BEATING 'EM UP
There was a time in the heyday of the Commodore 64 when martial arts games were all the rage. Classics of the genre include Way Of The Exploding Fist and International Karate to the more strategic games such as System 3's acclaimed Last Ninja series. Since then, things for the dark vigilantes have been a bit quiet - until now that is.
An Emperor's mighty sword has been stolen by a rival arch-Ninja. With it went his honour and, not surprisingly, he would rather have it returned to its rightful owner rather than lose face in front of his own people. As a result, he has hired you, the best ninja in the land, to get into the enemy temple and do whatever you deem necessary to retrieve it.
However, unlike the many computer game heroes you keep reading about, there is no way you are going in alone.
Help comes in the form of the blessed statues of Buddha. There are four of these beauties to collect - two of which can be found in the first two levels - and they must be placed in strategic places within the temple to open doors, letting you into previously unseen areas and generally helping your progress.
PICK 'N' MIX
DMI's Sword Of Honour (SOH) is a cross between Fist, Last Ninja and Psygnosis' Barbarian. It has all the arcade elements of the second, and icon control of the Psygnosis game. Not only do you get to fight your way through the game, there are also puzzles to solve, maps to make, and one or two objects to use along the way.
The first things you'll notice upon loading are the controls. Picking up the joystick, a wide variety of directional moves coupled with presses of the firebutton sends the Ninja, leaping, jumping and fighting all over the show. So what are all those arrows in the bottom panel for?
If you think back to the days of Psygnosis titles such as the aforementioned Barbarian, you'll remember that they were mouse-controlled arcade games, with icons replacing joystick moves. SOH lets you play with either simultaneously, with the left button selecting a non-aggressive move and the right button for more violent gestures.
This might seem like an odd thing to do, but it does make for a far more playable game in places where very intricate movement is required, like jumping over a spike, when accidentally selecting the wrong direction could be disastrous.
MAPPING IT OUT
Walking across the first screen, you come across a door set into the backdrop. Pushing up at this point makes your character walk through the door 'into' the screen - which makes a change from all the 'walk left to go right' games we're constantly bombarded with.
Each of the levels is made up of roughly twenty screens, and laying them out this way adds a mapping element to the game. Now, not only do you have to do all the right moves to get through the exit at the end of the level, you've also got to find the thing.
A couple of screens on, and you find your first fight. This is where the game begins to stand out from the crowd. SOH isn't a joystick pummeller like most games in this genre. Instead, careful thinking is necessary to lay the most blows on your opponent while avoiding his.
Of course, different types of enemy require different strategies. Quick fire, close-up punching works fine on an enemy with a range no longer than your own (i.e. an unarmed fighter), but as most characters carry some sort of weapon (poles, swords, etc.), you have to find the right moment to leap in, attack and then jump out again.
As you can see, the sprites are huge. You may think this won't give you a lot of room to manoeuvre, and you would be right. However, if you are the sort of person who keeps accidentally rolling off screen when the battle is going your way, then don't fear - help is at hand. Tapping the 'return'-key at any point 'locks' the exits meaning that if you're in battle, you can't leave the screen. Tapping it again unlocks them.
GIVE AND TAKE
Along the top of the screen are ten empty boxes. These gradually fill with the items you collect throughout the game - weapons, the Buddha statues, and various other items. These are used to get past some enemy characters thereby saving your energy.
The rule of thumb, though, is: if a character has something to say to you, then it's an even bet that there is probably an object somewhere that you can give them to gain safe passage. For example, early on you pick up a fan. Using the fan gives you the message 'Yeah, you feel much cooler'.
A little later on a particularly hard-looking Samurai says, 'It's a hot day - beware of the sun'. Bearing in mind that the Samurai is probably roasting underneath all that armour, you give him the fan, which he accepts gracefully. This side of the game adds real atmosphere to an already excellent adventure, and is probably why I'm writing this review after playing the game for five solid hours.
Visually, the game is a scorcher. The attention to detail is astounding, even the way the ninja's jimmy-jams wave when he walks and the way his shadow changes shape depending on his movement. The backdrops are gorgeous from start to finish, going from mysterious paper walls with hints of action shadowed on them, to huge panoramic fractal landscapes complete with trees, waterfalls, and tiny birds flying around in the backdrop.
Sounds are simple but atmospheric. The intro holds the only concession to music in the game, but there are constant background sounds such as leaves rustling, or birds singing that paint a perfect aural contrast to the vicious sounds created in battle. If the Rocky films used a car door slamming to give their punches some impact, then SOH uses samples from the Gulf War.
It's been a hell of along time since we saw a good example of this sort of game, and it takes something as good as Sword Of Honour to make you realise that. It's an excellent combat title, but there is so much more than that in there that you would be a complete fool to miss it.