Review | Swords & Soldiers
WiiWhere do we go from here?
Every so often, a game will catch your fancy. It might not be the best thing ever created, but it just comes to you at the right time. 2009’s Swords & Soldiers is that game for me. Back in 2009, WiiWare (RIP) was all the rage, and honestly it was an avenue for a whole lot of my favourite gaming experiences of all time. Pre-teen me found some comfort in sending hundreds of Viking axe-throwers to their deaths. When I found out that Swords & Soldiers was coming to the Switch, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. The striking aesthetic design, with cutesy cartoony visuals mixed with off-the-cuff albeit hit and miss humour was something that resonated with me, and I wanted to see how the game holds up ten years down the line.
Actual, Real Strategy Gameplay
Well the short answer is: it varies. There are parts of the gameplay that are just timeless. Side scrolling real-time-strategy is not a beloved genre by any stretch of the imagination, but Swords & Soldiers is the epitome. The three factions: Vikings, Aztecs, and Imperial Chinese each have a unique playstyle. With the Aztecs, you can shoot poison from a distance and finish enemies off with your fast cat-soldiers. The Vikings are more heavy, and their infantry brutes are the strongest in the game, at a slightly higher gold cost for balance’s sake. Similarly, each faction has a different method of gaining mana to cast spells. The Aztecs must sacrifice their own soldiers, the Chinese must build Buddha statues, and the Vikings must pay in gold. Thematically, each makes sense for the simplified fictional history in which the game takes place. The Switch release does feel polished, and the user interface is seamless. Whilst on the WiiWare version the pointer was used for all gameplay, this time recruitment is bound to the analog sticks, which after a couple of minutes begins to feel second-nature. Simplicity is key, especially in real-time-strategy, and Swords & Soldiers pulls it off.
It’s clearly had a lot of love and thought, and I can’t help but be charmed by this simple gameplay that becomes deeper if you want to utilise strategy and spells to optimal effect. The only real issue comes from the 2D nature of the game. Often units bunch up together, and it becomes rather finicky when you are trying to manage them. For example, I was playing a game as the Vikings, and had a bunch of soldiers all together after a skirmish. They were walking at the same pace and I tried to heal the most injured one. However, I ended up casting the heal spell on his mate, who had cut his finger on his own axe (or something else that deals about one damage). I’m sure the man who had borne the brunt of five axe throwers wouldn’t be best pleased.
The Story (or lack thereof)
Each faction has their own campaign. On the whole, they are well-structured, lighthearted romps with humour that often hits the beats it aims for. The Vikings want a big barbecue. That’s the whole story. It leads them into all sorts of kerfuffles and shenanigans before they can finally feast. It’s not meant to be serious, and it does just enough to justify the existence of a ‘campaign’ story as a vehicle to place the player in various scenarios and force them to strategise their way out. The mission designs are good, on the whole, often offering a decent challenge with some variance as to how to outwit the enemy. Occasionally, though, a mission misses the mark. The player is given some ludicrous scenario that only has one way out, such as when an insurmountable skeleton army is shoved onto your doorstep in the Chinese campaign and the only thing to do is wait until you’re allowed to use the special power of ‘burning everything to the ground’.
A problem common to all the campaigns is that they act as lengthy tutorials, bringing in each mechanic with a contextual reason before moving on to the next one. At no point do you get to do a full bunch of missions with all of your powers unlocked, and I think the game misses a trick here. Sure, it’s good to be taught how everything works and it’s great that the themes match it. However, just when the player feels ready to take on the world, the campaign ends. A few levels in each campaign when you’re at full strength wouldn’t go amiss.
The writing has aged… poorly. The silly humour as a whole isn’t awful, but some of the game just feels weird to play. Ignoring the fact that a mission finishes with the phrase ‘all their base are belong to us’, much of the dialogue is rooted firmly in 2009, if not earlier. It’s not just dated, it’s often straight up racist, exemplified by the Aztec leader straight up calling the Chinese ‘chinamen’. Not just once either, it keeps coming back. I’m not going to argue about whether or not this makes sense in the story or anything, it’s just a bizarre instance of an unambiguous slur in an otherwise cutesy, lighthearted experience. When porting a game, these are things you really need to watch out for, and I can’t see it as an oversight - the word was left in the game over many years and many ports, something that should not have been allowed to happen once, let along multiple times.
Since I played Swords & Soldiers on WiiWare, the game boasts one extra campaign too. You take control of the chef, ‘Chief Meat’, and clearly the intent is to combine the various unit and spell types from each faction in new and unique ways. Whilst this is an understandable goal, this campaign just doesn’t feel the same as the first three. Even though they were silly and ridiculous, they at least had themes that tied together somewhat. Chief Meat’s campaign just shunts the player in unrelated scenarios and tries to tie it together unsuccessfully. It’s a shame too, as many of the combinations are ludically intriguing. I enjoy combining the Chinese spells with Viking soldiers and seeing if I can overwhelm my foes with some nutty strategies. This campaign just doesn’t feel as good to play.
Still though, Swords & Soldiers has been a delightful blast from the past overall. A reminder of your childhood is something to cherish, and there truly is no better embodiment of this than a bunch of cartoony vikings hacking away at a giant vegetable.
Pick-up-and-play with a surprisingly deep strategic potential
Enjoyable variety of character types and gameplay styles
A gorgeous art style makes the game instantly appealing
Impossible to overlook the use of racist language in a game targeted at children
Single-player campaigns don’t live up to their potential
Occasionally finicky controls, which can lead to some frustrating accidents