You can’t beat a bit of side-scrolling beat ‘em up action as far as we’re concerned, but we’ve been left twiddling our thumbs on 3DS since Code of Princess first hit Nintendo’s handheld in 2012. Arc System Works aim to fill that gap in Japan with the eShop exclusive Swords & Darkness, a moody action RPG set in a ruined kingdom ruled by a mad king.
Ignoring the rather… odd… English voice over work in the intro, the story itself is intriguing enough and sets the tone well, although with only the demo to hand we can’t currently confirm if it’s able to maintain player interest through to the end. Game characters have certainly fought tooth and nail for flimsier reasons, if nothing else.
Your re-nameable hero knight can dash, jump, block and perform weak and strong slashes with his sword, as well as use consumable items (healing herbs and throwing knives are available in the demo) in a pinch. Combos are rather limited, seeing as there’s only one of them – and to perform it you just need to mash weak slash three times. Fluidity simply isn't on the table here; of course you wouldn't expect someone in full plate mail to combat roll like it’s going out of fashion, but you also wouldn't expect them to face hordes of insane undead soldiers and dragons, either. Even when dashing there’s no real sense of speed, largely because you’re just using the move to traverse from one end of a corridor to another.
But at least the enemies will liven things up, right? Unfortunately not. Judging from the demo and the promotional trailer, there appears to be a cap of just three enemies on screen simultaneously, and in the demo they are all identical silver knights, apart from the boss. There’s not even any reason to fight them unless you need to grind for XP and gold (there’s your “RPG” element!) as you can just run straight past them and onto the next room, and if you did stick around to fight you’ll find that more knights respawn to replace them anyway.
The RPG-ing is restricted to funnelling skill points into certain traits when you level up as well as the usual item use and equipment screens. Stats appear to make little difference to your knight’s performance; we played the demo a few times, sometimes spreading them out sensibly and sometimes throwing everything into “strength” or “vitality”, but there were no discernible difference to the damage we dished out or received.
Swords & Darkness shows a lot of promise, which is why the end result is all the more disappointing. Neither the “action” or “RPG” sides of this game really deliver, and the beat ‘em up portions don't even reach the heady heights of Sega’s Golden Axe, a game that’s now twenty-five years old. You could perhaps forgive the weak combat if RPG fans could spend their time knee deep in lore or stat-crunching instead, but what’s here is either too simple to engage anyone’s interest or so ineffectual that the game would be better off without it. Fans of RPG-ish beat ‘em ups would do far better with another round of Code of Princess, or hopping formats and spending quality time with Treasure’s Guardian Heroes instead. There's no word on Sword & Darkness coming to the west at present, but if it stays Japan-only, we're really not missing much.