Sword of Sodan (Genesis) review
"Sword of Sodan is a fine example of a game that manages to do everything wrong. It is a side-scrolling action title that, frankly, barely deserves to be called a game, as it succeeds in mangling every basic principle of gameplay, and ends up being nothing more than an endless button mashing routine in which the outcome is decided partially by luck and partially by your ability to not smash the cartridge into little pieces along the way. "
Sword of Sodan is a fine example of a game that manages to do everything wrong. It is a side-scrolling action title that, frankly, barely deserves to be called a game, as it succeeds in mangling every basic principle of gameplay, and ends up being nothing more than an endless button mashing routine in which the outcome is decided partially by luck and partially by your ability to not smash the cartridge into little pieces along the way.
A session of Sword of Sodan consists of maneuvering one of two characters (male or female) through eight two-dimensional side scrolling levels. That's two-dimensional as in left to right, and jumping. No side stepping up or down here, and because jumping has very limited use, calling the game one-dimensional wouldn't be all that far from the truth. Whether you play the male barbarian or the female barbarian (I'll get into character descriptions later), you find yourself wielding a sword which you can use against hordes of enemies closing in from the two sides of the screen. I can only assume this sword is in fact the Sword of Sodan because none of your enemies seems to wield a sword, nor do you appear to be questing for one. The game only reveals that you are trying to overthrow an evil wizard. From what I hear the manual elaborates on this, but I find myself without one. Not that it really matters, because in this kind of game the story is hardly the deciding factor.
But I'm drifting, I was talking about your sword. You can swing it several ways and when you just start the game you are likely to do so, and notice that the game's hit detection engine is something out of a nightmare. Between the first time you attack and injure an enemy (and the game quasi-helpfully tells you 'MORE HITS FOR EACH ENEMY') until you plunge your sword in the heart of the evil wizard, you'll have at least a hundred missed swings that shouldn't have missed. Slashing your sword right through an enemy and not hitting him is something that doesn't only happen in Sword of Sodan, it is in fact more common than actually placing a hit. Compared to other side-scrolling action titles on the Genesis, like Streets of Rage or the more similar Golden Axe, you'll see that in those games whether or not you place a hit depends on how quick you are on your feet and how well you time your blows. In Sword of Sodan it depends on luck, and luck usually seems to be against you. Through experimentation you'll discover that there is one attack - a harmless looking, silly poking move - that has the longest rage of all possible attacks, the highest chance to hit without passing through your enemy harmlessly and even, get this, does more damage than any kind of slashing attack. Bottom line? As soon as you find out about this, it's the only attack you are going to be using. Then consider that the female barbarian has a longer reach with her poke attack and it's not hard to realize that she's the best choice of character by far. Not that you'll have an easy run with her, mind you.
I mentioned before that enemies approach from the left and right. What I didn't say yet is that they do so en masse. If there are five enemies on your screen at once, you're having a quiet day. Ten or more is more common. This is the right time to point out that everything in this game is extremely large. Your character spans almost a third of the screen, and if ten enemies are on the screen at the same time, that means they can hold each other's hands and still fill the screen from left to right. For the gameplay, this means that one moment you cannot see them, and the next moment they are right on top of you. Did I mention that the poke attack tends to mysteriously miss most often when an enemy is right on top of you? And when they are, they do the most damage to you, and you don't get knocked back or anything - they just sort of stand there at a distance that would get you slapped even in a crowded disco, forcing you to back off to get to a distance at which you can hit them again. And if they come from both sides at once, closing you in? You're dead, simple as that. Okay, you say, I lose one life and then when I reappear I'm flashing and invulnerable for a few seconds? Well, sort of - swap out 'a few seconds' for 'one tenth of a second' and you've got Sword of Sodan. Getting closed in between enemies and losing several lives in a row is the daily routine.
