Lots of old schoolers remember Shadow of the Beast, but not as many suffered through The Killing Game Show. I use the word "through" loosely, as Doomeru and I were convinced it had no end. I say “no end” not in the “our princess is in another castle,” make the ghosts and hotdogs faster sort of way, but in the “oh shit we forgot to finish programming level two” sort of way.
The Killing Game Show featured a Robocop 2-esque mech, which, I assume contained a faceless human contestant that climbed vertically through each board a-la Kid Icarus to win a speedboat, lifetime supply of instant coffee, new pair of legs, or some other corporate-sponsored showcase showdown throwaway. Only, for reasons memory and nostalgia can’t recall, no toeholds could be found at the middle of the second stage and you’d just jump up and down on your android chicken legs until being dissolved by a rising vat of acid.
Doomeru says all British games are extremely difficult because the Queen’s currency is overvalued and all English people are penny-pinching gits with funny teeth, but I felt this title went a little too far. Nevertheless it lived up to an ideal of challenge and accomplishment long lost to modern video gaming.
Which brings me to Rondo of Swords. I’ve dreamed for years of a turn-based RPG strat that allowed for zero pumping, with even less margin of error when upgrading characters. Money would be scarce, all items precious, and cold, calculating computer enemies should make you curse your mushy, fallible organic brain. Let me have a serious gamer’s game, rife with consequences, but hold the Fire Emblems, please- no one should be that hardcore.
This game is most likely close as I’m gonna get. Hopelessly outnumbered from level one, the goal of more than one mission is literally to damn the villagers and run for your fucking life. All it needs are a couple cylons.
But short of perfection I’d settle for some usability testing. You can see the movement range of the enemy fighters hunting you down like a dog, but not the spell or firing range on enemy mages and archers, which leads to a whole lot of dying.
Killed characters are mercifully carried to the next mission, but with “hurt” status. What, exactly, does “hurt” mean? Don’t look under “statuses” in the instructions or standalone tutorial. That’s what the internets are for. The manual does, however, contain four pages of softcore manga concept art!
Almost every enemy with a name can be recruited by having the right character talk to them, but it's only somewhat less than arbitrary which character that is, and of course you have to pick which characters to bring before seeing the next level, and who might be recruited on it.
Animations can be skipped but not turned off, enemy turns move fast but can’t be sped up, and you can zoom out to look around but can’t look around without zooming back in. On the bright side, Go-Go-Gadget-Self-Destructing-Quick-Saves are available, along with two kinds of mission restarts. You’ll need those.
Combat is balanced, albeit impossible, but it takes a lifetime of button jonesing or “seeing the Christ in people” to notice. Core combat involves drawing movement paths for each unit through allies and enemies, but magic users can’t move and cast spells in a single turn, and have no physical defense or attack. They also have less movement points than everyone else in the party. Archers, on the other hand, can shoot after moving, but have less range.
look mom, I'm using my stylus!
Outside of combat, you have to balance enhancement between characters as well as within each individual: Send a character on three “card quests” to get special upgrades (again, check the internets...), or “smith quests” to improve attack, but then they can’t earn experience points in the next mission and thus can’t raise their class on a "class-raising trial (quest)." They also can’t raise class if someone hasn’t been sent on a “proof quest” to find the requisite class-raising items.
Characters can’t go on quests if they were “hurt” in the last mission, so you’ll have to drag them along for the next fight with their stats halved, making it all the more likely they’ll be hurt again. If quests aren’t taken when they first come up, you’ll never get a second chance. And don’t even bother shopping (shopping quest!)- some other useless character would have to be designated for that. They can’t buy and sell on the same trip, and low-level characters often end up just losing all the money and returning empty handed.
I refuse to play the game with a walkthrough by my side, but I recommend you do. I made it halfway through and had to start over from the beginning, and still might have to start over again.
It goes without saying that casual gamers need not apply (and also go fuck themselves), but for serious gamers I’ll reiterate it’s a dream come true. I only wonder if maybe we should have dreamed of something else…