There’s often a sense of trepidation when reviewing an indie title. Not because the game might be a stinker (although of course it might be) but out of fear of patronisation becoming a running theme of any critique, as if the size of the development team should have any bearing on a title’s quality.
Some of our favourite titles of this generation, Joe Danger and recent zombie survival sim State of Decay to name but two, have been lovingly produced by small teams, with the end results being what all games should fundamentally be: enjoyable to play.
In the case of Strength of the Sword 3 such enjoyment is not instant. Georgi Rakidov and Lyubomir Iliev, the two-man team behind the game, have crafted a stylish, moreish 3rd-person fighter, but one that initially borders on being bewilderingly unforgiving.
Each of SotS3’s 11 levels consists of arenas filled with chains of increasingly potent foes. But rather than ease players in, the game goes straight for the jugular. There’s no padding out records with some largely meaningless victories over barely coherent duffers here, as even the first few enemies offer a decent test. And panicked button mashing is not going to cut it, at least not for long. The game’s purported adaptive AI means enemies quickly become wise to mindless charges, so your attacks require a little more thought, variety and precision.
Thankfully, the intuitive controls are fluid, and there is a tightness to the fighting that leaves only yourself to blame when you do succumb to an opponent’s attacks. Once things start to fall into place it is possible to string together some impressive attacking combos, as well as time your defensive moves to take advantage of parries and enemy weaknesses. The enemies you face range from small to downright monstrous, with plenty of variation in their attacks to keep things from getting too comfortable.
The arenas start tough and get tougher than week-old steak left on a desert highway, with defeat as inevitable as a boxer’s post-retirement comeback. When you do lose the game offers encouragement such as, “offence will bring you victory, but defense will keep you alive long enough to enjoy it”, wise words but still akin to cheerfully jogging over to a footballer that’s just missed the decisive penalty in a shoot-out and suggesting “a well-struck ball can bring many cheers.” Ground teeth are likely to be a common ailment among those hardy enough to attempt to see SotS3 through to its conclusion.
Story? What story? There’s some vague lip service paid to something about a Dark Mechanism threatening something or other, but really this is all about the arenas and killing enemies as efficiently and violently as possible. Upgrades can be unlocked along the way, offering a variety of swords and shields, plus secondary attacks such as throwing knives and ‘Dragon’s Breath’, which is the ability to belch fire at hapless opponents. Devastating finishing moves can also be unleashed when enemies are clinging on by their blood-drenched fingernails, prompting bone-crunching, and highly satisfying, kills.
Besides the main game, SotS3 also offers a Challenge Pit, essentially an extension of the arenas but against the clock and various difficulty levels. The better you are at unleashing fury, the more points you will earn. Online leaderboards will either have the world bowing to your superior skills or cackling at the lack thereof.
The game’s look is creative and consistent throughout, with the slick artwork and animation giving SotS3 a refreshing personality. There is also a playfully tongue-in-cheek humour to the game, although it is not always clear if the game is laughing with you or at you. Even the game’s title is a joke; despite the ‘3’ in the title, there are no preceding entries in the series. The game’s creators, apparently, simply wanted to get straight to the finale of their trilogy. You will die, but at least you will die laughing. Or just chuckling a little bit.
Far from being a stinker, SotS3 is an admirable calling card for Ivent, with the team certainly deserving of a place on gaming radars for the foreseeable. No need for patronisation, just a doff of the cap to a job well done.
If you like fighting games but hate yourself a little bit, then SotS3 will be a decent addition to your collection. If you fight in much the same way Napoleon Dynamite dances then you might want to look elsewhere for something gentle like battling an angry bear in a phone box. For those hard enough to come and have a go just beating the game should squeeze enough value from the modest price.