Rondo of Swords - Staff Review  

Rondo of Innovation
by Michael "Macstorm" Cunningham

Rondo of Swords
20-40 Hours
+ Completely original battle system.
+ Large cast of characters.
+ An enjoyable challenge.
- Lack of polish.
- Time to adapt to new play style.
- Lack of variety in the presentation.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Rondo of Swords is the most unique tactical RPG to grace the genre in quite some time. This Nintendo DS title has been brought to North America by Atlus USA, but was developed by Japanese game maker Success, creators of the Izuna dungeon crawler series. These two companies have now met with great success, as Rondo of Swords is both original and enjoyable. The game's presentation seems rather lackluster initially, as Rondo does not feature top of the line graphics, an epic soundtrack, or anything else that would make it stand out at a glance, but the gameplay is where it truly shines.

   The game begins with a minor prologue detailing a brief history of the Kingdom of Bretwalde and its current conflict with the Grand Meir Empire. Players are thrown right into the heart of the action, with Prince Serdic and two of his loyal retainers attempting to survive the Empire's onslaught. Forced to decide between battling the Empire's overwhelming army and fleeing, the Prince and his companions quickly decide that escape is the only option. From there, Serdic vows to recover his lost kingdom and the adventure begins.

   Throughout the game, Serdic will meet up with a rather large cast of characters, many of which will have certain requirements that will need to be met in order to recruit them into the party. While six characters is usually the limit for combat, the vast number of available characters is impressive. Each character has their own unique combat style, skill set, special ability, and personality. Conversations between certain characters can take place during combat, allowing them to develop a little greater depth. Rondo also features many cameos from other Success titles, such as the young witch Cotton from the 1990s arcade shooter of the same name and the unemployed ninja, Izuna. The overall plot is fairly predictable, but the addition of multiple paths and endings does really help bolster what would be an otherwise shallow story.

So Pretty Fireworks!

   Thankfully, story is not the reason to play Rondo of Swords: the battle system is. Rondo's Route Maneuver System is the key to its originality. No longer are characters forced to move next to their opponent to attack; now they can move through their enemies, often striking many at once. During the player's turn, melee characters are able to select a route to follow. This route, similar to a movement route in any standard tactical RPG, needs to move through an enemy in order to attack it. Each character has a certain move rating which determines how far they are able to move, and therefore how many enemies can be attacked in one turn. Once the route has been confirmed, melee characters will then charge through all opposing units. Depending on the type of unit being attacked and its stats, that unit might be able to dodge, counter, or block the attack. Dodging and countering are random, but blocking attacks is a major key to success, as certain units can enable a skill known as Zone of Control (ZOC). The ZOC skill blocks the charge from continuing further along the intended path, making it essential to protecting weaker characters.

   Ranged units and mages behave a little differently than melee units. While both still need to be concerned about the path they travel, neither of these units will actually attack while moving. Ranged units, consisting of archers and a ninja, are allowed to move and then attack from a distance with their weapon. Needless to say, this makes these characters extremely powerful; almost overpowered. Ansom, the first archer that can be recruited, will likely have a permanent position within the party from then on. Mages are slightly less powerful, as they cannot move and then cast, so a certain level of strategic planning and positioning must occur when using them.

   Other important aspects of the battle system include the MC, or momentum counter, and OverBreak abilities. Each character has an MC rating, that when raised, will draw more attention from opposing units. Certain skills and items can modify the momentum counter, but it will naturally increase based on how effective a character is during combat. The MC gauge is a key element to protecting the powerful, yet less defensive characters. Finally, every character has a powerful OverBreak ability, either supportive or offensive, that is unique to that specific character. With all of these new aspects featured in Rondo of Swords, even veteran tactical RPGamers will be forced to be more creative and to think outside of the standard tactical box.

   Rondo of Swords is divided up into missions. Before each mission begins, players will be able to select their combat party, equip characters with items and equipment, customize skills, or send inactive characters on errands. Items and equipment are fairly basic, offering restorative items and equipment that will modify stats. Skills vary by character. Melee and ranged characters will have access to skills that enhance their combat effectiveness or survivability. Mages can learn new spells and can modify other aspects related to magic. Players can also make use of their inactive team members by sending them off to complete quests for rewards, to train them to improve their stats, or to shop for or sell items. Shopping is not the standard fare, as each character has a different level of effectiveness when it comes to shopping, with purchases and selling prices being completely random based on the character sent away to shop. Thankfully, items are not extremely important overall or the random shopping experience would be a bigger issue. At certain level intervals, characters can also be sent off on trial errands to change to a more powerful class. Class changing requires special items for each character, and since it does not greatly change the play style of the character, it is not required in order to complete the game. When a character is defeated, he cannot return to combat during the current mission unless the battle is restarted, and after the mission they receive Hurt status. This basically means that while available for combat, they will suffer major stat decreases until one mission has passed. Characters with Hurt status also cannot be sent on quests. While this is not as painful as losing a character forever, it does make for a challenge if one of the more useful characters is taken out.

Overwhelming? Prepare to take on armies... with six people.

   The one area that Rondo truly lacks in is its presentation. Graphically, the game features sprite-based characters and basic animated attack sequences. Playable characters and story characters each have their own unique graphic, but too often enemies are merely carbon copies of each other, never really changing throughout the game. The animated attack scenes that are shown as units pass through one another are a nice break from the basic battle screen, but sadly, these too offer little variety. Rondo's musical soundtrack offers very little either. The few tracks found in the game are decent, but after being constantly repeated battle after battle, they get old. Voice acting is not very predominant within Rondo; playable characters have a voiced battle cry, but only a couple are voiced during the game's cut scenes. The few scenes that are voiced are nothing special either, sadly. While the game lacks a certain level of polish, it is easy to overlook these shortcomings in favor of the combat system.

   A single playthrough of Rondo of Swords will likely take just over twenty hours. Replayability is a strong aspect of the game, as there is a branching story path and multiple endings. After completing the game, a new game+ feature is accessible as well. While Rondo does break away from the constraints of most other games in the genre, the greatest difficulty the game offers is in the unlearning of combat methods that tactical RPGamers have adjusted to over the years. Rondo of Swords is quite challenging at times, but not overwhelmingly so. If the tide of battle is going downhill, players have the option of restarting the battle, keeping all experience and skill points earned. Rondo of Swords reinvents the turn-based tactical RPG genre in a way that is both fresh and enjoyable. This game will have hardcore tactical RPGamers longing for a sequel, though hopefully with a little more polish.

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