The tottering old Zen master units in the Chinese faction of Swords & Soldiers look feeble, but they pack a mean punch. These decrepit, slow-moving characters can single-handedly take out the fiercest of opponents and with the right support can plough through the toughest of defenses. Swords & Soldiers is similarly surprising, and its cartoon look and offbeat humour suggest simple, uncomplicated fare. What you actually get is an engrossing, accessible experience that offers plenty of fun either on your own or with a friend. This unique yet goofy real-time strategy game comes to the PlayStation Network more than a year after its release on the Wii, but updated graphics, sharp controls, and an engaging online multiplayer mode ensure that it doesn't lose any of its strong appeal.
Don't get thrown by Swords & Soldiers' 2D platformer look--this is a real-time strategy game through and through, although it's probably unlike others you've played. There are resources to be collected, units to be built, tech trees to master, and enemy bases to be rushed, but Swords & Soldiers takes away the sometimes overwhelming complexity present in other RTS games. There's only one type of resource to collect (gold), each of the three factions has only a handful of units available, and you have no direct control over your little minions once you create them. They march steadily and inexorably away from your base, attacking the first enemy they see and halting only when they drop dead.
While the Wii version's controls had you pointing at the screen using the Wii Remote, the PSN version ditches motion controls and sticks solely to the DualShock (there's no Move support). The shoulder buttons are used to bring up radial wheels where you can select units or magical/support abilities, while navigating left and right along maps is performed using the analog stick. Selecting and deploying units is a breeze, and it's a more fast-paced and precise experience compared to the point-and-click navigation of the Wii version.
Although Swords & Soldiers sounds simple, the heart of the RTS experience--that frantic, fun sensation of formulating a precise plan for victory and then having to execute it with pinpoint timing--beats strongly. Your units may pay you no heed, but you have to think hard about the mix you send out to battle. Because units move at different speeds, you also have to carefully plan what order you send them in. The Aztec faction's necromancer can raise an army of undead, for example, but if you send him out solo, he's easy fodder. Couple him with the tanklike sun giant, however, and they make a formidable team. But since the giant moves at a snail's pace, you have to time the creation of both units so they come together at the right moment in battle. Of course, if you come up against a Zen master--who can dispose of a giant in one fell swoop--you also need to have some melee backup, which means more forward planning and, eventually, crisis management when things don't go to plan.
And it's not just units you have to worry about. Each faction has an array of magic at its disposal to aid its troops or hinder its enemies, forcing you to play a watchful game of offense and defense as your units move across the playfield. The three factions are all well balanced. The swarthy Vikings are all power, showcasing a range of spells that can freeze or electrocute foes (they're also the only faction capable of healing units). The swift Aztecs can harness the power of the undead, as well as poison enemies or trap them in place. The mysterious Chinese concentrate on paranormal abilities and can summon extra warriors who can appear behind the front lines to take out any pesky ranged damage dealers.
Confrontations in Swords & Soldiers are often tense and fast-paced, and your AI opponents in the single-player campaign offer strong resistance. Each faction gets its own individual campaign, and the game does an excellent job of mixing up your objectives and obstacles from level to level. Some will restrict the amount of gold you have, some will allow only certain units in battle, and others may simply have a time limit in which to achieve your objectives. There are five or six hours of gameplay the first run through, but once you're done, Swords & Soldiers also has a free-play Skirmish mode and several minigame challenges.
There's also a lot of fun to be had with the game's multiplayer modes. The two-player offline competitive mode splits your screen in two horizontally to allow both players to see their respective areas of the map. Two players can also face off online, and Swords & Soldiers has a neat feature to streamline the process of finding an opponent. While you're playing the single-player campaign, you can set the game to search for a match in the background. The game then pauses your progress when an opponent is found and places you back in the campaign once your match is over. These matches--which can last anywhere from five minutes to half an hour--are hectic and engaging, often becoming frenetic tugs of war as the front line shifts back and forth between you and an opponent.
While the gameplay can get tense, you'll get a laugh out of Swords & Soldiers' incessantly colourful and offbeat presentation. The units are broadly drawn caricatures, which are cute in their own way, but the environments you fight in are mostly bland and interchangeable. The motivations behind these factions are as cartoony as their look. The Vikings, for example, are scouring the world in search of better barbecue sauce, while the leader of the Aztecs wants to protect his gigantic green chili pepper. This wacky humour infuses the entire game, with sly references to sources as diverse as Monty Python and World of Warcraft. Sound also plays its part in pushing the game's less-than-serious attitude; it's hard not to smile each time a necromancer croaks out "Bring out yer dead," and you'll giggle every time one of the Chinese faction's monkey ninjas squeals in death.
Swords & Soldiers could have done with more factions, but for its asking price of $9.99, its challenging single-player experience and fun multiplayer romp already present a good amount of value. It may not be as serious or ponderous as other RTS games out there, but don't let its appearance fool you: Swords & Soldiers is a great example of its genre, and its simple controls and abounding good humour are likely to engage even those who have never dipped their controllers into the strategy pool.