Rondo of Swords

Space Lizard
2010-08-04 16:02:11

A rondo is a style of music where the main "theme" takes turns alternating with other complementary musical segments. Thus, a fitting name for a turn based strategy game, wherein the player and the enemy alternate turns. Lesser known, a rondo is also a type of screw. This, too, is appropriate for Rondo of Swords, considering the experience most uninitiated players will feel upon the first playthrough.

Yes, in Atlus tradition, this game is hard. From the get-go, you'll spend a fair number of missions just trying to escape with minimal casualties. While death for characters is not permanent (except for the protagonist - GAME OVER SUCKER), allies who fall in one battle are severely handicapped in the next fight. So, naturally, there's little fucking-around room. At the same time, however, it is forgiving in certain aspects that Fire Emblem, for instance, is not.

Speaking of Fire Emblem...if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I'm so overwhelmed that I can't even think up a terribly cliched analogy followup to express just how samey the two games are. The musical style, the setting, the units, the "dump a few dozen country/city/religion/leader/character names on the player in the first 5 minutes and call it political intrigue" narrative style, the scrolling between-battle mapscreen. Hell, even your first two allies follow the "red/green knight" tradition of Fire Emblem almost to the letter - you get the dashing, serious, law-abiding gentleman knight and his oafish girl-crazy ends-up-outclassing-him-in-every-way-by-endgame buddy as your starting characters. While the aesthetics, presentation, and medieval-fantasy character archetypes follow suit, the gameplay itself is a whole 'nother beast.

Most turn-based strategy RPGs are a similar affair. Units usually come in 5 flavors: tough knighty types - either on foot or mounted - who you stick at the front line; roguish sorts with exceptionally high movement rates but do such pitiful damage that you either shelve them right away or begrudgingly focus on them until promotion where they often become killing machines; wizards who can one-shot nearly any enemy unit in the game (except other wizards - because somehow being intelligent makes you immune to burning to death, of course) but have such piss-poor movement rates that by the time they catch up to the rest of your army, the streets have already been painted "Bloody-Swathe Vermillion"; archers who have the personality of a washboard but become so stupidly powerful that you focus most of your strategy on "don't let the archer get hurt" even if he was a self-admitted serial rapist before joining your army; and priests, who always have exactly one decent healing spell and half a dozen worthless status-effect curing ones, but you end up using a valuable slot in your army to bring one anyway because you just know you'll regret dropping him or her (scratch that - always a "her" until you get the "Old Man" so late in the game that he gets shelved immediately). Most of this applies to Rondo of Swords as well. Actually, all of it applies...except for the first bit there. Scroll back up, sucker.

Unlike most strategy RPGs, in Rondo of Swords you can't just block off a choke point with your toughest units, heal them from behind, and call it a day. Very few units in this game exhibit any sort of "Zone of Control", which is a fancy way of saying that enemies can't pass through you. In fact, a major part of the battles is literally rushing through as many enemy units as you can in one turn, setting up your character's movement path to prioritize and tear through enemy soldiers while hopefully ending up in a place where retribution is limited when the enemy's turn comes. This style of combat definitely takes some getting used to, but the multi-kill potential is incredibly satisfying when it goes well. The flip-side is true however, as you have no direct way of protecting weaker units, since most enemies can just tear right through your tanks to feast on the sweet sweet mage entrails around the corner. The designers tried to remedy this by implementing a "Momentum Counter" system, which is a value that goes up as a unit acts in battle or uses certain skills. Optimally, the unit with the highest MC value in range of an enemy's attack path will get priority, but it doesn't always work right, and it's very hard to increase it passively without engaging. Distance is still the best manner of protecting the cloth-wearers (who usually start out with MC ratings almost twice of your other units), but since you can't move and cast a spell in the same turn, you're back to the original problem. A more dependable method of increasing this value (such as a Taunt-type skill - not counting "Knight's Codex" which is far too weak - or passive abilities available to any character) would certainly have helped.

And help is what you'll be begging for after seeing some of these maps. You're limited to six allies from a pool of over a dozen recruitable characters (should you bother to recruit them at all), and your enemy's count can easily be quadruple that. For Example! One map finds your six trapped inside a narrow canyon, with enemy mages just out of reach and lining the sides, no fewer than 12 high-level mounted soldiers to the north, and a band of 12 or so archers and foot soldiers a few steps to the south. The objective: escape. Oh, and do you want to recruit the enemy kunoichi who's fighting for the other team? Better hope you brought along a specific character - with no indication ahead of time - and make sure she survives while your taskmaster gets within speaking range without being cut down in a hail of arrows. Oh, also you have about three turns to do that and get out alive before the cavalry from the north tears you apart.

