Strategy RPGs are a fascinating sub-genre that I truly wish are more popular than they are. The likes of Fire Emblem have certainly attributed much to the style and presentation, but for every official Fire Emblem game, we get a dozen or so indie games biting from the same playbook. Sometimes you crave something more unique, but retain some of the formulae you come to expect. Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga does just that, taking influence from other strategy-RPG games to create a game that stands out.
Symphony of War is essentially Fire Emblem with army units, think sister series Advance Wars set in a fantasy world. Of course, the gameplay is much more complicated and is reminiscent of older, (and in my opinion, better) series like Ogre Battle. Ultimately, indie developer Dancing Dragon Games has drawn from multiple wells, but the real question is how do they mesh together?
Mechanics-wise, Symphony of War has a lot to talk about. Characters, either named NPCs with artwork or promoted units in your army, are led by a leader unit who can have up to nine troops in their unit at a time. The troop variety is quite good, with over 40+ different troop classes, and three tiers of class progression to follow. Your standard heavy troops, magic users, priests, and bowmen are here, along with multiple calvary units, gunners, templars, paladins, and even dragons and dragon riders are thrown in for good measure.
Class progression is based on experience gained in battle. Since units fight automatically, positioning them on a 12 x 12 grid can see some tactical benefits, such as extra attacks or having a heavy frontline to tank blows. You can equip artifacts to give you a multitude of bonuses, such as extra attacks, evasion, defense, and even unit capacity, among other bonuses. Units also have traits that grant extra bonuses; some can be learned, while others are natural. To add to this further, you have a progression tree that unlocks some troop types, provides bonuses to their stats, or simply finds ways to give them a bit more experience in a pinch.
All of this combines into an incredibly deep game where balancing your unit's composition, character classes, and item progression are doubly important, even more than the tactics needed to survive a mission. Symphony of War even offers a perma-death difficulty where the loss of a troop means they are gone for good. The game is challenging enough without that though, but the main draw is ultimately the high customization you have over your army, putting Symphony of War into a camp of games that I rarely see; a game that is mechanically reminiscent of Ogre Battle.
An Enix title before they merged with Square, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen was a difficult and frankly impressive strategy RPG where you controlled units of upgradable troops against an enemy army. The series spawned only five games, with only Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Calibur, which to me is one of the best games on the N64.
Ogre Battle, to this day, is one of the few strategy-RPG games that I wish we saw more of, and it's actually surprising that few games have attempted to replicate its style of play. Sor Symphony of War, the mechanics and tactics are similar, and troop classes and progression are heavily reminiscent of the older series. You have a cold opening that asks questions that provide your protagonist stat bonuses as well, in another nod to a tradition in Ogre Battle. Heck, your blue-haired protagonist, male or female, is a dead ringer for the protagonist of Ogre Battle 64, to the point where I don’t know if it's a homage, a direct reference, or just a coincidence.
Symphony of War is basically the Ogre Battle game I have been waiting twenty years for, at least in terms of its mechanics. Where it deviates is in some key ways, especially when it comes to the plot. You play a nameless protagonist, a young cadet who is part of an imperial army, thrust into a grand conspiracy that leads to them, along with some other characters, being named Nephilims, champions chosen by the gods to fight against a growing, demonic evil in the world. The narrative doesn’t do anything too outlandish, but it definitely captures the ‘epic’ feel you would expect from the setup, which fits the desperation of the struggles the player must go through.
There are 30 chapters in the game, along with a handful of honestly oddly placed side stories that open up around chapter 20. Each one of them is pretty much a typical challenge and progression we see in the Fire Emblem series; your band of units grows to include specialty characters who lead their own troops, fight alongside you, and have conversations between missions to build up their relationships and, quite possibly, a romance. The cast of named NPCs is ok, but few of the characters really stand out as remarkable or interesting, save for a few exceptions.
There is some growth with these characters to be fair, but often what we see is what we get with their personalities and dynamics, and their conversations sort of just play off that with each other. This is pretty typical of Fire Emblem as well, but I don’t know if I can say that Symphony of War has the writing chops to carry the game. Pretty much everything you would expect to happen plot-wise does happen, and sometimes at a breakneck pace. You see betrayals, the death of important characters, and a bit of political posturing as well, but nothing that really rocks the boat, or is unpredictable.
That predictability does have some benefits. For one, the fun of the game now comes down to which characters you can recruit. I fully admit I don’t know if I got everyone, but there are easily close to 20 NPCs that can potentially join your army throughout the game. It also allows further customization for characters, as a few of them have custom classes that are not available for the rest of the game, meaning a bit more in terms of strategies can be employed.
While there are merits to the choices made for the plot, one of the downsides is that such boilerplate storytelling needs something to sell it. One of the weaknesses of Symphony of War is the visual limitations for characters and cutscenes. Gameplay-wise it is pretty much perfect, a facsimile of what you would expect from the genre, and the sprites are well detailed and animated. Outside of that though, we're dealing with an RPGmaker template that, while not bad and customized, still sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to the strategy segments.
Character portraits are large and well designed, but don’t offer much in terms of visual changes or interactivity. In other words, they are completely static, which makes conversations between them less dynamic. This is why many of the characters likely feel flat or uninteresting, which harms the overall experience.
Since this is a story told in 30 chapters, that means the side conversations and expository dialogue has to carry a lot of the burden to thread everything together. Some form of animated portraits would have gone a long way to making that easier. What we do have is again good, but not remarkable, which is honestly more disappointing because of how excellent the mechanics of Symphony of War are. Despite this, I don’t outright hate the story of the game, I just simply wish it was better told.
Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga Review | Final Thoughts
I really enjoyed Symphony of War. The more I played it, the more I fell in love with the mechanics, the character progression, and the tactical gameplay features offered. Do I wish the narrative ensnared me more than it could have? Of course, but while it can be a detriment, it doesn’t harm the experience overly.
If anything, it makes me exciting to see what else is in store from Dancing Dragon Games. There is a lot of solid work done in Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga and that alone should be enough reason to pick it up and play it now. It is the type of game that comes highly recommended, especially if there are players who really want to sink their teeth into a tactical game that deviates from the norm.
TechRaptor reviewed Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga on PC via Steam, with a code provided by the publisher.
- Excellent Army Customization Options.
- Nuanced Tactical Foundation.
- Visually Impressive when in Combat.
- Solid Soundtrack and Sound Design.
- Overall Deep Mechanics that are Rewarding.
- Decent, if Predictable Narrative and Plot Elements.
- Visual Style at times clashes with Overall Presentation.