Sega's history is a long an extensive one, but as of recently, nobody seems to be able to think about anything other than the sudden fiscal arrest that cut short the Dreamcast's lifeline less than three years after its spectacular release. Hundred Swords, one of the first of the last titles, was originally supposed to see a US release, but upon the announcement of the cancellation of the Dreamcast, all thoughts of a domestic release were gone.
However, Sega's rise from the ashes as a software-centric company has given way to a domestic release of Hundred Swords on the PlayStation2 and, of all platforms, the PC. This is somewhat odd given that the PC already has its share of RTS titles for Hundred Swords to compete within, and they're PC-native, which means that Hundred Swords may have an uphill battle for itself with its release on the PC. Sega hopes to counter this by releasing it direct-to-budget via Activision Value.
So, how is the game? Read on.
The style of Hundred Swords will be somewhat familiar to Warcraft III players, as Hundred Swords focuses less on amassing armies and more on strategic management of those armies. Instead of the usual "power overwhelming" technique, you'll actually have to employ some tactics in battle, as you don't have direct control over your troops.
Hundred Swords will actually have you dealing with small groups of fighters, each under control of a particular commander. Each commander will have his own class of units to recruit, and so generally you'll have a commander of cavalry soldiers, a commander of mages, etc. You can reassign troops between individual commanders if you see fit,but the differences in movement speed and the difficulty/annoyance in doing this rarely makes it worth the effort.
The problem lies with some difficult control choices that Sega had to make with the game. Generally speaking, the control style is the same as a Blizzard game - Left click selects, right click assigns context-sensitive orders. Since the emphasis lies with controlling the commanders instead of the individual troops, the game goes out of the way to ensure that you select your commander. If you click on one of his/her assigned troops, the game interprets that as a selection of the commander. If you want to select an individual unit (for whatever reason), you'll need to actually hold the mouse button down and draw a capture box around the unit/units you want to control.
The game's style tries to make it so that you don't need to select individual units, but unfortunately, the very poor pathing AI the game exhibits often forces you to either manually direct some of the units, or to set very strict waypoints for them in hopes that they'll manage to work their way around the obstacles. It's a shame that the pathing AI works in such a way, because the enemy AI is uniquely designed. I've seen the computer employ any number of different tactics, such as a two- or three-pronged attack, a hit-and-run, or a chicken defense. I can't recall seeing Starcraft or Red Alert 2 do that...
To further develop the commander-style play scheme, your characters will develop stats and skills as they level up, which helps to differentiate them. You may have two infantry commanders, for instance, but one of them may know the Formation skill, whereas the other knows the Defend skill. Skills are special command assignments that instruct your commanders to perform a particular task. For instance, with Defend, your troops will stand their ground against the enemy, while other skills will have your commanders chase and hunt every single enemy down they run across. These can help diversify and strengthen your gameplay - I went on largely without it.
Hundred Swords doesn't focus as much on structure building as many other RTS games do. You primarily only deal with four structures: Your command headquarters, barracks, dragon steel pits, and dragon oil pits. Instead of the traditional gold and timber, Hundred Swords will have you mining dragon steel and dragon oil for use in your ventures. Dragon steel is primarily used in unit recruiting, whereas dragon oil is used more for advanced units and structure building/upgrades. Really, however, resource management and structure building will take a backseat to army management - You'll generally have enough resources from the outset to recruit your first few waves of troops.
Frequently, you'll find yourself haunting your barracks. Barracks not only offer recruiting opportunities, but also healing for your commanders. Your commanders generally have around four times the hit points of your soldiers, and since they directly influence the actions of your soldiers as a group, it's important to keep them healthy. Since Hundred Swords doesn't force you to build within proximity of your headquarters, you can theoretically build a barracks on the edge of the frontier, and use it to send legions of troops in to harass your opponents. This is generally an unsafe tactic, however, since there is no fog of war to obscure your devious actions, and thus you're not likely to get the barracks built, let alone keep it for long.
Finally, you receive items after each successful battle depending on your performance. Each battle is prefaced with a description offering useful battle tactics and outlining the specific factors the game will score to determine your rank for each battle. The Shells, as they're called, appear to be commander-only equippable items such as weapons and armor, but they're just special "spells", if you will, that can be periodically used to aid your troops. For instance, Blazing Arrow grants the archers under the command of the wielder a strong flame arrow attack for a short period of time. Shells drain Shell Points, which are recharged slowly as you fight battles. Stronger Shells will use up more SP levels, so they're almost like Super Combos in Street Fighter. Perform more attacks, and you'll be able to use the Shells more often.
Personally, I'm kind of sitting on the fence as far as the pre-battle warmup goes. It's nice to have the situation analyzed as it is, but generally, the tactics demonstrated aren't tactics so much as specific recommendations on what to do and what not to do. Quite a few of them will have you smacking your head in disgust if you've played an RTS before. "Archers on a cliffside have a height advantage and defense against ground troops below the cliff." Really? I'm glad they told me...because I'd have never figured it out on my own...
