The newest offering from Atlus for the Nintendo DS is a game developed by Success and Fun Unit known in Japan as Itsuwari no Rinbukyoku. Rondo of Swords is a strategy RPG, but it is not a typical one. Rondo does away with the classic control scheme seen in Final Fantasy Tactics, Shining Force, and Fire Emblem in favor of something completely fresh. Many other tactical RPGs have taken to playing it safe with gameplay or, in the case of some, have moved to a real-time strategy focus. Rondo of Swords takes the traditional tactical RPG gameplay and does something truly innovative with the controls.
The game is still turn-based, but no longer do players move their characters next to an enemy and attack. Using the Route Maneuver System, players now move their characters in a path through enemies and allies during a turn. When passing through enemies, characters will attack those that they pass. The direction that you take through enemy units has an effect on combat accuracy, as attacking from the front has a higher chance of being countered, stopping the attacking unit in their path and ending the turn. If players attack from the side or behind, they are less likely to be stopped and can plow through multiple enemies in a single turn. Different units offer varying movement ranges as characters on horseback can move further than a heavily armored knight.
"Rondo of Swords takes the traditional tactical RPG gameplay and does something truly innovative with the controls."
Like most strategy RPGs, Rondo featured a large selection of party members each with their own combat style. There are melee units, archers, mages, and healers. Melee units simply need to follow a path through enemies to attack. Archers do not attack via paths like melee, but instead can use their bow without moving or at the end of a path. Mages, like archers, do not need to cross through an enemy to attack, as they can cast magic at the beginning of their turn. Unlike archers, mages cannot attack after moving. Healers follow the same rules as mages, though with healing magic in place of damage magic. Each unit has unique skills they are able to learn. Kay, a knight, has an ability that can restore hit points to units that move through him following their path. Other units grant enhancements such as a critical hit or defense bonus that can be gained by moving through the character. Characters gain skill points that can be used to strengthen these skills, making them more potent, or to gain new skills. Some other useful skills are those that allow a character to modify their momentum counter. A character with a high momentum stat will draw more enemies toward them. A skill known as Zone of Control is very useful as well as it stops any unit from passing any further when they hit a character with the skill equipped. Each character has an OverBreak meter that, once filled by performing standard actions, allows them to unleash powerful attacks.
As is typical with most strategy RPGs, Rondo of Swords is divided into missions with a break in between each. In this break, players can equip items or skills on their characters. They can also send characters that are not in the active party on errands. These errands include objectives such as training, shopping for items, or basic quests. This is a good way to make use of unused party member as they can assist the party or level up on their own, which might be tougher for some characters in battle.
The story of Rondo of Swords is rather interesting overall, though it does not seem to outshine the gameplay. It focuses on the body double of Prince Serdic of Bretwalde who has taken on the role of the prince after the kingdom was attacked. Serdic and his companions must flee to safety and seek assistance in reclaiming their nation. The dialogue is not horrible, but seems a little dry at times. Rondo of Swords does boast multiple storylines, so decisions that players make during the game are said to have an impact on the ending.
Though not frustratingly difficult, Rondo is quite challenging. The first mission alone might have some gamers trying multiple times to complete it. Thankfully, after the first mission the difficulty tones down slightly with a decently paced progression of challenge afterward. Players can expect to see the game over screen quite a few times, even in the early missions. When a character is defeated during battle, they are not gone forever. These characters have a penalty placed on them for the next mission that decreases their stats dramatically. The player can either use them in combat at their own risk or let them sit out for a mission. If things are not going well in a mission, the game features an option to restart the battle or to even go back and reform the party before trying again. This is a nice addition for a challenging game.
Rondo's visuals and music are nothing spectacular. Conversations during the game play out much like those of Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance, with character portraits appearing on screen while dialogue runs across the bottom. Battle maps are also rather uninspired, but they do not really hinder the game at all. Combat animation features the moving character running through their path, attacking enemies or interacting with allies. These can be skipped if the player finds them annoying, as they can take a long time if lots of units are passed through. These animations do help to give the characters a little more personality, much like those in the Fire Emblem series. The soundtrack is unremarkable so far.
Rondo of Swords may not be the greatest game in terms of the whole package, but the gameplay alone is enough to make it stand out among the flood of tactical RPG clones that are released each year. Combat is challenging and enjoyable, and the story seems to be interesting enough to compliment the gameplay, though it may not be epic in the long run. If you enjoy a good challenging tactical RPG and are looking for something unique to play, Rondo of Swords might just be your game. RPGamer will have a full review of the game closer to its April 15 release.