REVIEW: Tactically confront the horrors of war in Symphony of War
As I get older, I consider the actual consequences of the actions I take in games more and more. I think about what it means to mow down hundreds of no-name enemies. I wonder about the long-term issues brought up by conquering a nation with my hordes of military units in an RTS. I consider the interpersonal issues that arise at the end of a painful choice-driven narrative game. Games like The Last of Us and Spec Ops: The Line helped start the train of thought in recent years, but anytime I see a game's narrative actually grapple with some of these concepts, I take note. Symphony of War's take on the turn-based tactical RPG genre is far from the first to consider the actual horrors of war, but its heavier-than-expected narrative pairs nicely with its mechanically sound tactical action.
Just the Facts
Developer: Dancing Dragon Games
Publisher: Freedom Games
Release Date: June 10, 2022
Review code provided by publisher.
Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga is just the latest out of a fairly impressive library from Dancing Dragon Games. Coming from the RPG Maker universe, Dancing Dragon has an established fanbase, an amazingly layered and detailed batch of lore-filled worlds, and the tools to make something that transcends the trappings of usual RPG Maker fare. (Though don't get me wrong, I love RPG Maker games.)
Symphony of War tells a fairly familiar tale. Civil war. Political weasels making sneaky moves. And a fated group of ragtag soldiers fighting back against evil to save the day.
You start the game, naming and "creating" your main character with a quick and simple personality test. Your answers are the only real narrative guidance you have, giving your hero a base personality to work from that may flavor interactions differently. Your scrappy young hero has risen through the ranks of the Empire's army, alongside your best bud Zelos.
After some shocking betrayals and a rise to power by the Prime Minister with Evil Emperor aspirations, your hero is forced to build an army because — as it turns out — you're the chosen one. You'll run into and team up with a charming cast of characters: Giant Paladin Woman Diana, smarmy rogue Stefan, Giant Archer Woman Narima, and rugged retired soldier-turned-farmer Barnabas, to name a few.
While the main story's arcs are all familiar and lightly fantasy-generic, it's these characters that fill out the story's overall appeal. Sure, you've got the group of fated heroes traveling to defeat a pure evil, but when their chatter is as fun as it is in Symphony of War, you don't really mind.
You have an active hand in guiding these relationships, with bonding scenes in between missions that you actively choose in order to set in motion friendships and romances. Being able to push certain characters together (and keep others apart) is a nice addition.
Despite the generally generic and expected twists and turns, I have to give Dancing Dragon their kudos. The world they've crafted is vast and well thought-out. There's a clear love for what they've built here and it shines through.
Additionally, the story is so much darker than you'd expect. In matters of war, they tend not to shy away from the more mature subjects. Symphony of War tackles child slavery, cultural upheaval in the face of war, religious persecution, and the overall toll war can have on a nation. There's levity sprinkled all throughout, but Dancing Dragon doesn't shy away from some of the real consequences of war. That has become more and more prevalent in the series it takes inspiration from (Fire Emblem for one), but Symphony's story dives deeper, unbound by the same limitations in place for a Nintendo franchise.
Along with a great socially- and politically-driven story, the combat gameplay keeps your attention, too.
Symphony of War is your traditional turn-based strategy game. If you've played a Fire Emblem, an Advance Wars, or anything like that, you'll be in familiar territory. There's some basic rock-paper-scissors action in the way that units interact in combat; you'll make all your moves one turn, then your enemy will respond. It's all based on a grid. It's familiar.
Instead of individual units though, Symphony of War has you controlling squadrons. You'll build them up out of units you recruit, with squad leaders at the center of each team dictating the composition of the group. You've got to keep unit types in mind (ranged, melee focused, healers, magic users, calvary units, etc.) as the most effective squads are built with perfect composition in mind.
There are special abilities each unit can learn, equipment they can use to amplify particular abilities, a full class system with tiers, and each unit's unique set of stats to all consider in all of this.
At first glance, Symphony of War can seem incredibly complex. But if you let that notion fall away, you'll find that this particular tactical RPG is weirdly accessible. You can engage with as little or as much of this game's systems as you'd like and still have a good time.
Part of that comes in the game's generally easy difficulty (though it definitely spikes toward the end). But I appreciated that those who wish to min-max their way to major military victory are totally able to do that and those who just want to roll through guys and watch the romances develop within their army are free to do that as well. Like its inspirations, Symphony of War also has an "Iron Man" mode where characters who die are permanently dead, making scenarios all the more difficult. So that's there for you if you want a little extra difficulty.
There are about 30 main story chapters, with extra content like an optional arena and a few bonus chapters tossed in. You'll be able to make your way through it all in around 30 to 35 hours, making it a beautiful pick-up-and-play game.
I did most of my playthrough on a Steam Deck and found it to be perfect for the system. I know it isn't as simple as it seems from the outside, but console ports for Symphony of War would be perfect. Each chapter has a unique set of objectives and a grading system that puts the pressure on to make the best strategic decisions. These objectives, for the most part, are easy to accomplish, but they do a lot to help break up the monotony of doing the same things across each chapter. You'll be capturing points, eliminating enemy units, and surviving waves of enemies again and again. It can get a little same-y, but with how quick chapters are, it was easy to leave the game for a bit and come back feeling refreshed.
That creeping monotony and the late-game difficulty spike are my only real complaints with my time in Symphony of War. When the two collide, unexpectedly losing a long late-game mission in the final moments only to have to re-do the entire thing from the start, it only gets worse. The game has tools to help avoid these moments — quick saves and turn redos — but they're only handy if you know your next step is certainly going to fail.
All that aside, some of the late-game twists, like some magical fated hero powers that unlock in the back half of the game, keep things just new enough that the pace never falls completely off the track.
Visually, Symphony of War is a treat. The character designs and detailed pixel-work pop, both on a big screen and on the more compact Steam Deck's screen, and there's a ton of clear visual design work that helps communicate what to expect out of your units. Paired with the beautiful hand-drawn character art in story scenes, the game is greatly enhanced by Dancing Dragon's artists.
The soundtrack, much like the game's design work, is said to take inspiration from legends of the genre and industry. Hitoshi Sakomoto's work on the Final Fantasy series is called out as a major inspiration and it definitely shows. Phil Hamilton's soaring royal horns and riffing electrical guitars appropriately set the tone for these big philosophical (and literal) skirmishes of war.
All in all, Symphony of War is a mechanically sound turn-based tactical RPG that hearkens back to the best games in its genre. Dancing Dragon is clearly a team full of passionate folks who have bright futures ahead of them. It shines through in every layer of this experience, with its chapters of lore, a serious approach to war, a light approach to characters, and an intricately detailed visual style and gameplay system.
video games are good and Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga is . . . GREAT. (8/10)
+ familiar tactical RPG action, story with both grim and lighthearted twists, great visuals in pixels as well as hand-drawn art
- sometimes too familiar, surprising difficulty spikes, pace can drop off at a moment's notice
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