In the Swords & Soldiers universe Vikings are obsessed with barbecue and spicy food, which is a curious spin on history if ever we've seen it. Such is the nature of this cartoonish and lighthearted franchise, which now receives its second entry as a Wii U eShop exclusive. Swords & Soldiers II is as complex a proposition as the most powerful chilli, however, as it's both a major superficial step forward from the original, yet has the same beating heart beneath its armour.
Swords & Soldiers was an excellent title in the brave new world of the Wii Shop, in a time when the idea of download-only games and small 'indie' development studios publishing on consoles was still a novelty. It eventually branched out to smart devices and PC, while third parties took over from developer Ronimo Games to produce a wonky 3DS port and, more favourably, a slick Wii U HD port. It's been around the block and is a concept very much at home on a touchscreen or TV - it's real-time strategy grilled down to its most simple aspects.
Swords & Soldiers II shares the same basic concept as that predecessor - 2D side-scrolling real-time strategy. Your task is rapid resource management as you work to accumulate gold and mana - the latter is used for casting magic and spells - which are used to research and deploy an increasingly diverse range of units. When it comes to offensive units your control is very limited, as most simply march to the right and engage with any enemies they encounter, while you do your best to group them together or build walls, towers and even bombs to assist their attacks.
That's the ongoing contradiction - in a positive way - at the heart of this Ronimo Games creation. At times it can feel like there's little strategy at all, and one tactic can be to simply overwhelm your foe with superior numbers, yet as you progress through the single player campaign you learn that bone-headed charges end in disaster.
This frantic strategy, such as it is, has clearly been carefully crafted and honed by the development team, and figuring out the quirks of melee and ranged units is vital. There are obnoxious - again, in a good way - units that fire 'spirits', balls that explode into small fighting ghosts that can grind opposition progress to a halt, yet their fire-rate is slow and they're weak when attacked. As a result they need to be protected carefully in order to be potent, while on the flipside getting near them in opposition needs you to stack up on range fighters or strike with magic attacks.
It can, at times, be overwhelming, though the campaign does a good job of introducing new elements at a sensible pace, and working through this single player mode is necessary to unlock some truly terrific and humorous units. With a linear storyline that incorporates Vikings, Persians and Demons - though you're always on the Viking's side - you get to experience and use armies from both sides, and there's excellent creativity as a result. From a 'robust' Viking woman that sings to speed units up, to rampaging units that clatter across the whole battlefield, the experience ramps up and continues to throw up surprises.
Naturally, an unavoidable topic at launch surrounds the 'value' of this title, which has a premium price on its arrival. Ronimo Games has been good to its word in terms of promising decent bang for your buck - we initially blitzed the core campaign in around 7-8 hours, but in the process ignored a lot of medals and a handful of bonus battles and challenge stages. With extra stages on the map you eventually have 25 stages to tackle, each with three medals to achieve through meeting certain criteria. Some of these are fiendishly difficult and reserved for the finest quick-minded strategists, and it can add a lot of hours when trying to pursue a 100% record.
Beyond the campaign are two extra modes. Skirmish is a single player option that allows you to set up your own custom battles against the AI. You can choose one clan's unit types, randomise or even set up a custom army, which is a fun way to combine the 'best' units from across the three groups. There are 11 stylish battlefields to choose from and you can even mess around with other settings, such as the game speed and the level of gold and mana drops that'll occur during the game.
2 Players is basically the same deal but allows you to go up against a friend. Player one is always on the GamePad and its screen - we'll come to controls shortly - while player 2 focuses on the TV screen. In a humorous test scenario we introduced a new player to the GamePad's touch screen controls in a match, taught them how to play and, before we knew what was happening, were getting blown away and defeated. There's no mercy in Swords & Soldiers II. It's undoubtedly fun playing family and friends, though, and in having one screen each it adds welcome strategy and secrecy - the 'fog of war' stops you from seeing too far ahead of your furthest forward unit, after all.
Now, controls. Unlike the Wii U HD re-release of the first game you don't have the choice of using the Wii Remote in single player. The GamePad is mandatory, but is used to offer two distinct control options that can be swapped out instantaneously at any point. The touch screen controls are familiar from smart device versions and that Wii U port of the original, as you tap on icons and swipe to get the job done. We recommend the new dual-stick option, however - though baffling at first, it develops into an intuitive and effective control scheme, with the bonus of really being able to focus on the TV action. You hold ZL or ZR to access wheels to build units or summon magic options, while a tap of Select takes you to the all-important upgrade menu.
Both the touch screen and the new controls work nicely, with the latter having the benefit of allowing you to enjoy the TV view. When you switch to multiplayer, meanwhile, the second player can utilise the dual-stick controls with a Wii U Pro Controller or Wii Classic Controller / Pro, while Wii Remote and Remote + Nunchuk options are also there as expected. Overall the game covers all bases, with the only exception being the absence of pointer controls in single player - the pointer is, however, arguably the least effective and accurate option anyway.
Another reason we grew to enjoy the dual-stick controls, beyond the fact they're implemented nicely, is that we could enjoy the visuals. Ronimo has produced truly gorgeous hand-drawn animations that are streets ahead of the first game. It's an all-new visual style and it flows and pops like a stylish cartoon - the hue is a little darker and there's notable detail as you go through varied and handsome environments. It's one of the best looking eShop games we've played and, importantly, runs particularly smoothly, barely dropping a frame. The soundtrack also deserves credit as it whimsically plays away, bringing drama and light-hearted tones depending on the mood of the game.
Swords & Soldiers II delivers, then, and is a testament to the developer's attention to detail and clear passion for the project. The only issue we take is one that won't be avoided in its current form - the nature of the strategy on offer. As we've suggested earlier in the review, it's an occasionally chaotic experience that's perhaps best enjoyed in short bursts, and a few stages become complex formulas with a small number of winning strategies. One such stage is essentially a timed race, and felt more trial and error than strategic battle; the counter-point is that failing a stage does open up an 'Easy' option, though you don't earn any medals when completing a stage in that difficulty.
As a result it's a title that's deep in detail in terms of unit types and their impact on a battle, yet also simplistic and prone to becoming a war of frenetic overcrowding. In one late stage our unit options and resources were so limited that we engaged in a 55 minute battle - they're typically under 10 minutes - before eventually fighting all the way to the right. Just occasionally, then, the 2D strategy formula can be strained, though these are rare instances and niggles in light of what is, nevertheless, a hugely enjoyable title.
Swords & Soldiers II is the sequel that the WiiWare classic truly deserves, and it represents a new-gen upgrade that shines as an example of genuine quality on the eShop. Its blend of 2D strategy remains fun and frantic, with just occasional moments where the pieces don't add up perfectly, while the whole title is polished and constructed with detail and care. With a hefty range of units and the freedom to tackle an entertaining campaign or create custom battles, it also offers plenty of premium value.
This is certainly a welcome addition to the top tier of Wii U eShop games.