It's totally worth it, though.

While there is much frustration and trial and error to be had, there is one feature of the game that makes the game playable by even the strategically inept: grinding. When you start a map, you can fight as much as you like, and as long as your protagonist isn't killed, you can start the map over at any time and you keep the experience you gained. You can even go back to the "camp" screen and train/replace your members in your main party and start again. I hate to admit that I found this necessary more than one time, but the challenge is still there, and the reward of having more "awesome" characters than you have slots left in your party more than makes up for the crippling shame you would receive from other strategy gamers.

Speaking of characters, if you get a kick out of neckbeardingly-obscure character cameos and playable recruits from other games (like I do), you'll likely enjoy a few of the allies you can pick up along the way here as well. Considering the plot is mostly unspectacular, except for a few clever twists and a branching path, it's nice to see a few surprises like this. Cotton (from Rainbow Cotton and some other games with her name that I can't remember because I'm not quite weeaboo enough), and Shino and Izuna from Legend of the Unemployed Ninja (also on DS) make appearances as recruitable characters, which makes my inner and outer nerds stand up and give each other a sweaty high five, then immediately sit down again and reach for their inhalers. Most of the other characters are forgettable, and have questionable one-line motives for ditching the enemy's team to join yours, and you'll probably find yourself preening a very small core assembly of your favorites while sending the rest off on quests or to go shopping or left to sit on their asses or whatever.

Quests and shopping are a strange deal as well. In order to buy or sell items, you have to designate allies as errandboys and send them off to town instead of taking them in to the next battle. Each character has a different like or dislike of certain activities, and will be more or less successful when shopping or questing. The bad thing about shopping is that you have no idea what you're going to get. You can send your little peon off to buy certain types of items (healing items, and then amulets, medals, or rings, which can be equipped), but the specific item you're gonna get is a mystery until the next battle. Definitely clunky. Quests are mildly annoying in that most don't have any apparent discernable reward, but eventually you'll be so overrun with characters that you can just send them off to complete the quests so they'll have something to do in the meantime. The presentation in general has a problem with being scant in details. When training skills, for instance, there is no easy way to tell whether a skill is active or passive. And, to be honest, active skills are mostly worthless. The last thing you want to do is waste precious, irreplaceable skill points on a skill that slightly increases your fire resistance for one turn.

-----Segue! Seriously, games industry, enough shoehorning-in of half assed elemental systems. Magic in Rondo of Swords is classed into Fire, Ice, Thunder, Light, and Dark types, with no real difference between them except for the animations. If there are differences in what kind affects what sort of unit, you're sure doing a good job of hiding them, because there is no noticeable difference in damage when they're used except on, for instance, the one enemy in (any arbritrary) game who is enshrouded in flames and wears orange armor with stylized flame designs and carries a flaming sword and makes the characters comment on how ice skills would probably work well. Similarly, enough of the worthless single-element-resistance-increasing items and spells. No one ever uses them. They're a waste of bytes. (Exception: Shin Megami Tensei games, which have the best elemental systems to date.)-----

Back to Rondo of Swords: Now that the mechanics are out of the way, let's touch on the aesthetics. The characters and settings are plain-Jane generic, with typical anime-style gigantic doe eyes on all the younger (under 21) characters and hair colors that you would swear bleed out of the visible spectrum and into infrared and ultraviolet. For every attack, you're treated to a little scene on the top screen of your character's laughably-animated sprite rushing past allies and through enemies as the background whizzes by. These are skippable, fortunately, but unlike in Fire Emblem there is no way to turn them off completely, so expect lots of screen-tapping to hurry through. The music isn't particularly catchy, and the voice acting is mixed. Adult characters sound pretty good for the most part, and express a little bit of personality in their delivery, but the kids are - as usual - completely grating.

Overall, if you liked the GBA Fire Emblem titles, you'll either enjoy this one, or become frightened and confused at the gameplay mechanics and take it back the next day to trade it in for credit toward FFT:A2 or something. Each stage is like a mini-Rocky montage: when you first start out, you'll likely get thoroughly trounced, so you retreat and start training and building up strength, poking out a little further each time toward the goal before retreating again, until finally you overcome the odds by a narrow margin (which the game feels the need to remind you of in so many words) and move on to the next chapter. The next battle. The next destiny.