Chances are if you were a kid and had access to a computer back in the prehistoric time of 2005, you played a bunch of flash games. Sites like Newgrounds, Ebaumsworld, Kongregate, and many less reputable ones were the discerning youth’s Steam. Many of those games I had assumed lost to the rigours of time but with Newgrounds stepping back into the public eye to offer a home to the displaced Tumblr artists it comes as no real surprise that others would resurrect as well.
So join me in welcoming back WhiskeyBarrel’s Swords and Sandals – Classic Edition (not to be confused with the redux series which updates the graphics and gameplay).
If the name doesn’t ring any immediate bells, then I do have to say this probably isn’t for you. Made back in the heyday of Flash and bad internet connections, time hasn’t been kind to S&S. The graphics are decidedly amateur with bright colours, thick lines, and simple animations. In later games the characters and arenas get more variation and streamline various aspects which, from a design perspective, is very interesting to play. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The main container for the Classic Edition is serviceable if a bit clunky. Working in a similar manner to some emulators it allows you to choose which of the 5 games you want to play while handling all of your save data. Frustratingly you can’t quit back to this launcher/menu from inside any of the games, having to instead quit to desktop and launch again.
Swords and Sandals I: Gladiator
After having your pirate ship get sunk during a terrible storm you wash up at the Doomtrek Arena and are promptly forced to become a gladiator. The game that started it all.
Your goal is to become the greatest gladiator of all time using a rather nifty combat system. S&S is turn-based with each attack, movement, and special move being presented on a wheel around your gladiator. As you fight and progress you invest your points in various stats and equipment that change up your tactics in game. Put your agility up and you’ll be able to move/jump around the arena faster, letting you charge then retreat to heal up. Put your charisma up and you’ll be able to taunt your opponent into entering smacking range.
The most important aspect of combat in Swords and Sandals is managing your stamina as running out will cause your gladiator to have a nap, missing their turn.
Death comes quick in the original S&S and a half hour or so of progress can be wiped in an instant. So I guess that sort of makes it the original Dark Souls?
Swords and Sandals II: Emperor’s Reign
Ostensibly, an updated version of the original Swords and Sandals with a bit more balancing for different abilities, new weapon types, magic, and potions to help you not die outright.
All of the same systems from the original are present but have been polished a bit and Taunt has been made more useful as you can now damage enemies with it.
The progression has been changed slightly in that you now compete in duels which are first blood, losing which just loses you some gold. Once you’ve reached a certain level, you get to take part in a tournament which has several fights back to back meaning you need to make sure you’re properly equipped.
Taunt was strangely useful in S&S II and I found myself spending most fights just shouting at opponents until they died. Weapon enchantments carry over to the Taunt power which meant my shouts were setting opponents on fire or freezing them. Sort of like Skyrim, are we noticing a trend here dear reader?
Swords and Sandals III: Gladiae Ultratus
The biggest leap forward in terms of content, S&S III redesigns a number of core systems while still being basically the same game.
More shop owners which introduce new weapon types such as spears, lasers, musical instruments, and more ranged options. A progression system that allows you to pick powers based on the school of fight, school of survival, etc.
With more arena types, ring outs became a new way to play and after besting your opponent you are given the choice to spare their life or kill them. Whichever you choose affects your alignment and what powers you can get. Sort of like Mass Effect?
Apparently this one had online multiplayer but the servers died off years ago.
Pro-tip: Be careful when challenging the local champions as entering those fights too early can see you One Punch Man‘d.
Swords and Sandals IV: Tavern Quest
So, you’ve got the core game to roughly where you want it to be. How do you progress from there? Simple, make a Mario Party style boardgame.
Tavern Quest allows you to play with the AI or other humans to compete in a Flash style gladiatorial boardgame with some of the, and I’m sorry to say this, worst mini-games.
Like the Nintendo classic, you roll your dice and where you land determines what you get. Blue circles net you coins, red loses you some. There are collectables around the map and mini-game castles that challenge you to do things like: bet on a race, bet on which army will win, roll a boulder down a hill, play a memory game, slide tiles to make words, or fail to float a boat down river.
You can, if you land on the right space, also challenge another player to a duel. The challenged player chooses what the loser will receive (gold, sandals, death). We chose death and after a close battle in which my skeletal minotaur punched a small golem to death, the golem’s player was kicked out of the game. Which is one way to make Mario Party more damaging to a friendship.
Swords and Sandals Crusader
Departing from the gladiatorial combat, Crusader puts you in command of an army. As you move around the world map, claiming territory and buying troops, you will get into wars with the other factions.
Combat has your armies line up on either side and you choose which units to send forward. They rush to meet the enemy and they smack each other around for a little bit and return back to their positions.
Mostly I found that saving up and getting a colossus and a lot of archers was the winning strategy as each round of combat has a Bombard phase by both side’s archers.
Crusader is also one of the first games in the S&S series to have a storymode which tells a little bit more of the gladiator-centric universe.
As I said at the start of this review, if you didn’t play Swords and Sandals when it was new, then the age will definitely be a sticking point for you. Enjoyment for these games is rooted deeply in nostalgia and that’s alright. Especially as it made me realise that Swords and Sandals hasn’t stopped being made!
Since 2017, WhiskeyBarrel Studios have released Swords and Sandals V, a dungeon crawler. Swords and Sandals Pirates, a mix between Crusader and Sid Meier’s Pirates and Swords and Sandals Medieval, an actual sequel to the original series that expands on the gameplay in many ways (including fishing!) Heck, there’s even been an announcement for a Swords and Sandals VI with online multiplayer.
There are few bastions of my childhood that continue to exist and while S&S might not be the greatest game in the world, I’m glad it’s still going strong.
Get it on Steam HERE