Side-scrolling indie strategy oddity Swords & Soldiers gets unlocked on Steam in ooh, three hours - having been ported to our personal computing machines following a warm reception on WiiWare. This version features sparklier graphics and the addition of multiplayer, as it's mercifully no longer bound to a device that's afraid of the internet. I've thrown a few hours at throwing lines of 2D troopers at each other, which leaves me rather conviently placed to share some manner of opinion with you.
What a strangely subdued name for a game that's otherwise so determined to be crazed. Essentially a tug of war between two ‘toonishly stereotyped armies (Vikings, Aztecs or Chinese), Swords and Soldiers is a frantic contest of speed-building war for one or two players. It’s a little in the vein of tower defence, only with almost no towers – instead, two armies auto-marching doggedly towards the other end of the map and beating holy hell out of each other in the process.
Mechanically-speaking, it’s onto something. Taking away the direct unit control doesn’t simplify things so much as unhinge them, with your soldiers’ autopiloted stupidity forming part of the strategy. For instance, the teleporting Chinese monkey can and will leap a few feet behind an opposing force, who then don’t turn around even though they can blatantly see the hairy little bastard’s right there. So you’re required to make your next move about getting some sort anti-monkey solution out there as quickly as possible, rather than saving up for whatever it was you were saving up for. (Gold’s gathered by automated builder units, by the way – there is some scope to cripple the opposing force by nobbling his builders, but the game’s carefully set up so you can’t do much on any area of the screen that you don’t have units near in order to avoid griefing).
Similarly, if there’s something just ridiculously dangerous in front of your chaps – like a Sun Giant or a Viking catapult – they’re going to march dumbly right into it. That’s where you come in, primarily through the use of spells. With the game’s unit roster so low – about five for each of the three races – the spells are absolutely necessary – both tactically and in terms of variety - rather than being incidental troublemaking.
The top-tier mega-booms are obviously the most fun – Thor’s magic hammer setting itself up as lightning-spewing tower after thwacking violently into the Earth, trying desperately to make an Indy mega-boulder leap over your guys and land horribly on their guys…
Still, it’s a slight-feeling game: like everything got piled into making the core tug of war work and work well so the units got a little bit less love. That said, it’s clearly invested in keeping things simple. This was an RTS originally made for Wii after all, and the large-buttoned, confusion-free interface absolutely reflects that. A shame it’s been denied a few PC-specific UI modifications, such as build and spell commands bound to number keys, or even being able to type your name when you start a new campaign rather than clicking slowly over a virtual keyboard. But it’s straight-in, immediately accessible, with nothing to terrify even the most entrenched strategy-avoider (John!).
The challenge is simply to fight back, push on, not to master anything oblique – not even to especially work out opening gambits or complicated counter. It’s a clickfest, if I’m honest – about who can spam hardest and fastest for longest. That said, the player who does apply just a little more patience and forward planning will have the edge over the one who’s wildly blitzing spells all over the place.
It really is a tug of war rather than a battle of wits, though. Or perhaps it’s more like an arm wrestle between two people in funny hats. Key is that it's very determined to keep its players involved and optimistic for as long as possible, rather than leave anyone feeling overwhelmed and outgunned. There are points where the stalemate seems so absolute that surely only a rage quit will fix it, but a single well-placed spell or well-timed unit arrival can mess up the maddening balance just enough that suddenly one of those two muscly arms starts to tip finally toward the other side. Is that a tension that can remain forever tense? I’m not sure; while Swords & Soldiers does the drop-in, smack down, log off ten minutes later speed-bashing fairly smartly, I fear the sparsity of units and maps is going to take its over-familiarity-toll after just a few days.
I'm broadly referring to the skirmish modes and the multiplayer in this piece. There is a singleplayer campaign which will last you a little longer, as it experiments with a range of scripted strategies to deviate from the core tug, but its appeal is bound up in whether or not you click with the humour. It’s a rambling, consciously silly thing – in keeping with the cartoon graphics it’s relaxed and good-natured, but I couldn’t avoid thinking the funny voice/amusing vegetable-based gags were too broad for its own good. The humour works best in more unspoken terms - making the dark art of necromancy into a cute parade of jolly skeletons, for instance, or depicting the violent removal of a hapless viking’s soul a strangely cheery affair.
Again, I just wish it was a little more evolved there. The slow trickle of fun units seems as though it’s on the way to boundless weirdness, but then suddenly you’ve unlocked everything on the tech tree and only five minutes have passed. Its rapid-fire cartoon carnage suits an idle lunch hour well, but it may need a few content-rich patches to help make its initial charm stay fresh. It is, ultimately, on the casual end of the spectrum, but something more akin to Plants vs Zombies’ carefully-masked complexity and range of strategies would, I’m sure, promote this soldier to more of a leader.