During the late eighties, games like Renegade, Double Dragon, and Final Fight established the fundamentals of the beat-‘em-up. Each game, as well as a slew of sequels and tacit descendants, permitted players to pummel opponents with a succession of impassioned button presses, insuring popularity for decades. But it was 1990’s River City Ransom (aka Downtown Nekketsu Story) which really invigorated the genre, adding role-playing elements, and endowing the beat-‘em-up with a dose of longevity. The game tasked players with gathering money from fallen foes, which would be used to increase player stats, or even buy additional moves. Undoubtedly, the release of Swords & Darkness draws inspiration from the celebrated Technōs Japan-developed title, weaving light RPG elements into a pugnacious brawler.
After downloading the 518 block file from the eShop, a short cinematic sequence is exhibited. The clip details the story of two kingdoms engaged in a protracted war. The king of one of the countries, seeking to gain an advantage and bring an end the conflict, used the Grail of Life to reanimate his fallen armies. Although the decreased soldiers sprang to life, they were quickly overcome with madness- ransacking their own realm. Finished with a far-flung crusade, Swords & Darkness’ protagonist returns home to find his homeland in shambles and is immediately attacked by an undead knight. While the plotline certainly has potential, mixing reanimated corpses, chivalry, and bitter conflict, Swords & Darkness stumbles in its storytelling. Brief interactions with NPCs attempt to fill in the details, but their ambiguousness and infrequency makes it easy to lose track of the overarching narrative. Worse, veteran voice actress Julia Yermakov (Shenmue, Katamari Damacy) does the game no favors, with a stilted reading that’s supposed to sound like it’s coming from the mouth of an octogenarian.
Following the prologue, players direct the game’s protagonist across a secession of branching paths, with the trek sporadically interrupted by a rooms inhabited by an equipment and item peddling merchant and a cleric capable of healing the player. More often, each area is occupied by procession of aggressive undead knights and the sporadic spell caster.
Undeniably, combat is repetitive- due to a constrained opening arsenal and restrained selection of enemies. Initially, players will find themselves using three capabilities to enfeeble foes, with a quick attack as well as a slower, more powerful strike, as well as limited number of throwing knives that take off a scant amount of damage. On the upside, the hero has a strong defensive capacity, able to either jump out harm’s way or use a shield to moderate an enemy attack. Later, players can purchase magic abilities which allow the protagonist discharge a damaging rapid fire attack, or even employ a downward, multi-hit thrust. While there’s pleasure to be found in pounding collapsed adversaries, the enjoyment is quickly undermined by the game’s lack of diversity. Often you’ll face two dozen of the same sprites without reprieve.
On the upside, enemy AI is adept. Although opponents approach the player in limited numbers, rivals will attempt to flank the hero, and will even occasionally use a healing herb. Boss encounters bring in visual and mechanical diversity, although these baddies can be overpowered if players haven’t completed a bit of obligatory grinding. Revisiting areas sends out a new succession of opponents, allowing players to level up and pour experience points into one of seven different areas.
But it’s here that Swords & Darkness’ exhibits some of its more glaring flaws. Part of the problem is the game’s embarrassing localization, where no less than three words are misspelling on the status screen. But not all of the game problems stem from a stateside adaptation, with equipment management being both unintuitive and unwieldly. Basically, to change your loadout, you must select “change” from a particular submenu of your existing gear, rather than just trying to equip the new item you purchased from a vendor. Even completing transactions can be off-putting, with a customary sales confirmation swapped with an “anything else you need?” message.
Aesthetically, Swords & Darkness certainly has it charms. The game’s spite-based cast recalls the golden era of beat-‘em-ups, as diminutive, modestly animated characters heatedly battle. Backdrops resemble PlayStation 2-era milieus, providing a context for the pugnaciousness. Music is used sparingly, with the game allowing the clangor of clashing blades to dominate the sonic spectrum. Although the game’s character portraits are adept, font kerning during dialog bits may aggravate players, with undersized text a bit difficult to read. Players can use with the directional pad or Circle Pad to move the lead character, although the latter can make dashing quite difficult.
Swords & Darkness’ blend of brawling and light role-playing elements is commendable, with the game trying to offset the inherent tedium of a brawler with protagonist-enhancing goals. But in execution, the game leaves a bit to be desired. Sure, Combat can be curiously engaging, but it’s rooted in tiring repetition. As such, expect to be enamored by the game for a few hours, before being overcome by the specter of stagnancy.
Swords & Darkness was played on the 3DS with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: APLUS Co.,Ltd
Publisher: Arc System Works
Release date: June 11th, 2015
Price: $6.99 via Nintendo eShop