Atlus is a well-known publisher of strategy titles starring simply animated sprites hacking at each other for victory, and Rondo of Swords serves to further bolster their catalog of role-playing strategy titles designed for a niche audience. As with many Atlus games, Rondo of Swords heads off the beaten path to deliver a rather non-tradtional game packed with the challenge. Does this risk pay off, or is this rondo's notes off pitch?
Players take control of (surprise!) a rag-tag team of heroes out to save a kingdom in distress. These warriors are led by Serdic, the prince of the kingdom -- except not really. Serdic has been slain in battle and another young man who looks enough like him to be his twin is given his holy sword and his identity in an effort to protect the kingdom. From here, it's up to this young man who has been trained to secretly take the prince's place in such times to round up warriors and take back the home turf. He'll gather troops over the course of his adventure (many of whom seem to be optional, which I'll touch on later) and use their differing skills to assist him in battle.
All well and good, right? Sounds like every other game in the genre -- but there's one key difference here (along with a number of other unique changes) that mixes the formula up: characters attack by moving through enemy units. Surrounded by three foes? Run through all three and whack them all in one clean sweep. This is the main mechanic that lends Rondo of Swords a unique flavor of strategy, and for what it's worth, it's nice to see someone trying something different. Rondo of Swords forces players to adapt and to do so very quickly, lest they have their faces pounded into the dirt. It's a challenge, which many fans of the genre will likely thrive on. Most gamers, however, will probably just become frustrated with the title's odd design choices and overly difficult battles.
Compared to other games in the genre, such as the classic Fire Emblem series, Rondo of Swords offers a cast of characters which more often than not aren't any more powerful than the enemies they face, and on many occasions, any given hero can and will be taken out with one or two attacks. What really makes this frustrating, however, is that players are almost always entirely overwhelmed by enemy forces, most of whom are as strong, if not stronger, than your average party member. And thus, players are demanded to master the game's strategy very soon (I even lost battles in the tutorial mode) or be mercilessly executed. All right, OK, so players are outnumbered and out-powered: no big deal, that's what it's all about right? There's more to it than that, which is really what makes it daunting.
For starters, enemies can ram through multiple party members, as well, meaning one fatal mistake in party placement can lead to two or three party members being wiped out in a single turn. It's bad enough to lose any party member in the thick of a fight, hard as they are, but party members who get defeated in battle are "Hurt" for the next stage. Being "Hurt" cuts stats in half, meaning it's really not a good idea to take them into battle. However, players can mitigate duties to party members that aren't fighting -- they can be sent to train and raise their stats, or to go to shops to buy and sell items (the only way to visit shops at all is through this fashion). So it'd be perfect if you could send your wounded soldiers to do some shopping, right? Nope. Hurt allies can't do any extra tasks, which essentially means they are worthless or near-worthless for the next battle. This means they sit around doing nothing or get brought into battle and are all the more likely to be defeated yet again, which means that such members of your party can fall into a pit of being unable to properly level up. Oh, but there's more: because moving counts as attacking, players can't perform actions and move in one turn like most strategy games. They can either act or move. This makes mages practically useless because they tend to have low movement and can only attack foes by performing actions while standing still, which means that they tend to fall behind from the get-go due to low movement and become even less useful when they need to freeze for an entire turn to perform a spell -- in other strategy games, characters are usually allowed to move and then perform an action. Changing this odd design decision in and of itself would make the game much more tolerable in difficulty -- I'm sure that it could have been designed in such a way where one can move to attack, thus using up their turn, or simply move without attacking so that they can be of use.
Add to this the fact that many party members in the game must be obtained through special means (which tend to be rather hard in and of themselves) and by the time I got to the tenth level I realized that I was not very well equipped at all to take on the gradually more ridiculous forces laid upon me. I am all for a challenge, but playing through a game without a FAQ and struggling all the while only to replay the same level for roughly two hours and not even get close to beating it is just crazy. Maybe it's just that I'm not the best at strategy games, but I seem to handle Fire Emblem just fine -- the least the developers could have done was fashion an easier difficulty, which would have been as simple as lowering enemy stats or raising party stats. The more time I invested into this title, the more I have come to feel that simply tweaking any one of the aforementioned flaws would open a gateway for the difficulty to be mitigated. Supposedly, players can quit battles partway through and keep experience gained, which very well might have been useful, but the game never explains this in any way, shape, or form, and I did not learn about this until after returning the title -- whether or not this aspect can mitigate the difficulty enough to be tolerable, it is still likely a trial of redundant patience. Being challenged is great, but being crazy hard just for the sake of it is not always the best design choice.
Rondo of Swords, as one might expect from many Atlus titles, does not feature graphics or sound that are specifically groundbreaking. Character designs are fine, field sprites are efficient (though they can crowd each other, making it hard to see what direction units are facing, which is important in such games), and battle sprites are fairly detailed, though they tend to lack movement even while moving. Brief voice clips add some personality to the characters but are repeated a lot, and character portraits are a bit on the bland side with little to no change in emotion. The inclusion of cameo characters (such as a certain unemployed ninja) are a nice touch for those dedicated enough to seek them out, but overall, the story and presentation are par for the course.
In the end, I do have to give credit to the creators for trying out new ideas to add some spice to the beaten genre. Many of the ideas here are creative and definitely call to arms strategic gameplay decisions. That said, I simply cannot fathom why they created the title in such a way as to stack so many odds against players just for the fun of it. Dedicated, hardcore strategy buffs will likely find it rewarding to work their minds through the seemingly impossible odds, but gamers at large will probably just find it to be frustrating.
Final Verdict - 6/10
Rondo of Swords brings some interesting ideas to the table around a sensible if unexciting plot, decent characters, and a unique battle system, but ultimately stumbles over itself due to trying too hard to give the player a difficult time of things and over exerting itself with innovation. It's almost impossible to have fun when one is frustrated time and time again because one tiny mistake can mean replaying an entire battle, and the game doesn't do the best job of helping players see and control everything they need to do make the best decisions. Gluttons for punishment will be able to climb out of the pit with a sense of satisfaction, as it really does take some fine strategy to progress as the game picks up, but most gamers at large, I imagine, will not be able to leap the bar of difficulty required to progress. An interesting entry into the genre, fans of strategy role-playing games should try it before they buy it to make sure it meets their brand of brain-bending. As it stands, Rondo of Swords could have used more time for the developers to mull over balance issues and refine the presentation so as to make clear many aspects of the game -- a lot of potential, but not the best execution.