It’s no secret that strategy RPGs are a niche genre. You either enjoy them immensely, or abhor them. It’s hard for a developer to try and appeal to the mainstream without changing a winning formula present in games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. Then there are those that break out of the mold and try new things. Rondo of Swords is one such title. It takes the fundamentals of classic strategy RPGs, but presents a new spin on the tried and true. This is indeed a bold move and one that could cause quite a stir in the usual strategy RPG fan. Is the change worthy of praise, or is the developer (Success) worthy of ridicule?
Rondo of Swords starts you off in the Bretwalde Kingdom where a prince named Serdic is killed in battle. His body double, that looks almost exactly like him, escapes; with the last words of the fallen prince, the body double takes the holy sword that the real prince gives him. As a dying wish, the prince asks his body double to break the curse that has been put on the holy sword. From there the body double pretends to be the real Serdic, just as the prince asks, and takes his army on a journey to rid the holy sword of its curse and regain the Kingdom of Bretwalde. If this sounds fairly generic to you, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. The story in Rondo of Swords is generic in almost every sense of the word. If you are looking for a grand tale in your strategy RPG, you surely will be disappointed with what Rondo of Swords offers. There is one redeeming quality, though. Rondo of Swords features multiple endings that change depending on your actions in the game. The multiple endings don’t take the story over the top, but they are a welcome addition nevertheless.
Gameplay in Rondo of Swords consists of the usual strategy RPG fare. All the battlefields are grid-based and each character has a certain number of spaces they can move. Unlike other games in the genre, where you usually move into an adjacent space to attack an enemy, Rondo of Swords uses a new battle system that the developers call “route maneuver system.” This new system requires the player to move through an enemy instead of moving to an adjacent space to attack. This means that both the player and the enemy can attack multiple units with a single unit. That’s right: one single unit can rip through an entire army at once. This negates a big portion of strategy present in other games of the genre. Another problem is that you can’t place your units on the battlefield how you want; they are just placed by the game. This would have been fine except that just like I mentioned, one unit can spell doom at any time. This mainly happens toward the beginning of the game and is slightly remedied thanks to something the developers added to counteract it. Zone of control (or Z.O.C. for short) is an ability units can learn that blocks units after they hit and prevents them from going through to the next unit. This makes melee units (the main users of this ability) more useful than others. While Z.O.C. is a useful ability, it brings an aggravation of its own. When one of your units gets blocked, they get forced into the nearest space, which usually means they are right in the middle of enemy units. Another aggravation is the fact that mages can’t move and use magic in the same turn, making them completely obsolete in the process. Since they have a more limited movement than that of melee fighters (like most strategy RPGs), they are hardly ever in range to pull off a magic attack. Rondo of Swords definitely favors melee fighters over others.
Outside of battle you have the option of sending units that aren’t going to battle to do a few things. These include shopping, questing, or training. Shopping and questing aren’t controllable by the player and just feel out of place. It would have been nice to be able to shop and buy equipment and healing items like in other games, but you simply can’t in this game. Training allows you to choose a character and build specific stats to the player’s liking, and is nice for characters that are too weak to be taken into battle. Characters can also learn and set skills outside of battle. Each character has certain skills that they can learn, but some of them are repeated among characters. When characters level up they learn new skills. The skill system is nothing out of the ordinary for this genre, and certainly isn’t done as well as other games.
If there is one thing that Rondo of Swords doesn’t lack, it’s challenge. The difficulty can be brutal at times and will require you to restart a battle numerous times. Luckily, the developer knew this would happen, and allows the player to restart a battle with all the levels and experience they gained. This essentially just leads to level grinding though. Since Rondo of Swords is chapter-based, having to level grind is kind of sad. I hate to make another comparison to other games in the genre, but I must. Fire Emblem is chapter-based, but certainly doesn’t require you to level grind in order to beat the game. For those of you wondering how you could possibly level grind in Fire Emblem, the arenas throughout the stages were the easiest way. After all of these complaints, I know everyone is wondering how this game managed a 70% in gameplay. This is simply because I had fun playing the game, but it certainly needed some ironing out.
Presentation wise, Rondo of Swords fits the bill. The graphics are bright and colorful, but they aren’t anything you haven’t already seen on the DS and done with more style. The battle animations are lengthy when attacking and are anime-esque, featuring some fluid animation. The soundtrack is merely average, consisting of medieval war tunes that sound akin to the original Shining Force. There are some snippets of voice work in Rondo of Swords, primarily during the battle animations, but they are just one-liners that get annoying after awhile. The game’s cutscenes use still images and text to portray the story; it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
Rondo of Swords could have been a great strategy RPG. If the developer would have ironed out the battle system and leaned more toward conventions instead of just trying to give the player an innovative battle system and not much else, it would have been great. Taken as it is though, with its unforgiving difficulty, generic story, and a battle system that needs tweaking, Rondo of Swords is a merely average strategy RPG that is going to get lost in the muddle of future games in the genre, like the upcoming Final Fantasy Tactics A2 and the Fire Emblem game currently in development.