Anything I could write about Swords & Soldiers II would ultimately be redundant – or at least that’s the feeling I have before writing about the game. Most if not all of the critical observations I arrived at have precedent in things I’ve previously written: Runbow, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Retro City Rampage, etc. In some ways, this will benefit whatever I have to say about Swords & Soldiers II. With my working premises established elsewhere, I can more strongly focus on this game’s unique accomplishments and failures. Yet this begs the question of how many (if any) of those accomplishments and failures are unique, and what, if anything, each contributes to our understanding of video games.
By comparison, identifying why Swords & Soldiers II overlaps so heavily with its contemporaries/predecessors is a much easier task. Like each of the games I’d listed (except Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), Swords & Soldiers II is an indie game from a small development team (Ronimo Games, in this case). And like those other games, this one follows best design practices and the games most obviously exemplify them with an almost religious zeal, believing both to be guarantors of aesthetic accomplishment.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.