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Review #180

Rondo of Swords
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer:Success
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 4/15/08

I have to admit, I’ve yet to play a quality Tactical RPG on the DS. The last one I had the misfortune to review was nearly a year ago in Hoshigami: Running Blue Remix. What a stinker that was. So when I heard about Rondo of Swords (Rondo is a musical term that which generally means that the comes back to the original motif. For example the original Rondo period of the Baroque time was ABACADA. See how it comes back to A each time? Congrats, you’ve just learned something new and wacky when you’re supposed to be learning about video games), I was pretty excited. Atlus has a pretty solid track record for publishing quality Tactical RPG’s in the US. Without them we wouldn’t have received the Shining Force remake, nor Disgaea

What also excited me was that the game promised a completely new way of doing tactical RPG’s. The grid system still remains, which is a staple of the genre, but instead of going up to a person and then attacking, or attacking then moving, you character can attack multiple opponents and get allied support by moving through already occupied squares. Now truthfully, anyone with even the slightest knowledge of hand to hand combat can tell you that this would get you killed pretty quickly in real life. Moving through enemy occupied spaces like this also tends to get you heavily penalized in table top RPG’s, as well as some video game RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons Tactics. But so what, right? It’s a video game filled with beat people and magical powers. I think if we can accept a new form of gameplay for a genre that hasn’t really had any significant changes occur to it in a long time.

So does Rondo of Swords give this genre a much needed boost of innovation, or does the DS continue it’s track record of only having poor to mediocre tactical RPG’s?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Generally the story is an important part of an RPG, if not THE most. When you play a game for 40 or so hours, you want some pretty defined characters. You want a solid engrossing story that is almost as long as the gameplay itself.

Well, you won’t find it here in Rondo of Swords 85-90% of the game is just battles. I mean that. JUST battles. You learn what is going on through the magic of SCROLLING TEXT between battles. Occasionally when you have new dialogue it is basically like this:

Character 1: Oh look. Time for another battle.

Character 2: Indeed

Yes, occasionally there is more story than that, but even then none of the characters truly make it up to even two-dimensional RPG characters. A lot of new characters join your team simply because you run into them or you open a door and out they pop. They get maybe 2-3 lines of dialogue and that’s it until a “major” cut scene in the game. This is really really bad.

It’s a shame too, because the game started off so well with a nice political assassination story mixed with a Tale of Two Cities but then for half the game or so, the game makes only a few glancing references to why the war is occurring or even why your side are the good guys.

Here’s the same, I understand that the game is battle heavy. I also understand the lack of towns or exploration. It’s been done before with Shining Force CD but you know what? That was three complete RPGs in and of themselves that also included a lot of characterization and depth. Story was still a major factor in the game and every little piece of cannon fodder was defined and received story lines for the rest of the game. Rondo of Swords is basically a tactical RPG for people that don’t want plot, but instead want to just have fantasy characters killing each other without much motivation. There is such little depth or personality to any character in the game that you sometimes find yourself not remembering their name and just refer to them as “Healer1″ or “Real awesome guy on a horse that seems to one shot kill things” or even “Real powerful guy that moves way too slow to be useful.”

So here’s what you get for a story: Serdic is the prince of Bretwalde, but the Grand Meir empire attacks and kills Serdic. Bretwalde military commanders Margus and Kay abscond with Serdic in hopes of returning someday to reclaim the kingdom. But wait! Didn’t I just say Serdic is dead? He is. Kay and Margus actually flee with Serdic’s body double, a person who only the prince himself knew about, and he’s dead. So you have someone who is not the prince pretending to be the price as it was the prince’s last command, and yet none of his most trusted followers or even the prince’s own sister realizes it is not really him, even when he asks questions about the most basic knowledge that even the most lowly serf of the land would know. Yes, they eventually find out, but by the time you do, you have to wonder how this combined team of anti-Einsteins can so much as retake a sandcastle, much less a kingdom.

