At the same time, though, I was a bit apprehensive. While change can be a good thing if it's implemented correctly, it can often feel forced if it's not. Moreover, one reason that strategy games don't differ at their core is because the formula works. Can throwing away such tried-and-true methods really lead to an enjoyable game? Just mosey on past the break to find out!
Gallery: Rondo of Swords (Atlus)
Despite having original gameplay, the premise behind Rondo of Swords is nothing you haven't heard before. Basically, the Kingdom of Bretwalde is being attacked by an evil empire. As Bretwalde's crowned prince (named Serdic), it's your job to eventually fix that (to put it mildly) by means of a long and arduous journey. Aside from the "been there" feudal setting and "done that" plot points, there's also (unsurprisingly) a sword that's lost its magical power and has to be restored. Fortunately, despite this mountain of clichés, the game includes some interesting twists and turns that make it all worthwhile.
As stereotypical as the story can be at times, though, the combat is nothing but unique. You won't see an abundance of the usual "go to this square and attack" system that's been employed in many a strategy game. Instead, Rondo of Swords utilizes Route Maneuver tactics. I'll give you a quick summary on how this works: each character has a set movement range, which determines how many spaces he or she can move through. Similar to other SRPGs, moving involves plotting a course through a grid-based system. The actual course you map out is very important, though, because your character will attack every enemy that he or she passes through. Aside from being able to attack multiple enemies in one turn, your character can also move through allies. Depending on what skills your allies have, this might offer support boosts to your character (like added attack power or health).
Speaking of skills, the system behind assigning them is also very deep -- almost dauntingly so. When your character levels up, he or she will earn skill points. Also, certain skills will only be available once a character reaches a specific level. Determining what skills your character learns will be a major factor in terms of strategy, because they'll help you to either defeat enemies or support your allies. Once you set a skill, you can't undo it to get your points back, so you have to choose assignments wisely.
Errands will add another aspect to your strategy, as sending characters on them can either net you items or increase stats. Characters can't go on errands and fight in battles at the same time, so you'll often have to determine whether it's more important for someone to fight or go on a quest. While the errand system is a nice addition to Rondo, it can often lead to hair-pulling moments. The shopping quests are the most anger-inducing, since a character can fail those and you also never know for sure what items he or she will come back with.
Shopping isn't the only frustrating element of the game, either. For one, the battle animations get really old, really fast. It's extremely fortunate that you can skip through them, but even that gets tiring after a while. A better solution would have been an option to turn off these animations, since the developers didn't attempt to make them very compelling. Another nagging aspect in Rondo of Swords is the inability to use items or skills after moving. The fact that archers are the only class that can attack after they move is fine (even if it makes them pretty overpowered), but why limit skill and item usage? This simple change could have made the game much more enjoyable.
Such an adjustment might have also made the game slightly less difficult, which probably wouldn't be such a bad thing considering that Rondo is brutal (and that's not an exaggeration). My biggest problem with the difficulty wasn't that it's hard -- although that will admittedly scare off many players. Rather, my main complaint was with why the game was hard. Tough battles are fine, but as if the gameplay wasn't challenging enough, Rondo of Swords offers some pretty awful tutorials that don't really explain everything you need to know. This is made worse by the fact that the game has a very high learning curve, and doesn't ease you into the swing of things, meaning that good tutorials are all the more important.
If some of the neglected elements were detailed in the instruction manual this wouldn't have been as big of an issue, but most of the time, they're not. The only way to really understand the errand system, for example, is through trial and error. It would also be nice if grinding was mentioned somewhere, since it will be necessary to grind. If you quit or retry a level, your characters retain all the experience they've gained, which is a helpful tip that the game should make players aware of.
Since Rondo of Swords is so hard, it's fortunate that this title doesn't employ the perma-death system famous to the Fire Emblem series. The game still tries to discourage carelessness, however, by inflicting a "hurt" status onto characters that die in battle. For example, if Margus dies in the first level, he'll be "hurt" for the second battle, meaning that most of his stats will be halved. Assuming he survives the second fight, he'll then be back to normal for the next battle. Characters that are "hurt" also won't be allowed to run errands. This ends up adding an interesting layer of difficulty to the already challenging game.
One more thing: when Atlus promoted this game as epic, they weren't lying. It's long -- super long. Depending on your preferences, this can either be a plus or a detriment. With somewhere around sixty levels to complete, added to the time you'll need to spend grinding, Rondo of Swords is quite an endeavor. This title will also give players their money's worth in replayability, since there are two different paths to choose from (both offering two different endings, meaning there's a total of four possible endings). On a side note, it might have been nice for Success to offer more than two save slots when developing this game, so players would have an easier time reaching these four endings without having to start over.
Controls: The game supports both stylus and d-pad/button controls. During battles, both systems work well -- unlike some other SRPGs on the DS, Success took the time to fine-tune the touchscreen play, showing how the stylus should be utilized in games of this genre. The stylus is also handy with the Route Maneuver system, since you're drawing the line of the route you'd like to take. Between battles when using menus, though, the stylus seems to be the only viable choice. Using buttons when assigning skills, for example, isn't as easy as it should be. Involving "X" and "Y" buttons where they don't feel natural makes the controls in the skill menu overly clunky and non-intuitive.
Visuals: The graphics are nothing to be impressed by, but the bright colors make the game attractive. The battle animations are rather bland, though, and don't change much over the course of the game. Overall, the visuals aren't a strength of Rondo of Swords, but they also aren't bad enough to be considered a deterrent.
Sound: Perhaps the game doesn't have the greatest soundtrack, but it does include a few memorable melodies. The voice acting, on the other hand, seemed pretty cheesy. Maybe that's due more to the characters' silly one-liners than the over-acting, but combining the two made the voicework just too corny at times.
Story: As was mentioned earlier, the plot contains many clichés, but gets better as the game goes on -- specifically at a certain turning point that I won't spoil for you. Yet, the way that the story is told is somewhat disappointing. It often seems rushed, with only small snippets between levels to explain what's going on. Since there are very few story-related cutscenes, too, the plot isn't always engaging.
Difficulty: You know a game's going to be difficult when you get your ass kicked in the tutorial. There's no way around it -- this game is hard -- frustratingly so, at times. After a very rough beginning, though, you're likely to get the hang of it (but the difficulty cranks up another notch in the later missions). The game also involves a lot of micromanaging, which can be tough. For example, the player must be good with skill assignments. The skill system can lead to your downfall, and can be unforgiving since you can't reassign skill points.
All in all, the difficulty will be the factor that scares most gamers away from Rondo of Swords. It probably would have been a good idea for Success to add in multiple difficultly levels, because as it stands, this game can only be recommended to the most hardcore of strategy game fans.
Final Score: 7.0/10 -- As far as strategy games go, Rondo of Swords certainly isn't the best that the DS has (or will have) to offer. Because the battle system is unique, though, it's hard to overlook this game. While there are some annoying aspects to the combat, Rondo offers something fun and different that deviates from the conventional formulas that gamers have grown accustomed to. Still, only people who don't mind playing a game so hard that it hurts should consider giving this title a look. However, if the difficulty won't bother you, then you're likely to appreciate this unique SRPG experience.