWare title is teeming with sources of giggling slapstick, whether you’re mining gold, constructing towers, or thinning the ranks of your enemies with a well-placed bolt of lightning. A primary colour blur, the game’s campaign mode hurtles you breathlessly through three tales of charming inanity, taking in barbecues, giant chilli peppers, and a Chinese emperor who doesn’t like having his toys stolen, while the styling and range of shifting challenges call to mind everything from the glory years of Team17, to the golden days of Mad magazine. Delightfully, Ronimo acknowledges such influences in the game’s credits.
Such light-hearted fun is almost enough to make you suspicious, given the traditionally rather cerebral pleasures of the RTS, but while Ronimo has undoubtedly made some modifications to the template – Swords’ battles are 2D side-scrolling affairs which could initially be mistaken for the cluttered stages of a platformer, and units, once created, head left to right on rails, attacking autonomously – the finished game retains the discipline necessary to make a satisfying strategy title.
Controls have been sensitively streamlined, and the game’s three faction’s provide a careful – and unusually creative – network of interlocking strengths and weaknesses, with the dependable Vikings followed by the tricksy Aztecs, who can raise the skeletons of dead enemies to fight alongside them or harvest their own troops to gain resources, and, finally, the wild card Chinese, who are strong on attacks, but with a significantly weakened defence. It adds up to an RTS that’s defined by agility as much as depth. The Viking storyline introduces the basics, but subsequent campaigns split the game into stylised fragments, remixing tech trees at will, confounding reliable strategies and ditching the standard base-rush to present you with one entirely unexpected challenge after another.
Sly and imaginative as this is, it remains a mere warm up for Ronimo’s main event, the local multiplayer. While play options are sparse and, presumably in the interests of clarity, Swords only supports one-on-one matches, what makes couch-bound battling so reliably rowdy is the fact that, like PopCap’s recent Plants Vs Zombies, Ronimo’s game is unusually demanding and dynamic for an RTS. Your armies may, for the most part, look after themselves, but the careful balancing of the units means that success depends on the player’s ability to ride shotgun, providing covering fire and field surgery with a range of point-and-click magic spells. Turning more hectic matches into something approaching a shooting gallery, the system also ensures that battles are rarely won in the first two minutes, and players are seldom left with nothing to do.
Made by the same small team who created the original web incarnation of De Blob, there was never any doubt that Swords & Soldiers was going to be a riot of colour and imagination. What’s perhaps less expected is such a comprehensive attention to detail, which spans mission design, mechanics and even pacing. Far more than just a quirky and adept multiplayer romp, then, Swords & Soldiers has found a deeply satisfying sweet-spot where chaos and control are almost perfectly balanced, and the result is a game that towers above everything else WiiWare currently has to offer.
Read an interview with Swords & Soldiers' makers.