That's it for the enemies. All this could be bearable, due to the long range of the poke attack and the success rate of button mashing in keeping enemies from getting close enough to start their fun, but the enemies are only the beginning. Many of the game's eight short levels are filled with traps. There's a level with spikes, one with crushing blocks of concrete, one with fireballs coming from the right (which are upon you as suddenly as enemies, which is to say that once you see them you're too late to jump over them), and most frustrating of all, the infamous pit level. Let's describe that one with an anecdote. You've just finished a very frustrating level with dozens of similar looking, ridiculously animated zombies (they look to me like they're tapdancing), to get a quiet start on a new level. You wander to the right as usual, wondering where the enemies are, when suddenly the ground gives way beneath your feet, you plunge into a hole and lose a life. As you do, the game helpfully offers 'WATCH OUT FOR PITS'. It's like the Windows Office assistant telling you 'You have just deleted your only copy of this document. In the future, you would do well not to.' On your next life, you look carefully as you walk and yes, now you see the slightly discolored tile hiding the pit. Before you reach the end of the level you'll fall in at least two more pits, though - one when you are so busy fighting enemies (who, by the way, can cross the pit traps as if they weren't there) that you don't watch the ground closely enough, and one that's obscured by a pillar that scrolls by in the foreground, and is exactly in front of the pit at the moment you get to it.
The game manages to pile on more frustration with every level. Ridiculously large packs of enemies that constantly manage to lock you in place and wear you down, unavoidable spike traps, moving platforms over lava pits that are next to impossible to cross because your character's jumps are almost completely uncontrollable (think Castlevania at its worst spots and multiply by three). Oh, and that just so happens to be the same level with the hard-to-avoid fireballs so expect to get knocked off, too. The worst insult comes at the end, where you have one sub-boss which you'll fight for 10-15 solid minutes (almost as long as the entire game before it, assuming you get through at a reasonable speed), after which the final boss, the evil wizard, shoots projectiles at you that are literally impossible to avoid. You'll lose a handful of lives to him regardless of how well you perform - whether or not you'll win depends only on whether you still have enough lives left for this ordeal. You probably won't. If you do finish the game here, you are treated to an ending consisting of three lines of text after which you are rewarded with not being allowed to enter your name in the high score table; that's for premature game overs only.
You should by now have an idea of the frustration that comes with playing this game, and the enormous pile of design flaws in the gameplay. The game apparently tries to cover this up graphicswise, and succeeds only partially - while most characters on the screen are large, detailed and colourful, a few look downright silly. I mentioned tapdancing zombies before; I should also point out that the male protagonist looks not so much heroic as he looks sick (he gives me the impression that he's eaten more than his share of cold noodles only minutes before going into battle and his stomach is pretty pissed with him), and the female character has a big grin on her face that suggests she takes sadistic pleasure in the gory battles she engages in. Gory, yes - Sword of Sodan is a bloodthirsty game and includes one type of foe which can only be beaten by chopping off his head. I guess that's a redeeming factor to some, though for others it may be just as disgusting as the gameplay. The sound effects are nothing really worth mentioning - groans and screams from your enemies, and in many levels, happily chirping birds in the background, which manage to miss the game's gloomy atmosphere completely. Music is limited to a chord or two between levels and the introduction theme (which, admittedly, is not bad).
Make no mistake. Sword of Sodan is a project gone totally wrong. Its graphics have their charm, and there is some innovation present in the form of a potion system: enemies drop potions which you can either drink or carry around to mix with other potions found later, creating new effects. But even this is ruined by the fact that many of the potions, such as one that makes flame burst from your sword or increases your 'hit strength' do not actually seem to have any effect at all, making only the healing, 'free life' and 'skip level' potions worth using. In conclusion, Sword of Sodan succeeds only in disgusting and frustrating its players rather than entertaining them, and unless you are desperate to find out if it's truly that bad, I recommend you stay well away from it.
Community review by sashanan (April 24, 2009)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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