It's always interesting to see when a developer chooses to eschew story in favor of a more focused game play experience. The move is a gamble for sure, as story can serve to shore up mechanical holes, making mistakes or missteps on the gameplay end more palatable to deal with. I'm certainly not suggesting that story is a crutch, but if you think of a game as a bipedal creature, taking away one of it's legs does make it harder to stand under the pressure of the modern day marketplace.
Games like Super Meat Boy show what happens when the focus is placed on mechanics in the right way. Laser tight controls, no load times between mistakes, and a difficulty curve that goes from 0 to SPLAT! the first time a buzz saw is introduced keep you involved and invested, and a simple goal/story, i.e. save the girl from the evil dude, echo the simple tales of past genre definers (“Your princess is in another castle”). Lessen any part of that equation though, and your game becomes an “almost there” instead of the destination all future games have to reach.
Strength of the Sword 3 is almost there.
It's story is simple: Mechanical Golem awakens to defend city from all manner of evil beasties using some magical powers, a few items, and his trusty sword and shield. Told mainly through silent, wordless papercraft-like cut scenes, it's easy enough to grasp, providing enough to at least set the stage for why you're hitting things repeatedly with a sharp, stabby instrument. Also, don't let the 3 in the title fool you. There is no Strength of the Sword or SotS2. Why? 'Cause video games.
Looks are also simple and expressive. The Golem looks artificial, especially in contrast to the more natural looking enemies and environments. It's fitting given his status as automaton. His weapons and shields are detailed where the Golem is simple, and they glow in different patterns and colors depending on the amount of mana energy stored.
I want to say that the Golem responds to commands adequately. I want to say adequate as opposed to immediate because combat is more similar to something like Dark Souls then God of War. Swings are heavy and have weight, so attacks and combos have to be considered rather then mashed. Bringing the shield to bare is fast, but timing is crucial for it to be effective. The Golem can also rush forward with a burst of speed, or combat roll sideways and backwards, adding mobility to the battlefield.
Adding a few more wrinkles is a stamina and mana system. Stamina powers the Golem's ability to run and roll, and it can be spent on special moves like jump slashes and whirlwind spins. Mana is gathered by either successfully hitting enemies, or planting the Golem with his shield out in front of him, charging in a growing field of white energy like a character straight out of Dragon Ball. Standing combos use mana, the most powerful of which, called the God Hammer, sends out a blast of energy affecting all the enemies in the radius.
And while there will be multiple enemies, The Golem's focus is singular, forcing you to shift targets one at a time. This makes combat take on a much more tactical feel. Threat triage becomes necessary as you must turn your back on other enemies to focus on taking down one. If you're lucky you can catch some in a group with one of your bombs, or manage to switch quickly and interrupt a spellcasting reaper with a well placed throwing dagger. It's effective for making combat seem fast and dangerous, especially when you need to formulate a plan with how to deal with groups of enemies on the fly.
Most stages consist of three waves, each featuring a different variation of opponents in both size and number. The variation helps to keep combat fresh, but by the time you've reached the third arena area, and unlocked the majority of your items, combat becomes less tactical and more rote. Movement is less about surviving and more about creatively grouping. You also begin to run into camera issues. When the camera is directly behind, as it is the majority of the time. When you are forced to quick switch between enemies though, especially when you kill one and the camera makes the switch on its own, it takes a moment to reorient, and has a habit of getting caught against walls and at odd angles depending on where you were when the kill was made.
Camera issues were especially troubling in the game's boss battles, which is surprising considering those are one on one affairs. The bosses are large and powerful, and many are capable of combos that can easily relieve you of your life. Like all bosses, they do have a finite amount of moves, and given enough time, they're broken down just like anything else.
During the course of that process though, SotS3 reveals two major flaws in it's mechanics first idea. The first is load times. Death equals an immediate 45 seconds to 1 minute load time. I could deal with that, if combat remained fast and fluid. What happens though, in the midst of battle, are slow motion moments based off of hard hits delivered by your enemies. Getting hit by something like a boar's charge sends you flying for a few seconds while you furiously mash on the circle button to recover. Getting hit by boss slows everything to a crawl, and while successful mashing results in a cool recover flip by the Golem, most will leave on you the floor reeling in slow motion.
Learning a boss fight looks more like a John Woo movie, except that instead of being able to immediately adjust your strategy, your thrown out of the flow of combat, left to watch the same flipping, landing, rolling and dying animations for 10-15 seconds at a time. It the antithesis of this time of hard, learned combat, and by the final boss fight, I was audibly groaning every time I got hit. Should I be knocked down everytime I get hit? Yes. Should that punishment force me to better my game? Absolutely. Should I spend more time watching the aftermath of a blow, or be using that time to get back into the fray, applying what I've learned? Most assuredly the latter, and yet this is not the result.
SotS3 also offers a pure arena mode, offering different levels of difficulty in a simple gladiator like space. Enemies come in waves, and points are dolled out based on success. Based on the difficulty selected, waves get dramatically harder. Do not be surprised to see pairs of boss enemies show up at once. Because of the simplicity of the arena, the camera issues are not as pronounced, though you will still have to deal with the ridiculous slow-mo hit reactions.
It's never bad to reach for the stars. It's the only way you succeed. And much like the lessons Ivent Games hopes you learn while playing their game, I hope subsequent projects from this team eliminate the small, yet serious issues presented. Strength of the Sword 3 shows incredible promise, and goes a long way towards meeting it. It's almost there.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!