Storywise, this is honestly one of the worst RPG’s I have ever played – IN ANY FORM. Final Fantasy XII had both better stories and characters than this, and that development team admitted they just threw crap at a wall and saw what stuck. Motivation isn’t there. Character development isn’t there. I don’t want to hear the reason for the next battle from a paragraph of scrolling text. I want to see unfold with characterization and dialogue. If you are looking for story of any worth, stay the hell away from Rondo of Swords

Oh hey! I forgot to mention the fact the title is absolutely stupid and there is no actual reference to a musical Rondo in the game. It’s also doesn’t work contextually as a “return to the beginning” because the game tries totally new things gameplay wise rather then RETURNING TO THE SAME OLD THING. Congradulations Rondo of Swords, you win the award for stupidest game name so far of 2008!

Story Rating: 1/10

2. Graphics

Rondo of Swords is a decent looking game. Yes, all the character designs are fairly generic looking but they carry over into chibi battle form pretty well. The characters also look quite nice when they are racing across my across my screen in the battle cut scenes. The backgrounds and action sequences in the action graphics are well rendered and quite pretty. You will find yourself skipping over a lot of them by the time the tenth battle or so rolls around because you’ve seen it all before, but they’re still decently done.
I am annoyed at how bloody text based the game is. When you send your characters out on missions, you get a simple line of text and then an item or two. There’s no visuals for the mission or an indepth report, just a boring line of text and an item. Ugh.

There are far better looking RPG’s out there on the DS, from Pokemon to Magical Starshine, but Rondo of Swords has pleasing enough visuals to keep you entertain while committing battlefield massacres.

Graphics Rating: 6/10

3. Sound

There is a lot of music in Rondo of Swords It’s pretty much the same half dozen tracks repeated throughout the game until you’ve beaten it. The music isn’t bad, in fact the few songs they have set a nice mood for the game, it’s just there’s so little variety, it gets stale fast.

Voice acting is decent for a DS game. You only hear characters speak when they attack or die, but aside from the fact Sedric and Marie have utterly different accents from each other despite being “brother” and sister, all the characters sound decent enough.

Sound effects, like musical tracks, are sparse and repetitive, but well done. I wish the horses made noises though. That’s always a bit odd when they don’t.

Again, everything here is enjoyable, but there is such a sparsity to it that you get bored with the lack of variety in it all.

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control and Gameplay

And we’re back to bitching. This game had so much potential. For everything this game does RIGHT, it gets 2-3 things so horribly wrong, one had to wonder where the common sense amongst the development team ran off to.

I love the core idea of the gameplay. The fact that each character has a certain amount of squares on the grid they can move. If they pass through an ally, they get ally benefits. If they pass through an opponent, they get to attack. If the enemy counterattacks (which is rare), then your character’s movement is stopped and they are stuck where they are. It’s a completely new way to do tactically gaming, and it’s a lot of fun.

The problem is, they get basically everything else possible horribly wrong.

First up is the fact that character movement rates are wildly unbalanced. It makes perfect sense that a man on a horse has the fastest movement. But when the man on the horse is also one of the best attackers in the game, can heal himself completely when he levels up and is fast enough to pick someone off and return back to the other character who can then move through him and heal themselves? Well that’s a bit whacked out. Same too with the characters who are slow and have no attack or defensive skills to balance themselves out. It’s a straight up matter of reall poor design of characters that we will see even more of in balance.
Second, when a character is knocked out of a battle they receive the “Hurt” Status. Now, one would think that a hurt character would not be allowed to battle and could instead run one of the multiple side missions in the game. You would be wrong. The only option you can do with a hurt character is leave them on the bench…or send them into battle. This is one of the stupidest things I encountered in the game and there is such a lack of common sense here, I beg of someone at Success to explain why they think it was a better idea to throw a wounded combatant back into battle instead of say shopping or training. Oy.

Speaking of side missions, they are all absolute crap. You have a myriad of options, but as you don’t get to see anything actually happen with these missions, they are all kind of a gyp. You can send characters on quests, but it’s back to that one line of dialogue and an item as your reward. Goody. You can train your characters to get slightly better stats in one of three areas, or you can specialize in one particular area for a larger bonus. However, as your character gets next to no experience points for doing this, it’s again fundamentally worthless to do this unless your team is totally full. You can take characters on a quest to class change if you have them at a hgh enough level, but the game doesn’t tell you what items you need until you try to promote them, and then you need multiple items to do so. Because items are random in the game as quest rewards, you could have a character ready to class change but not get the chance until multiple battles later when you finaly have the right items or enough of the right items. Extra lame.