One last note - The gameplay *is* changed from the original Japanese version. In the Japanese version, instead of the regular plot progression, you actually were supposed to pick dialogue choices through the game. These choices wouldn't really alter the flow of the story, but the choices you make will boost your leader's skills in one way or another. Make decisions that are in line of those a king would make, and your ability to control more troops at once would go up. Make decisions relevant to the man and not the kingdom, and your own personal stats would go up. This gameplay mechanic, similar to the Sakura Taisen game series (also from Sega), is rarely seen in American games outside of RPGs, and it would have made a very interesting twist on this RTS.
If you've played Final Fantasy Tactics, you'll be able to draw some parallels with Hundred Swords. Instead of focusing on one character specifically, however, the game's plot circulates around several different people, each within the nations of Nalavale, Gran, Mascar, and Ruplustorie. The plot initially starts with the rise to power of the Boy King Larf of the nation of Nalavale.
Nalavale's history as a ruthless and bloodthirsty nation precede's Larf's reign, and has afforded him many enemies, chief of which is the Mascar tribe, also known as the Tribe of Schemers. The Mascar tribe doesn't really seek world domination like your archetype enemy nation, but rather live in a state of perpetual fear. This fear is what drives them to viciously protect their interests, and to jump to overwhelming conclusions regarding the allegiances of other nations.
In the beginning of the game, Mascar plots to sabotage Larf by intercepting his message exchange with the Girl Queen of the northern nation of Gran, Fals Ru Gran. Rentze, the commander of the armies of Mascar, suspects treachery between Gran and Nalavale, and believes the two nations are allying to crush Mascar together. He further has his own deeply-seated hatred of Nalavale and its history, and will stop at nothing to unseat Larf and bring Nalavale to ruin. The balance of power begins to tip and wobble, and many parties with their own interests begin to stir the pot even more, including the elitist Merchant Tribe, the Ruplustorie, and rival families within Gran's own borders.
The plot takes some time to begin to sink in, but once you've put in a few hours with the game, it begins drawing you in and keeping you close. While not as grandiose and controversial as the plot of Final Fantasy Tactics, Hundred Swords' plot still has a fair amount of twists and turns, but its primary appeal is the drama involved between the characters. Hundred Swords manages to capture the storyline intricacies of a deep RPG within the bounds of a strategy game.
The cutscenes are depicted in two different fashions, one using the in-game engine, which is generally rather silly looking and cartoonish. The more dramatic moments are shown with the onscreen character conversation and interlude pictures and images. The characters' reactions could be a bit more diverse in my opinion…They clearly show a great amount of emotion, but the small variety of expressions mean that the emotions may be misapplied to the situation. I think the following picture shows my point well.
While the plot may be good, the game is very short. It contains a lot of replay value in the practice battle mode, and potentially the online play, but the game feels like it could have had a much larger plot. Nalavale, Gran, Mascar, and Ruplustorie are four of the nine nations shown on the continental map, and you hardly hear a squeak out of any of the others, and only Nalavale and Gran are playable in the campaign mode. This game feels like it could've had a lot more content in it, especially considering that it comes on two game discs.
I have to be fair here. The game is a console port, and a value port at that. With that in mind, the environments and images in the game are colorful and pretty, but the 3D engine seems to have gotten little-to-no work since the Dreamcast version. As a matter of fact, I'm rather surprised by the amount of unit and terrain pop-up I saw all over the place, as it seems to me that the Dreamcast shouldn't have had a problem rendering all of it. Furthermore, the game is titled Hundred Swords not so much as a clever title, but as a "gimmick" to point out that the game is capable of hosting 100 units on a battle map at any given time. On a console, that could perceivably be a big deal, but that's just trifles compared to most PC RTS titles. I hit the unit cap before I was halfway through the game. There's also a building cap, but since your dragon steel and dragon oil mines get exhausted relatively quickly, you can easily destroy your old mines with no penalty to make room for new buildings.
The game engine aside, the graphics for the game are beautiful. Argue with me about resolution all you want, but the hand-painted character portraits and scene depictions done by Yoshio Sugiura are simply breathtaking at times, and really help to accentuate the story's drama and feel. All the more reason I'd have liked to play this game longer…to be able to see more of Sugiura-san's fantastic artwork.
The sound is pretty good too. The themes are powerful and moving, not unlike the familiar tunes from Hitoshi Sakimoto (Composer of the soundtracks to Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story) and Masaharu Iwata (Also composer of Final Fantasy Tactics). The one big problem with the music, however, is that it gets old quickly. Since you only play as the nations of Gran and Nalavale in the campaign mode, that means you'll have all of *two* tracks to listen to during the actual game. The cutscene music helps to balance this out, but believe me...you'll eventually get tired of Gran's music pretty quick. Gran's themes vary depending on the plot situation, but generally stick to a particularly bouncy theme, which doesn't seem appropriate given the sad tone of the game at the time.
