I've been on a mini strategy game kick lately, playing through Plants vs. Zombies on the Xbox and the new King's Bounty campaigns on the PC. A couple of weeks ago, I was hearing the "pop-pop" of pea projectiles in my sleep. This week, I've been dreaming of hexagonal cells. But now that I'm playing Swords & Soldiers on the PS3, what sounds and images haunt my slumber?
Two things that may stick with you after playing this game are its art style and the seemingly bottomless pit of pop culture references from which it draws. But the experience is too short to leave you with either sweet dreams or nasty nightmares unless you find a friend online or in your living room that you can play against. Without multiplayer this is an fun diversion for three or four hours, but you can squeeze much more life out of this title with a living opponent.
Swords & Soldiers is reminiscent of Castle Crashers in its look. It deals with images of war in a rough, comical, hand-drawn style. The three warring factions - Vikings, Aztecs, and Chinese - are depicted with broad strokes both artistically and in the decidely non-politically-correct dialogue. The goal is to make it from one side of the battlefield to the other, generating soldiers and weapons at your base that you use to destroy the base of your enemy. It's about as far from serious as you can get in most ways, but the strategy elements manage to be friendly without being too shallow.
Everything from "Why so serious?" to "All your base are belong to us" is crammed into this short game.
Of course, each group has its own upgrades, based on easy stereotypes, The Vikings, who are all about barbecues, enjoy heavy weapons, frost and lightning attacks, and the support of the god Thor. The Aztecs, whose leader is unnaturally obsessed with a giant chili pepper, use human sacrifice, death magic, and giant boulders. The Chinese, for their part, use fireworks, ninja monkeys, old men with spiritual kung fu, and a fire-breathing dragon.
I can see the dialogue in Swords & Soldiers ruffling some feathers. The lead characters talk what is presumably their native languages in the same way people from those countries speak English in traditional popular depictions (and on Chicago buses, sometimes). That is, they leave out articles, they favor certain constructions, etc. When you create a Chinese swordsman, he will either say, "I have the sword," or "Aw, chop chop." You know, that kind of thing. If you get up-in-arms over a leader shouting, "Taste my power, Chinamen," or complaining about the smell of enemy troops (hey, fireworks, giant peppers, and the undead do each possess a distinct odor), save yourself some grief and look elsewhere. Personally, the characterizations suprised me a little, but it's nothing you haven't seen in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
What peeved me a little more was the incessant dipping in the pop culture well. I smiled when I saw the campy Batman-like transition between story parts, but soon the "PWNED" effects and other easy in-jokes felt like too much. Everything from "Why so serious?" to "All your base are belong to us" is crammed into this short game. If your friend drew like this, you'd think he was pretty cool. If he talked like this, well . . . he'd be a little less tolerable.
For advancing in the single-player campaign, you unlock a survival mode and two other mini games. The last time I played, I didn't see anyone on the leaderboard that lasted more than forty minutes in survival, using any of the armies. That seems like a good upper limit, since the game is involving enough to play for a long stretch, but getting close to an hour in one skirmish would become too repetitive.
Each of the three armies has ten to twelve resources it can develop by harvesting enough gold. Gold is collected automatically by workers and by plunder, while mana accumulates over time, boosted by different means unique to each group. Soldiers and workers are created using a menu triggered by holding L1; spells are used via the L2 menu. Once spawned, workers will continue to harvest gold oblivious to what's going on around them, and warriors will start a march toward enemy headquarters postponed only by battle and ended only by final victory or death.
There are easily enough twists to keep you entertained over the thirty campaign missions. In fact, Swords & Soldiers will leave you wanting more - and that's a lot more desirable than when a game overstays its welcome. On the other hand, even with the multiplayer, compatibility with 3D glasses, and the survival mode, it doesn't feel like there's enough to tinker with here. I say this title is a "should-play," an excellent rainy day game.