Finally, there is shopping. Shopping in Rondo of Swords has to be the stupidest form of item buying/selling I have ever seen in a role playing game. You see, it’s all completely random. You pick a character to go shopping and you get a very vague idea of what the character is going to buy. After the battle they come back with items that may or may not be something you can use. Seriously, who the hell even remotely thought this was a good idea. “Oh good, I sent you in with a ton of money as we have a boss fight next and you’ve come back with a ton of items that would have been helpful to us at level 1, not level 40! Thanks you douche!”

Okay, let’s go take a look at the other good thing this game does before we go into the rest of what’s so god awful about this game.

You can move any of your characters in any order you want. There is no moving characters base on speed or agility. This allows you to move Sedric and Kay first and ensure one is in front of the other, and then run your injured characters through both of them, hopefully restoring everyone to full health. Yay. That’s it Now back to being mean.

Okay, according to the manual, your characters should get allied bonuses every time you run through someone. This is in fact a complete lie, and sometimes character bonuses don’t work at all. This is especially vexing with the HEALING powers.

Another huge problem is that you have to take all your action at once. Let’s look at the archer. You can move him and then attack, but you can’t attack and then move him. He is the only character where fighting and movement are two separate actions. Yet if you say, move your cursor off the archer to see what is in range, oops! You lose your attacking turn. Of course, the game also lacks the ability to take a movement back which is something most other SRPG’s have. Well, you can take the movement back by RESTARTING the entire battle, but that tends to be a bit f overkill, don’t you think?

Finally there is magic. Magic users are arguably the worst troop in the entire game. 99% of the time they die from a single hit, physical OR magical. They have the lowest movement points out of any class, and they can either cast or move, but not both. Considering that this means you have to move a mage into where they can be attacked before they cast a spell, it makes the characters fundamentally worthless unless you hang back and wait for those rare occasions where the enemy is stupid enough to come to you. Thankfully this same level of uselessness occurs with enemy mages as well. The tenth battle or so saw me in a town full of nothing but magic users. Using my archer and calvary, I picked off the entire army with just those two character. Oh and occasionally some healing magic from Marie. Again, simply awful.

I loved the attack style in this game. I really truly did. The problem is that this one piece of greatness is overshadowed by some of the biggest mistakes and worst gameplay decisions every made in the history of this genre. It’s not Hoshigami bad, but it’s pretty darn close.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 2/10

5. Replayability

There are a few hidden stages, and there are a lot of hidden characters that you can have join your team if the right character talks to them or you perform the right action. There’s also a lot of customization in your characters because you are given 2 skill points per level you increase. You can spend these points on various skills, mixing and matching your characters in many different ways. Each skills is useful in various ways, but obviously the healing skills come first.

Because there are so many troops (even though a good portion of them are worthless) and a great deal of skills for each character to choose from, there is a lot of replay value in Rondo of Swords, even if the game’s huge flaws discourage many from beaten the game once, much less several times.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

First off, I can’t believe there are people that even remotely consider this game hard. This is one of the easiest tactical RPG’s I have ever played. Unless you are running in guns blazing without taking into account terrain affects or looking at your enemies movement points and range, you should not be losing more than a single warrior per battle.

This is mainly due to how insanely unbalanced characters are. Explain to me how the mage who has no armour or bulky weapons is the slowest class in the game? Last I checked an Olympic runner with plate mail on is going to be slower than an average guy without only pants and a shirt on. Don’t believe Pit the two in a race with an angry rabid bear and see who wins.

Te computer has no AI whatsoever. It’ s extremely predictable and will go for the same tactics with the same characters each time. The only way to mix this up is by raising or lowering your Momentum Points, which takes a full actions if you have the ability and prevents you from moving that turn. Again, unbalanced.

Mages (save for healers) are fundamentally worthless due to the movement issues. So use them only when you HAVE to. Archers should be used as often as possibly because they are far overpowered in RoS compared to any other SRPG ever made. Just keep using them and you’ll be shocked at how broken they are. Calvary are the same, especially your first knight due to his skills. If you make him up right, he is nigh unstoppable.

