It could be argued that no developer has yet managed to successfully translate the traditionally complicated gameplay of the RTS genre to consoles, all due to the lack of available buttons and a mouse to quickly navigate menus and units. Still, that hasn’t stopped many developers from trying, and the experiments performed in pursuit of this often result in some fascinating hybrid kinds of gameplay. Swords & Soldiers II Shawarmageddon stands as a strong example of this, translating that sprawling strategy gameplay to a simpler, two-dimensional plane. Though it can be plodding in places, Swords and Soldiers
II does an excellent job of recreating the thrill of RTS action; fans of the genre will want to pay attention to this one.
The game primarily follows the exploits of a clan of Vikings led by the boisterous Redbeard; the BBQ and sheep obsessed Nords travel to hell and back on a quest for treasure and sheep, accosted at every turn by Persians and Demons with goals of their own. Unsurprisingly, the narrative here isn’t all that much of a focus, but the goofy, Saturday morning cartoon type of storytelling does a great job of keeping the gameplay from becoming too stale; it’s tough to stay uninterested when someone’s wife gets stolen, or a hellish demon named Matt rains down fire and fury on the enemy team’s units. Though this pervasive humor occasionally strays into eye-rolling territory, we found it to be far more charming on the whole, adding some much-needed character to the somewhat repetitive battles.
Each of the few dozen stages you encounter in the main campaign will typically take on a real-time strategy setup with a flat 2D plane, a bit in the vein of CastleStorm. As time passes, gold is accumulated that can be spent either on deploying units or unlocking new ones, while mana is passively generated to allow you to use special magic spells and summons. Your goal is usually to simply capture the enemy’s base on the other side of the screen, but it takes quite a bit of effort to plow through the legions of enemies and traps along the way. Though earlier levels are quite forgiving as you learn the ropes, later levels will often punish strategies that revolve around merely throwing bodies at the enemy and trying to ‘Zerg rush’ them; you need to put some thought into which types will be most effective in the current situation and adapt your resource allocation accordingly.
Part of what makes Swords and Soldiers II so enjoyable is the constant sense of desperation that comes by way of your limited resources; the enemy is relentless in their attacks and while you can certainly rise to meet them, you never quite have enough to do exactly what you want. Do you spend your coins on a ranged healing unit to support your assault or do you instead spend those coins on another retrieval unit for generating more coins? Every decision you make (including the non-decisions) will have an effect on the outcome of your battle, and it’s rather easy for momentum to build up one way or the other. For example, if you’ve got the enemy on the back foot, that likely means that you have more control of the whole battlefield, which then means it’s safer for you to send out retrieval units to pick up gold drops and that you have more locations to build towers that passively generate mana.
Most of the units you deploy are entirely handled by AI and will simply keep walking forward until they bump into something they can attack, but this is no excuse to remain passive during battle. For one thing, critical choke points on the map can fork into two ‘lanes’, requiring you to occasionally flip a sign at the fork to dictate which path units should take. On top of this, mana generation allows you to cast one-off spells that can make a big difference in an otherwise doomed scuffle between units. For example, casting a health regen spell on a lone 'tank-y' axeman holding the enemy at bay can provide just enough time for the backup squad you deployed to reach him and finish the fight. Or, if a group of weakened units is about to collide with a powerful foe, you can cast a spell that turns them into a harmless sheep they can dispatch easily. This mixed input approach provides a nice balance between player input and automated play; your units still do the majority of the heavy lifting in a battle, but key interventions on the player’s part at critical points are necessary to get that victory.
When playing the campaign, new units and spell types are introduced to the player at a speedy clip, but the game does a great job of explaining their nuances while showing how they contribute to the broader team effort. Swords and Soldiers II doesn’t have a particularly deep well of different unit types, but it also rarely feels shallow in what’s on offer; there’s just enough here that you have to stop and think about the kind of team you want to build, but we never felt like it became too overly complex or confusing.
Most campaign levels will often pick team compositions for you from the start—usually to highlight the unit types being introduced—but some levels require that you set these teams up yourself. In these cases, you’re only allowed to bring a total of nine different spells and/or unit types with you, meaning that some of the strategizing starts before the battle even begins. If you don’t pick a balanced set of offensive and defensive units, it doesn’t take long before the enemy is breaking down your door; we appreciate how these levels in some way act as the ‘exams’ of the main campaign, requiring the player to apply what they’ve learned about synergy between unit types as they pick their team.
The main campaign should only take eight to ten hours to clear, but the completionists among you will likely be able to glean several more hours in pursuit of that coveted 100%. Each campaign level has three medals, one is awarded for beating the level and the other two are earned for completing optional side-objectives, and getting these latter two can often be fiendishly difficult. Sometimes you’re asked to complete a battle with extra restrictions, such as winning without using spells or without a specific tower taking damage, while other times you’re challenged with taking the enemy base under a strict time limit. Indeed, some of these extra challenges seem outright impossible, but they provide some welcome extra difficulty for those who find the base game to be just a little too easy.
Aside from the main campaign, there’s also local and online multiplayer, adding near infinite replayability to the overall package. Here, you can select which of the three factions you’d like to play as and pick from a couple dozen maps, then battle it out as per usual. Local multiplayer is especially fascinating in how it’s oddly more playable in portable mode than docked, though this isn’t due to performance, which remains stellar either way. On the TV, your view is restricted to either the top or bottom half of the screen, which makes for shrunken and squished visuals that are hard to keep up with; not a deal-breaking issue, but one that certainly will necessitate sitting much closer to the screen. When playing in portable mode, however, the screen is displayed in a two square, head-to-head format that necessitates the Switch be laid down between you and your friend. It’s a bit weird at first, but proves to be an elegant way of dealing with screen real estate issues without compromising the gameplay experience. Single Joy-Con play is even supported here, too, seamlessly (and a bit surprisingly) adapting the somewhat complicated menu management controls to a simpler layout.
Swords and Soldiers II looks fantastic in action, whether on the Switch screen or TV, due to a strong art style that seems to take a bit after the wackiness of Rayman Legends. Each of the colorful, multilayered maps is packed with cool details, whether you’re fighting on a beach or at the gates of hell. Player and enemy sprites are similarly drawn with lots of character and are particularly expressive in their exaggerated actions. All of this is matched by an equally strong and lighthearted soundtrack that adequately conveys the goofy, Nordic themes; expect plenty of bagpipes and flutes here.
The real-time strategy genre is one that doesn’t have very much representation on the Switch eShop now, but Swords and Soldiers II shows how it can be done well on the platform. Deep, but not confusing gameplay, great multiplayer, plenty of challenge, and a silly premise make this one an easy recommendation for anybody that’s looking for more of a thinking man’s game for their Switch. If you want something that’s a bit livelier and more hands-on than Wargroove, but still ultimately concerned with planning and executing sound strategies, this is the game for you.