The first Swords & Soldiers game was one of those pleasant surprises I found lurking in the Wii Shop Channel. I’ve always been a sucker for an RTS, and while a side-scrolling RTS sounded pretty odd, the game’s colourful art immediately drew me in. That might not have lasted that long if not for the fact that there turned out to be bags of entertainment in sending your horned helmet-toting Vikings to trundle across the screen fetching things and killing other things. Swords & Soldiers 2 doubles down on the original’s style, but sets out to improve on every facet it possibly can.
Swords & Soldiers 2: Shawarmageddon distils the RTS down to its base components, with resource management at the heart of its side-scrolling action. Those two resources – gold and mana – allow you to call in units, unlock parts of the upgrade tree, and cast powerful spells, and you will need to call on all of them in order to succeed. Right from the off Swords & Soldiers 2 doesn’t make things easy for you, and it sinks its hooks into you with the frantic pace of its push and pull gameplay.
The campaign is likely to be your first port of call, and the tale of Redbeard’s Vikings cutting a swathe across the map is deliciously silly. Humour in games is often shockingly bad, but Swords & Soldiers 2 manages to hit the mark with remarkable accuracy. There’s no real belly laughs, but I found myself chuckling along regularly at the incessant assault of quips.
A big part of the allure are the fantastic visuals. The original’s colourful art is improved on magnificently well, and every character or setting boasts a pleasingly detailed cartoon aesthetic that you can’t help but love. Every unit is just effortlessly charming, and it’s a pleasure to spend time in their company, even if you do have to wonder about the cultural stereotypes that make up much of the Persian faction with skills that include being able to bribe enemy units.
Given the benefit of the doubt, all of the characters in the game, whether Viking, Persian or Demon, are fairly gross caricatures, and it’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek. The animation really brings them to life as well, and there’s even the odd moment of surprisingly epic action as various large land craft make their way across the landscape.
Each faction can call on a variety of unit types, and it’s testament to Ronimo’s work that they all feel useful. From the slow and sturdy Viking Berserkers to the swift self-healing Shamshir Soldiers of the Persians, there’s an array of melee and ranged fighters to choose from. There are undoubtedly some unit types you’ll come to loathe – Demon Barrelriders would be for it, if they didn’t commit immediate explosive suicide – but they’re all great fun to use.
Each level plays out from one side of the field to the other, with your base and your gold mine at one end, and your opponent’s at the other. You need to start out by increasing your gold-collecting minions as that’s the resource that provides your troops, structures and unlocks upgrades. When you’re ready you can make a start on spawning troops who’ll try to make their way to the enemy base and destroy it.
Your mana increases steadily over time, though you can also collect some from the field or create structures that produce it, and this is what you use to cast those incredibly powerful spells. You can turn your opponent’s units into sheep, and then use a lightning spell to turn them into a healing kebab for your troops, or perhaps freeze them in place while you whale on them. There’s a great selection to choose from, and they’re fun to use, in addition to often being vital to your success. The gameplay is fundamentally quite repetitive, but the core concept is so strong, and with such variety to the units and spells that it never really feels like it.
The game is out on PC where you can play with mouse and keyboard, but on console it’s still surprisingly intuitive on controller, with two radial menus controlled by each analog stick, one handling units and the other spells. The Switch has the added advantage of offering touch controls in handheld mode, and just like the Wii U release of the original it makes everything incredibly incredibly easy to access. It’s perfect for when the action gets hectic. If anything, it’s the best way to play, though the artwork really shines on a big screen.
Besides the fun to be found in the main campaign, there’s also the option of running a variety of custom games, with local multiplayer splitting the screen so that two of you can play against each other, or you can take on the computer if you’re the more solitary type. There’s also a couple of challenge levels which are simple minigame diversions featuring Vikings Larry and Matt, with online leaderboards to prompt some replay value. They’re pretty fun, but not likely to pull you away from the main game for long. The main draw in the long term is likely to be the online multiplayer, but as it stands it seems as though there aren’t many players online, at least not on Switch.