The original Swords & Soldiers was a clever exercise in adaptation: what if one were to take an RTS, and place it in a sidescroller? The answer was a fun, simplified RTS that compensated for its simplicity by involving the player more directly in battles through the use of manually-cast spells, and a focus on objective-based missions, rather than base building and battle management. The silly tone (the full title was Swords & Soldiers Super Saucy Sausage Fest) certainly helped, too.
Fortunately, then, Swords & Soldiers II is narrated by a (temporarily?) disabled Scotch Viking whose voice actor channels an alcoholic Mrs. Doubtfire. The mechanics, too, are based on the same principles of the original: as soon as most units spawn, they begin an endless trek towards the right side of the map, where the enemy’s base or the ultimate objective is located (depending on the mission, of course).That a unit cannot be stopped (until a spell is eventually unlocked, at least) means that one must carefully time the building of units to coincide with favourable conditions regarding resource management, enemy activity and the availability of units (unlocked via a combined spell, unit and building tree).
There’s little point in building a haphazard collection of units just because enough gold is available, as the enemy will likely be composing squads capable of cutting through even powerful stragglers with ease. But hoarding gold, conversely, might just as easily result in the enemy gaining a territorial advantage (crypts, guard towers and the like can turn the tide of some battles) so that a carefully composed, large squad might never reach the enemy’s base—and then you’ll have to start hoarding gold all over again.
Therein lies the strategy of Swords & Soldiers II: timing and squad composition—it doesn’t hurt to experiment with the spells and heroes (powerful units with special abilities), either. But the trouble is that, most of the time, the AI is not very good at punishing poorly conceived strategies. If one is playing badly, it’s likely that the mission will play out as an almost endless battle of attrition, rather than a crushing defeat—which, with such vague feedback, makes adjusting one’s strategy a sometimes abstruse experience. How long must you wait before you can tell if your new strategy is making much of a difference? And yet most of the time one breezes through, with little planning required.
There are medals (complete each mission in a certain time, or achieve a special objective) to add a layer of difficulty to proceedings, but they do not much compensate for the simplicity of the strategy, or the sometimes absent ability of the AI. However, the more objective-focused missions (in which, for example, one might protect a single squad over the entire mission) do not suffer because of the simplicity of the strategy, but build successfully on some of the most enjoyable and original missions from the first Swords & Soldiers.
One of the cleverest missions is the wonderful finale: not only an exercise in strategy, but racing, too. One must swiftly destroy obstacles blocking one’s path, while simultaneously creating obstacles for one’s opponent, as one races towards the goal—and then win an intense battle royale; one of the few where a poor strategy is punished more severely.
Combining these two styles, the campaign flows by without the sometimes lacklustre strategic missions grating too unbearably—it also helps that the arsenal of spells, units and buildings is ever changing. But there are only 24 missions, many of which last barely several minutes. And that’s including the bonus missions (usually mini-games based on the spells) and open battles, in which one completely composes one’s own army; picking everything from spells to heroes, which adds another welcome layer of strategy.
Just as the campaign is building up some steam (the missions are more intense, complex and the arsenal more spectacular), so it ends abruptly. Although there are still the local multiplayer and skirmishes (open battles, with the conditions of the battles themselves customisable; including, thankfully, a harder difficulty level), much of the appeal of Swords & Soldiers II is not in the base mechanics of the gameplay on which the skirmishes and multiplayer are based, but the mission design itself.