I'd also like to take a minute to address a singular unfounded complaint of mine levied squarely at the programmers in charge of the game's port. I've played through this entire game, and I have yet to figure out how exactly this game required *two* CDs full of data (a full 1.1 GB install, the largest of three install options: 600 MB, 650MB, and 1.1 GB), and *didn't* have any voice-overs for the characters. I'm not saying that Activision should've hired vocal artists to speak the character parts, but I've seen much longer, more graphically and artistically intensive games that fit on a single CD, and didn't necessarily even fill the whole disc. At this point, many PC gamers have come to expect voice acting in their games, and 1.1 GB of data without a single voice clip is rather inexcusable. Granted, the Dreamcast uses GD-ROMs that hold approximately a gigabyte of data, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that it was impossible to optimize or compress this game down to a single CD-ROM. All the sounds and background music are WAV encoded - Activision could have easily licensed the RCA MP3 codec, and they may have been able to ship the game on one CD instead of two. Or, even better, they could've used Ogg Vorbis, and saved even more money.
The game is fun. This isn't questioned here. However, there is a rather long laundry list of improvements that this title could have withstood. Some of them can be answered by its status as a console port, while other problems are just a result of asinine design.
First off is the control scheme. It was originally designed around the Dreamcast controller, and that in turn was adapted to the mouse. While Activision went ahead and included some keyboard hotkey support, the primary problems lie with automatic camera focus and group unit selection. If I click on Nell's unit portrait, the camera automatically centers on her and her surrounding units. If I'm trying to send Nell, Jelky, and Ana to the same point, I have to click, scroll, right-click, click, scroll, remember where I last right-clicked, do it again, etc. It's horrible. It makes things even messier in group battles. For instance, if you're trying to have Larf switch targets, you can click on him or one of his soldiers to do it, and then right-click on the new target, but since Larf's soldiers are likely to be interspersed with, say, Deamond's, you might repeatedly click on one of Deamond's cavalry instead of Larf's dragon cavalry.
Continuing on, let's say Larf gets killed and leaves behind six or seven dragon cavalry in battle. Your natural tendency is to revive Larf at the Headquarters and send him to a barracks or right back in to battle. If you do this, however, the game will interpret the command given to Larf as being issued to all his troops, including his recently bereaved troops. Meaning that they will suddenly ignore their targets and run back to wherever you just clicked.
Worst of all, you can't group-select commanders. This would help alleviate the problem with assigning multiple units to a particular location, but it makes for a lot of pain and bother when trying to send multiple forces down a path, or have everyone concentrate on a single building in an attack.
Of course, this perhaps could have been the intention of the developers, since your forces will frequently trip over each other trying to get to the same destination. It's ironic that while the game's main emphasis is on army management versus unit management, you frequently have trouble with this as two or three commanders' units will be mixed up, preventing one from moving past the other. The pathing AI, already noted to be relatively awful, doesn't account for your own soldiers trying to move past each other. If you order some infantry off down a path, and send some cavalry down after them, expect the cavalry to get there at about the same time, since they won't be able to easily make it past the slow moving infantry.
Finally, there's the issue of multiplayer. I couldn't easily test this, because Activision didn't make it very easy to test it. In Japan, Dreamcast owners could play Hundred Swords on Sega.Net using a matchmaking service - No such service exists for Hundred Swords. It's direct LAN or TCP/IP only. Ordinarily, that's not so bad - Look at what Quake 2 did with direct LAN or TCP/IP only. On the other hand, Quake 2 sold thousands of copies and was a smash hit. Hundred Swords is a low-key release on Sega's part, and will likely pass under most gamers' radar. It's not known yet whether PC gamers will be able to compete against PS2 gamers with the upcoming PS2 release of Hundred Swords, nor is it even known if the PS2 port will have online playability, given the current status of Sony's online network rollout.
Pros & Cons
Hundred Swords is a fun game, with little to deny that. There just needs to be more of it. If Smilebit had spent six more months on it, and Activision had spent more than two days porting it, I'm sure I'd be a happy gamer. However, being used to console games as well as PC games, I may have more patience and forgiving for a title that runs in a "mere" 640x480 than your average PC gamer.
At $20, it's nothing at all to sneeze at, and that $20 goes a lot further than some $50 stinkers I've bought before.
The characters really pull on your heartstrings. The story is very dramatic and involved. You'll just wish there was more of it.
Graphics & Sound: 8.0
It's a port from a console that could only run up to 640x480, so no surprises here. Music and effects are generally good.
It's not unlike Warcraft III, and it predates it by a year and a half.
Fun Factor: 7.5
The controls will annoy you and the controls will piss you off, and you'll come back for more.
Lasting Appeal: 6.0
Once you work past the campaign mode, you might try the practice skirmishes, but good luck on finding an online opponent.
Final Score: 7.5
A very fun experience for only $20, but it leaves you wanting more story, more improvements, more jewel cases, and more hard disk space.