Steel Rivals, released on the Wii U eShop not too long ago by indie developer nuGAME, was by no means a shining example of a quality fighting game experience. The package as a whole had poor production values and was uninspired in terms of its design. Be it the bland characters or broken fighting mechanics, it failed to garner a positive reception among critics and fans alike. Sadly this is all very much relevant to this particular review about its spiritual successor - Steel Lords - which this time places similarly nightmarish fighting segments inside of a tabletop board game.
Like its predecessor, Steel Lords suffers from many of the same glaringly obvious issues. At best, all aspects of this title feel like a poorly executed concept of a much grander idea. From boot up, there is no real introduction or title screen; within seconds you are presented with a game menu reminiscent of a Microsoft PowerPoint slide from the nineties - featuring basic font and a background with a few images. This is by no means an exaggeration, just painting a picture of the delights that await.
The gameplay segment does not improve upon this, mixing the genres of strategy & fighting and then dropping the player into a lifeless two player board game scenario with absolutely no information about how to play. If you do wish to understand how exactly to participate, you'll be required to consult the digital manual via the Wii U menu. The chequered board where the battle unfolds is like a poor man's chess or checkers, with the design of these presumably acting as a main source of inspiration. Despite the 3D visuals, each "game piece" on the board is represented only as a tile - making for an exceptionally flat battle in more ways than one.
The unique twist here is when a tile makes contact with the opposition's tile, a fight sequence between two characters occurs. The fighting mode recycles the existing gameplay featured in Steel Rivals, only this time there aren't even any backgrounds to help set the scene - instead we have one lazy close shot of the static game board. Combining these two modes, the main objective of Steel Lords is to eliminate tile after tile, until you can engage in a battle with opposition's lord and defeat them to win the match.
The outcome of a fight sequence is partially determined by the colour of the square it is carried out on. There are three types of square colours; light, neutral and dark. Light and dark obviously favouring the respective side with bonuses such as increased attack , health and other power-ups, and neutral being more even grounds. These squares can also be captured to further influence the final outcome on the battlefield.
Apart from these minor links to the playing board, the fighting mode is incredibly basic, not to mention broken. Although there are a variety of low resolution characters to fight with and against, there is nothing particularly appealing about any of them. Be it the gladiator, robo knight, lizard man or either of the lords, each one is a generic build. Any potential chance of fun is further sapped from the title with a bare bones move-set system including an attack button, jump button and special and block buttons tied to a gauge which acts a bit like a stamina bar. This is not to mention the sluggish movement of each character - making every hit extremely frustrating to execute whilst killing the vital flow of battle, and creating an overly lengthy fight in the process. It's a lifetime away from the high quality of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, that's for sure.
Finishing touches include a two player mode if you don't want friends anymore and an Off-TV Play mode which is a kind gesture, but the Wii U GamePad has no use for its screen besides this. When playing on the GamePad a message on the television screen pops-up informing the player to look at the device in their hand, prompting the individual to turn off the television completely. Music is near absent, with a dull medieval tune playing in the background during the board phase and then a high tempo beat in fights. The sound effects are as mundane as the tiles and characters making the noises.
It's hard to say anything positive about Steel Lords simply because it is so fundamentally flawed. Overall, what is on offer feels like an early concept of a game idea and therefore is far from a complete package. How this even got a tick of approval in the first place should raise concerns about the quality of certain titles that are reaching the Nintendo eShop. If you're looking for a board game mixing the strategy and fighting genre, look elsewhere. In fact, just go and play Fire Emblem or Smash Bros. Actually, just play anything else.