The lineage of almost everything you do in Swords and Soldiers can be traced back to the great RTS games, but this is nothing like an RTS game. Everything's changed by flipping the perspective from top-down to side-on 2D. Swords and Soldiers plays out like a retro beat-em-up, while looking like the best cartoon Saturday mornings never saw.
Originally released on WiiWare, the iPad proves a natural home for Ronimo's broadly-drawn and twitchy take on strategy. The fat icons, which you're using constantly, are now in a line across the top of the screen. It makes building stuff instantaneous, which is constantly needed. A smart touch-zoom to any area of the level and pop-up research menu complete the job, making this format the game's most comfortable fit.
In single-player, you're always fighting left-to-right. The start of most levels sees you building workers (up to a maximum of ten) who then automatically collect gold. There are three armies, each with their own campaign, but gold always works in the same way. It's used to unlock different troops and spells, then spent again to build them.
Where Swords and Soldiers takes off is in the armies themselves, a colourful bunch full of delightful touches. The Vikings are hardy brutes, obsessed with barbeques and barbeque sauce, with armies composed of axe-wielding barbarians, hammer-toting dwarves, giant catapults and the odd cameo for Thor.
Sounds unstoppable, right? That's the thing about Swords and Soldiers - all three armies appear like this, more about strengths than weaknesses. The Chinese combine ninja monkeys and rocketmen with summonable terracotta footsoldiers, using ying-yang to double their troop numbers (the game isn't about historical accuracy). The Aztec's jaguar warriors and hulking goliaths leave the battlefield strewn with corpses, which the trailing necromancer raises into allied skeletons, and launch giant Temple of Doom boulders at any army that gets too close.
Underneath everything, Swords and Soldiers is a tight strategy game. Its units have obvious strengths for certain situations, but the upshot of such overblown abilities is that this is a game that's much more about offense than defence. When a unit is bought they instantly start walking towards the enemy base and can't be stopped, so timing your purchases is essential. You must ensure you've always got a steady stream of reinforcements fighting across the battlefield towards the frontlines.
At the convergence point between two armies the troops regularly get so numerous they're layering on top of one another, both sides dropping like flies, while you maintain the pressure and pray for the eventual breakthrough. This is where each army's spells come in, little boosts that can take out a key enemy unit, make your tanking warrior survive a few seconds more, or take control of enemy troops. One battle never decides a round of Swords and Soldiers, with defence emplacements and simple walking distance meaning the further you get the harder it becomes, but as momentum builds, the victory can be felt long before it arrives.
Swords and Soldiers has a multiplayer mode, but sadly this is local only rather than online. It's fun, and simple enough for game-playing chums to pick up instantly. There's certainly no dearth of content with 30 campaign missions, three smart and funny challenge games, and a Skirmish mode to set up fully-powered army-on-army deathfests against hard AI. Ronimo's game always needed a bigger audience than WiiWare could deliver, and on iPad it deserves to find it.
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