Characters are broken, the enemy AI is retarded and predictable, the AI for people on your side that show up in battles is even more retarded as they will charge into battle even if like Fox, they are less than half the level of the opponents in the game. Seriously? How stupid can an SRPG get? Not much more than Rondo of Swords that’s for sure.

As long as you have played an SRPG before and you’ve figured out the nuances of the engine, you should walk through this game without any trouble at all.

If you’re still having trouble, there is a super easy catch al that I am loathe to expose. At any time during a battle you can select the option “Retry with the same team.” Do this and the battle starts over, but your characters keep all the XP and levels they gained in your last attempt. If you really suck at this game, just level grind the hell up until you are either super powerful or you’ll finally figured out the enemy patterns.

Like everything else about Rondo of Swords, balance is a broken disgraceful mess. I have a hard time believing this game was play tested with all the insane balance issues within the title.

Balance Rating: 3/10

7. Originality

Rondo of Swords is highly original. The problem is, most of the changes its made are for the worse. Generally I am the champion of risk taking and new engines or style of gameplay in a video game. Especially if the series has been around for a while. As you can see from the review so far, practically every change Success made is a huge failure. I love the idea of the engine, but it just couldn’t get a single thing right. I liked the variety of submissions, but you received no visual reward so no one will care about those. You have a ton of characters, but none have any personality and a few troops are so over the top in power that trying the others is just a foolish way to go.

I appreciate the attempt, but when all is said and done, Rondo of Swords will be remembered as an innovative little title that will serve as a warning for developers not to make change simply for the sake of change alone.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

Wow. Consider the facts. RPG gamers like story. Rondo of Swords have a minimal amount of plot. RPG gamers like well balanced engines. MI>Rondo of Swords is one of the most unbalanced RPG’s I have ever played. RPG gamers like to see or playthrough rewards. Rondo of Swords gives you a line of text.

I know a half dozen other tactical RPG fans that have this game and the nicest thing I have heard so far is that “It’s okay.” Note that this is the NICEST.

I enjoyed the first couple battles. By the sixth or so, you can really start to see how unrewarding and broken the game is. I kept playing because I was hoping for some more plot or something interesting to happen. It never did. There are things on paper that sound interesting. Like when “Sedric” became a “Cold Emperor” I was like “Okay, this is going to be kick ass. It wasn’t. It was more of the same. The game has its moments but only if you play RPG’s for the battles. Even then most of the time you’ll find the game lackluster.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

Every SRPG fan I know either hates this game or is apathetic to it. It lacks everything that generally makes a tactics game fun or interesting. The only people I can see enjoying this are people that are so hard up for an SRPG that this is their only option, Atlus fanboy zealots, or people who like to label themselves HARDCORE without realizing what a sad joke doing so makes one.

I can’t think of anyone I would recommend this game to, nor anyone that would truly go “Wow! This game is awesome.” besides those aforementioned categories. People, most tactics fanboys are the least discerning gamers I know. And THEY hate this game. That’s a red flag right there.

Appeal Factor: 3/10

10. Miscellaneous

I do appreciate the extras put into the game. New Game+ is an option although it gives you nothing truly interesting. I like the hidden stages but most of them have requirements the average person playing this game won’t have the slightest inkling about. There was so much potential in this game, but none of it was realized. That’s really depressing and it makes me worry for the level of quality in Operation Darkness as it is the same team.

I’m highly disappointed that success seems to have made Rondo of Swords without putting any thought into what makes a tactical RPG popular in the first place. They ignored the obvious basics and instead threw a broken game together without even realizing the myriad of issues contained within.

At least there are four different endings. See? Ending on a positive. Whoo!

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores
Story: 1
Graphics: 6
Sound: 6
Control and Gameplay: 2
Replayability: 5
Balance: 3
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 4
Appeal Factor: 3
Miscellaneous: 4
Total Score: 40
FINAL SCORE: 4.0 (POOR GAME)

Short Attention Span Summary

Rondo of Swords is easily the worst RPG I have played this year, and if it wasn’t for the Hoshigami remake from last year, it would be the worst SRPG I have played on either of the current generations of portable systems. If yo really want some SRPG goodness right now you’re stuck with the PSP as your only real bastion of quality thanks to Disgaea, D&D Tactics, and Final Fantasy Ogre Tactics. Considering two of those games are remakes, that says something about the state of this genre in 2008. Ick.

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