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Playing through Rondo of Swords, you can't help but wonder if it was originally intended to be released for the Game Boy Advance (or an earlier 16-bit system). The underlying mechanics are OK. Like Fire Emblem and other stalwarts of the strategy role-playing genre, you can kill a freakish number of hours slogging through one lengthy turn-based battle after another. However, all of the aspects that tie the game together - the graphics, audio, and everything else - are straight up ancient.
Your role is that of an ousted prince. You, along with a loyal knight and magician, have set out to enlist followers and fight the evil empire one battle at a time. For each of the game's 40+ chapters, you and the CPU will take turns moving your individual soldiers and attacking each other's forces on a grid-like overhead map. The odds are stacked against you, but don't sweat it: party members that fall in battle aren't killed off permanently. You're also constantly running into sympathizers that want to join up with your growing army.
Magicians and other long-distance attackers employ the typical move-then-attack behavior. However, for knights and other close combat units, attacks happen automatically as you move your individual units through squares occupied by enemy units. This is nifty because it means one unit can attack multiple enemies in a single pass. By the same token, you can also navigate through your own allies' grid squares in order to gain status buffs or recover health.
Aside from that wrinkle, this is basically yet another take on Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. Not that that's a bad thing. You get to command a healthy assortment of character classes, and there's plenty of good natured trial-and-error centered around unexpected story events and careful placement of your direct and indirect attack units. You'll also spend loads of time in the pre-fight menu, where you can buy new items and skills, outfit your characters with useful items, and send idle characters out on automated quests that involve things like shopping and training.
The biggest problem with Rondo of Swords is that it isn't as polished as its peers... and that's stating it politely. You can see how far one of the CPU's war mages can travel, for instance, but there's no a visual indicator for how expansive its attack range is (hint: as far as 8 spaces away). The controls also aren't laid out intuitively. Some tasks are more easily performed using the buttons, while others are best suited to the touch screen.
The real kicker is how the graphics and audio come off like they were time warped in from 1995. Seriously, the battlefields borrow the Sega Genesis color palette and the impish characters displayed on the lower screen's main map don't do anything except bounce up-and-down. They don't even walk. Instead, they teleport from one square to the next. Manga style conversation portraits and flashy attack scenes on the upper screen give the game some artistic flavor, but you'll grow tired of them after seeing the same sequences play out dozens of times during every battle. That also holds true for the generically melodramatic music and the overly recycled speech snippets.
If you're really into strategy role-playing games, and if you can tolerate the low budget sights and sounds, you may enjoy Rondo of Swords. Unfortunately, those are some very big "ifs" considering there are a number of other games just like this available for the GBA and Nintendo DS that will give you more thrills for the same cashola.
Apr 25, 2008