Increased enthusiasm for tactical role-playing games in recent years is leading to a wealth of fun indie experiences in the genre. Dancing Dragon Games, a small JRPG developer, partnered with Dark Deity publisher Freedom Games for its own entry, Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga. It isn’t just an homage, though, offering overlaid tactical systems that make it feel mechanically distinct. The scrappy release isn’t much of a looker (though there’s some nice sprite work!), but the gameplay is what matters, and there’s a lot of thought to it.
The tactical mechanics of Symphony of War are inspired by a lot of classic games, primarily Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem. Instead of individual fighters on the grid-based map, you form squads of up to nine warriors operating as one. These squads essentially auto-battle based on how they’re arranged, so putting together teams that work well is key. There are ranged units, magic units, firearms and more, each with gameplay implications. Squads also have movement based on their aggregate capabilities, like the increased range of cavalry or the minimized terrain penalties of light infantry.
The core of Symphony of War’s appeal lies in its micromanagement. Building a squad is just plain fun. Combining unit classes? Outfitting the team with the ideal artifacts? These systems scratch a very particular itch, and they do it better than anything we’ve played recently. There’s a lot of variety in what works, too. A diverse team can work well and be prepared for any situation, sure. But what about a whole crew of long-range archers? You have to protect them from a direct attack, but the sheer firepower can be well worth it.
Chapters can vary in length and complexity. At the low end, they’re at Fire Emblem levels, but larger maps can be longer and more involved. If you enjoy games like Langrisser with a bit more to manage, you’ll appreciate this stuff more. It’s also a game that rewards spending time between chapters optimizing your loadouts. You may not have to do it, but we disbanded and rebuilt our teams every few chapters, and it felt rewarding to do so when our reconfigured capacities fit in another unit or led to increased artifact synergy.
Symphony of War is undeniably a RPG Maker game at heart. Phil Hamilton and the Dancing Dragon Games team have done a lot of work to augment the engine’s capabilities, for sure. But production values are limited by the system, and the story sequences retain that RPG Maker look that is irrevocably associated with low-quality fan games.
Early players will likely encounter some bugs and weirdness. Our time with the game during the pre-release review period shows that the game’s definitely coming in hot. Our cursor got stuck. Recruiting units got broken. The entire Surrender mechanic changed mid-playthrough. The developer is clearly paying a lot of attention and working hard, so there are a lot of benefits to that! (Like that recruiting issue? We reported it and it was fixed within hours.) It’s just good to know that things could be in flux for a little while.
The story is ambitious for a largely-solo production. Gods! Prophecies! Intrigue! It’d take a lot to make this work, and Symphony of War doesn’t often have the resources for “a lot.” But it’s tolerable, and in service of the mechanical progression. Most occurrences are accompanied by a new power or class change. It also goes places. It may not entirely earn its big moments, but you can’t say it doesn’t try.
Symphony of War could definitely do a better job of explaining itself. There’s a full system of tutorial documents, and that’s nice, but contextually? More could be done. We’d especially like to see a quick indication of how many deployment slots are available in the next chapter. Entering the next map and then bailing is an option, but early in the game, we’d just like a heads-up when we have more room for squads. Generally speaking, when you make build choices in the game, you should look through the manuals too.
This feels like a game for which challenge definitely snowballs. We played through the full 30-chapter campaign on the normal difficulty, and optimization efforts led to us outpacing the opposition. The game’s built on breaking the system in your favor, through the tech tree and super-powered god characters. The top tech options, in particular, bust open a lot of maps. For example, one unlocks Dragon Riders. In addition to being great fighters, they’re also the only flying units in a game that doesn’t really take them into account.
This is fundamentally and intentionally part of the progression, so you’d expect the game’s challenge to take it into account with ramped-up foes. But outside of some efforts to show mercy on the other army? We skated through the back half of the game with little trouble. The game also has a “permadeath” option, though, which can swing in the other direction entirely. Losing particular squad units happens all the time with totally sound strategy. Brutal! But hey, it’s here as an option for ya.
Appreciating Symphony of War takes some adjustment to its production values, but our 50 hours with the game were largely a joy. It’s built for those who delight in fiddling with systems and tweaking squad builds, and its combination of ideas offers a distinct tactical experience.
Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga is developed by Dancing Dragon Games and published by Freedom Games. It’s available now on PC.