Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Announced years ago with nothing more than a concept art image of the protagonist, I’ve been waiting for Dancing Dragon Games’ Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga ever since. Recently launched in a stealthy move by announcing to the world that it has released, this Turn Based Strategy RPG continues to showcase the amazing works of indie developers.
Taking place in that same world as their previous works of Steamborn and Echoes of Aetheria, the first chapter of Symphony of War begins some 100 years later, which itself, is 20 some odd years after the last major war. This I thought was a nice touch as it keeps building up the world that players would be familiar with, but, it didn’t need to worry about making sure that everything was perfectly lined up especially had there been multiple returning characters. Having put this distance in terms of time I felt also helped with the change in direction from the more JRPG based beginnings into the full blown turned based strategy that we now find ourselves in.
Maybe this is a bit of gushing because I know how hard it can be to create something more than “standard” with the RPG Maker softwares (MZ, MV, 2003, VX Ace) but Dancing Dragon Games, like Stegosoft Games (Ara Fell – RPG Maker 2003) / Rise of the Third Power – Custom Unity that looks like an RPG Maker) and Critical Games (8-Bit Adventures / Tales Across Time – RPG Maker XP), are good at what they do. Having used RPG Maker VX Ace, this latest experience will not have players exploring a rich world with plenty of side quests that keep popping up to distract from the main story. Instead, you’ll be thrown into a mission based setup with plenty of “optional” challenges keeping the spirit of the RPG roots in place as your troops and their leaders are deployed across the field.
Starting off with the current events, Symphony of War is not a happy story. Quoting directly from the Steam Store page because I couldn’t say it any better,
“At the turn of the millennium, the world of Tahnra is headed for a reckoning. The long and bloody conflict of Veridian Succession left the Empire of Veridia scarred, its people subject to brutal hardships. Under the reign of Empress Florina, the vicious cycle seemed to be broken, until a rogue General abducted her from the capital, mustering his own armies and raising the flag of rebellion. You, a young academy graduate, will command an expedition against these forces… a conflict that will set off a chain of events and shake the very foundations of the world.”Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga
So it’s here that we start with a few really brief tutorials to get started. Finding itself somewhere between the great styles of Fire Emblem and the Ogre Battle series, Symphony of War is exactly that. It’s a symphony of the styles that while seemingly “easy” to understand and “hard” to master, blends the two while also offering up several other elements to spice it up. While it could be hard to at this point in time not know about the Fire Emblem series, especially after the last three titles of Fates, Awakening (Conquest / Birthright), and Three Houses, the Ogre Battle series may be a bit more niche but adds a depth to the experience both in terms of management and strategy.
In terms of gameplay, from the Fire Emblem side you are given a series of units to control on the field. Each unit type has an advantage and disadvantage assigned to them, and it’s up to you to properly use these traits to come out on top in each scenario. The easiest example is that mounted chivalry are good against foot based units, as long as they don’t have spears in which case they would now be at a huge disadvantage. Swords-people, lance-people, archers, mages, healers, dragons, and horse and dragon riders all have their pros and cons basically making no one safe until the curtain closes on the performance.
Ogre Battle by contrast, was about having squads do battle together, instead of just single units. So while the overall gameplay here is turn based, and not automatic, the influence of Ogre Battle is clear as day not only with being able to form up these squads in order to leverage advantages and disadvantages, but also for its unit class system. Unless a unit is a specific character class type related to the story, their unit class will affect what it can do and how good it is at doing it. Swords-people for example are the front line unit types, however, the base units will only be able to do so much. Once they’ve gotten enough experience points to level up their stats and have enough class points, they can then be upgraded to a more powerful version.
What I really enjoyed here is the ability to mix, match, and create whole new squads without a specific story based character unit attached as the leader. While some of the default loadouts are pretty well balanced and will definitely work in the long run, there’s always room for improvements as you set them out onto the field. Units being upgraded will help, but as leaderships get better, more unit capacity is gained and from there, additional units may be placed into the squad as long as there’s room which leads to the last aspect of squad compositions, I promise!
“This” last aspect (before more, I totally lied) is what I really loved about Symphony of War from a tactical perspective. Squads compositions are done on a 3×3 grid with a front, middle and back column. Each column unlike a normal 3×3 is actually more of a 5×3 as there are substeps that allow for a unit to be in the middle of row 1 and 2 for example. Other than in some cases being more aesthetically pleasing to see, this unit placement will help protect the units behind it. So if a unit is in this half step, it could potentially take the hit for any unit in either row 1 or row 2 from its placement in column 1.
