It is usually a bad sign when the main menu of a video game literally looks like it was thrown together on Microsoft Powerpoint. Yet, that is the first impression that Steel Lords makes, with a static background image and generic font text. It is almost as if the game was slapped together at the last minute with little regard for the resulting quality. Then again, maybe it actually was.
To its credit, Steel Lords does make an attempt to do something interesting by mixing the genres of fighting and strategy. It does so by presenting a board game, very much like chess or checkers, with the twist that when two opposing pieces meet the gameplay shifts into that of a Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game. I say ‘attempts’ because while it is a novel concept it doesn’t entirely work. The two gameplay types don’t really gel together and in some cases they actually conflict with one another. The chess elements work fine on their own – after all, it’s pretty hard to ruin chess – but the fighting segments can completely undermine them, especially if your attempts to play strategically fall apart because you keep losing battles.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the fighting mechanics are especially clunky. From what I understand, Steel Lords is a spiritual successor to Steel Rivals, an indie fighting game made by the same studio. Based on what I’ve read about it, it wasn’t very good and from the looks of things the developer hasn’t done much to improve things this time around. It uses a very basic set of moves, including buttons for attacking, jumping, blocking and a special move. Those last two are tied to a sort of stamina gauge that recharges when striking the opponent. While this may sound like it is at least functional, in practice this barebones approach just removes any possibility of depth and forces players to resort to cheap tactics to succeed.
It’s bad enough that it is a legitimate strategy to just spam a quick attack over and over and just stun lock your opponent into submission, but to make matters worse the AI can do the exact same thing to you. It even does this on the easiest difficulty, which can be a bit of a shock to those expecting an easy ride. Sadly, that is not all – all of the possible playable characters play pretty much the same way and many take a ridiculous amount of punishment before they go down, often dragging out fights to the point that you just want them to end. To cap it all off, character movement is really slow and sluggish, which can really screw with a player’s timing and makes playing through the combat segments feel even more lethargic.
Thankfully, the board game element is a bit better, though not much. Here, players must choose between white and black, which here are called ‘the light and the dark’, and take turns moving their pieces until the entire opposing side is defeated. Again, these sections are pretty much exactly the same as chess, as players have access to two rows of units, one full of weaker pawns and another full of other units that move in more diverse ways. Having said that, the interface for selecting and moving pieces feels a tad clunky and you are limited in how far you can move a piece the first time you use it. Otherwise, it is functional.
The chess segments do have one other twist – the colour of the square where two pieces clash can impact the outcome of the ensuing fight. Said colours can be either neutral, light or dark, with the latter two offering bonuses to their respective sides, such as increased health and attack power. It is possible to capture these squares, providing a further strategic edge to the game, but as with the rest of the game its effectiveness depends on how well you fare with the broken combat system.
Then we have its art direction, or rather the complete lack of one. As it’s thrown together main menu indicates, Steel Lords does not in any way look presentable. Character models are bland, generic and lifeless, with very static animations. They honestly resemble something from an early 90s CGI cartoon. The game board itself is flat and boring, an impression not helped by the fact that the individual pieces are represented by non-descript tiles. Worse still, this flavourless board also serves as the sole backdrop for the fights, complete with the empty black background. This is before addressing the rest of the lacklustre presentation, including the aforementioned generic fonts and lack of effort in general.
As far as content goes, Steel Lords really doesn’t offer much. Players can either play a game against the AI, for which there are three difficulty settings, or play a game against a friend. That’s it. No story. No tournament mode. No online multiplayer. Not even a tutorial or training mode to practice the fighting mechanics. I would call it pitiful, but considering what is currently on offer, it is probably a good thing that there isn’t more.
Despite being a Wii U eShop exclusive, Steel Lords doesn’t make any attempt to use the system’s unique features. While playing, the screen on the Gamepad will be switched off, though there is an option to swap from one to the other, and there has been no attempt to integrate the touchscreen into gameplay.
In the end, there just isn’t anything positive to say about Steel Lords. The only thing it does well is provide an interesting concept and even then it just ruins it through poor execution and bare minimum effort. At best, it is a poor man’s game of chess, and frankly, the poor man deserves better.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Wii U code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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