Rondo of Swords (DS) review
"For a strategy RPG set against a traditional medieval backdrop, Rondo of Swords tries to surprise you. It introduces a radically different method of moving around and engaging the enemy. The objectives of its stages can change at any time, with the express purpose of putting you in the worst possible position. And of course it contains a few major plot twists. Ultimately though, the biggest surprise comes in the form of disappointment. Rondo of Swords fails to strongly augment..."
For a strategy RPG set against a traditional medieval backdrop, Rondo of Swords tries to surprise you. It introduces a radically different method of moving around and engaging the enemy. The objectives of its stages can change at any time, with the express purpose of putting you in the worst possible position. And of course it contains a few major plot twists. Ultimately though, the biggest surprise comes in the form of disappointment. Rondo of Swords fails to strongly augment these traits and ends up a mediocre experience for it.
The most innovative aspect of this game is the 'Route Maneuver System.' The established method of attack in a strategy game involves sidling up next to an opponent and exchanging blows, one on one. With this RMS, you draw a route through the gridded landscape without drawing over the same square twice. Then it shows your character dashing across the top screen, his churning little legs supporting an oddly large head, striking any and all enemies along that path. Moreover, passing through allies that have not yet acted will trigger some skill. These are customizable upgrades that can replenish life or magic -- up to 25% -- or provide temporary increases to attack, defense, and other attributes. The catch is that both sides possess these capabilities, so weaklings like mages and archers can no longer hide behind meat shields that take all the pounding. And the party members inflicting the most damage will be the first targeted on the computer's turn. The system also introduces some unique problems. For example, how to handle someone squatting in a dead end, a position invulnerable to direct attack since there's no way to pass through it. Tried and true strategies can still prove effective, like lurking on the fringe of an enemy's range to draw him out, but this maneuvering scheme is different enough to require adjustments to conventional thinking.
If I were going to heap unmitigated praise on this title, I would stop at describing the first stage. You're given three level 1 characters, the valiant Price Serdic and two loyal retainers. With their castle and kingdom just overthrown, they have but one simple goal. Run! There's a trio of heavily armored knights and a general on horseback bearing down from the north, but as the party moves south towards the exit, a roadblock appears. It's twice as many knights, two more powerful generals, and the supreme leader of the invading army. These are some of the most troublesome bosses later in the game. With that route cut off, Serdic and his men must flee to the west, but this time a grand magician shows up, along with more knights and mages for good measure. You have to quickly skirt past them and finally break through a few weaker bandits in order to live. Moving slowly only allows death to catch up quicker.
Amidst that perfect squeeze of panic-inducing pressure, though, you do have a choice. Total victory requires a flawless strategy (there are some of those dead ends around). It requires careful observation of the enemy (like those that abruptly curtail your planned route). It requires a great amount of patience (like three hours worth). A little luck doesn't hurt either. But it is possible to defeat every last member of the opposition on that map, even ones twenty levels over your starting experience. You'll emerge with ridiculously strong characters, useful items, and an ultimate sense of accomplishment. Several subsequent stages employ ambushes as well, springing traps of stronger troops just when your guard lowers. Even though you usually have the option to run away, that's Rondo of Swords at its best.
But Rondo of Swords also makes facing those challenges a fool's errand. There's a policy that allows you to restart a battle at any time, either with the same party or by returning to base to regroup and save. It's a convenient way to wipe out mistakes. Characters that fall in combat will only be at half strength for the next stage, but that only becomes official when the stage is complete. Bailing lets you retry without penalty. The trick is that all experience earned is permanent. The most effective way to build a juggernaut is to spam the first few turns of any level, killing the same helpless guys over and over. In fact, the practice is virtually required. Eventually, there will be around twenty allies at your disposal, but only six can be deployed at a time. Using anything but an exclusive core group leaves you seriously underpowered. The unevenness and cheap grinding is Rondo of Swords at its worst.
Warriors on the sidelines don't just sit around, though. Instead, you send them to train, or gather and buy items. Yeah, you don't get to decide how to spend your hard-earned money. My problem, though, is this feels like busy work. There's one absolutely brilliant moment in this game where it presents a morally reprehensible action as the only logical course. It's genuinely distressing, and your solution will lead to divergent endings. Other than that, there's no investment built up in these characters. Serdic usually stares straight ahead with his large, empty eyes. The supporting cast makes a few glib comments, but there's not much dialog to flesh everyone out. A few cameos serve as distractions. Cotton takes a break from her shooters to immolate some enemies. Izuna and Shino volunteer for action, preserving their status as Unemployed Ninja. Evildoers are barely seen or heard, so their motives for conquest remain simpleminded and dull. All the major plot points are spelled out by text scrolling over an unchartered map. Without delineated borders, you don't even get a good sense of all the major players on the continent. A little more exposition would've gone a long way in building up an interesting conflict.
In a situation such as this, it feels useless to send some peon out on their fifteenth straight training mission, knowing they'll never see any real action. It's a struggle to even care about reaching the conclusion. I can appreciate the strategic innovations this game presents, and I enjoy being thrown into the fire. The developers' biggest mistake was providing an easy escape. Without that challenge, it falls entirely on the plot to push you through. Rondo of Swords isn't up to the task.
Community review by woodhouse (June 13, 2008)
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