Leveraging this will be key to victory as the battles move on and thankfully the system makes it pretty easy to manage. Each unit type will always showcase which classes it can become, or if needed, downgraded to if you need to make a switch. You’ll also be told “when” they can potentially be upgraded and the stats that are required for said upgrade. Some may take longer than others to achieve, such as needing to level up to meet stat requirements such as “X” amount of Strength, but it’s easy enough to not get bogged down especially when we are talking about doing this for dozens of units at a time. Finally, Dancing Dragon Games have made it easy for newcomers to get onboard with all of the systems properly explaining them without throwing the entire kitchen sink at you and having you figure it out on your own.
Before getting to ANY of that however, you’ll have to take to the field of battle which will require two things. One, a little bit of patience as Symphony of War is not a fast paced experience. While there are settings to speed up gameplay, my only note is that I wish there would have been a skip animation function entirely instead of just speeding them up. The second, is taking the time to see what you’re initially going to be in for and then planning your squad deployment accordingly as par for the course, there will always be more of them than you. From there, once your squads have been set into place, it’s time to get started.
Taking form in a “your turn”, “their turn”, “their turn” approach, you’ll generally have the first move. Not a typo in the first sentence, there will occasionally be more than just your forces present and they’ll act accordingly even if you want to just yell at them to stop. It could be that they are being decimated which will affect an optional objective, or that they are in the damned way of your own forces that you wanted to move into position. Once your turn however, you’ll have access to all your currently deployed squads which can be moved around the map to fight enemy units or take over key points on the map such as resource mines or horse stables.
Fighting enemy units is simple enough. Once in proximity, melee or ranged combat can be initiated. Generally starting first, you’ll attack, healers will heal, enemy will attack, enemy healers will heal, and then the counter-attacks will occur. If the only units left are healer types, they’ll generally surrender so it’s a good thing that the AI tends to target the attack types. There are other options that can be learnt through research, such as target the leader or force surrender, but these come with side effects. Attack leader will leave the unit open until the end of the turn with higher accuracy but less evasion while force surrender, if failed, will allow the enemy to attack first.
Once you get started, it’s a good thing that there is an option for a quick save that can be loaded from the main menu because these can take some serious time depending on the chapter. This is actually something that I appreciated as it wasn’t just over and done. Chapters are lengthy and contain plenty of elements on the field to either conquer or liberate your own forces. Materials that can be collected will help when upgrading your unit types for your squads. Temples will resurrect defeated troops or heal wounded ones for a price. Towns and strategic capture points will increase your faction’s reputation. There’s a lot “here” that will take some planning to get right, but if you take your time and work all of the optional objectives in? You’ll be in a much better position for the next chapter.
The chapter flow itself is rather smooth. Split between high level events or in character interactions, these will often (not always) lead to your main hub where you can perform all of your unit management. Re-assign or level up existing troops, hire new ones either at a base level for cheap and train them in battle or hire experts that while cost a pretty penny, are completely worth it. You can also buy materials to help keep enough in reserve for future unit upgrades, or, you can buy new gear called artifacts to equip your squads with. These artifacts are often give and take granting more attack power but at the cost of magic for example. Some are just bonuses such as increasing squad capacity which is great especially when you were just shy of adding in a new unit.
On perhaps a final note, Dancing Dragon Games probably didn’t want to scare any newcomers away and hid permadeath behind completing Symphony of War for the first time. This one feature, while perhaps small to some, is huge for others. I. Hate. Permadeath. Outside of roguelikes anyways and this is probably because I’m generally like, this is a good idea and then while I should have survived an encounter, I was cursed with critical hits on the worst units possible decimating my squad. So between this decision, the ease of use of the unit and squad systems, the great gameplay (short of not being able to skip your own forces’ animations) and the story that ties it together? The wait of the last five years and that fateful tweet have been worth it.
The latest from Dancing Dragon Games, Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga, blew away my expectations. Starting off with a traditional RPG with Steamborn into a more customized turned based RPG with strategy elements in Echoes of Aetheria, the first installment of Symphony of War designed with RPG Maker Ace is a prime example of why RPG Maker Games, and their developers, are worth looking into and The Nephilim Saga is shining proof.Score: 9 / 10