Reign of Swords: Episode 2 Hands-On

Now updated with hands-on video. Click ahead to watch some of Reign 2′s mystical siege machines and heroic character units in action.

War in the Middle East these days depresses us. Thankfully, Reign of Swords: Episode 2 has all of the sand-swept deserts, with none of the tanks, bombs, or missiles. The closest thing in this medieval fantasy game to heavy artillery is a catapult or ballistae. If you enjoyed the horsemen vs. mythical creatures showdown in The Mummy Returns, you’ll probably like where this game is headed stylistically.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, the original Reign of Swords is a turn-based strategy game with an army that you can customize between stages. When you deploy your troops, you only have a certain amount of points you can spend, so battles don’t get too unbalanced. You can also take on side missions to earn loot that helps you upgrade your army. For example, a shiny medal turns a powerful Knight into a nearly unstoppable Hero.

Each character starts with 100 health points, but that doesn’t last long. Instead of fighting at full strength until they’re dead, units cause less damage as they get hurt. As a result, you have to be thoughtful about which enemy units you target, and if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty details you can drill through the provided information about which weapons are most effective against which kinds of armor.

This isn’t completely necessary, however. Even though it takes about half an hour to get comfortable with the combat system, you’ll soon figure out how to keep your troops in formation while dealing out damage to the enemy army. On levels that let you choose your own troops, your strategy’” long range, short range, or hit-and-run’” is all up to you.

Early on in the single-player campaign, we began to encounter some of the new gameplay features that make the battles a bit more interesting than in Reign of Swords 1. Warp portals dot the early levels, and since you can’t move immediately after stepping out of one, you’re vulnerable for a turn.

Also, several of the new units have very handy abilities that can shape the battle, should you choose to utilize them. A new unit called the Craftsmen, who you must rescue in one of the first missions, can build huts to regenerate health for other units. We like to think of these little tents as porta-potties. Craftsmen can also pound a few nails to repair a broken section of wall or weakened siege weapon.

Ah, and the artillery. We’ve covered many different kinds of catapults on Slide to Play, from those that launch penguins to the kind that whacks orcs from Saga, but these siege weapons are among the most interesting. The new Ballistae unit delivers an electric bolt across three spaces, making it essential to thinning out the enemy’s advancing ranks. Catapult and Trebuchet units are iffy on the accuracy, but can make even the strongest units go squish after a few rounds.

The new units are definitely the stars here, and we haven’t even mentioned the fantasy units like sandtrap-creating Dune Sirens, parasitic Blood Gorgers, and a never-lonesome Conjurer (he always summons some monstrous buddies to keep him company).

The creative new fighting units are definitely a reason to check out this sequel, but the new multiplayer features are worth a look as well. Instead of playing out automatically after a brief setup like in the first game, the online battles will actually be turn-based. You’ll also be able to move one turn, send it to your opponent, and have them send their next move whenever they’re ready. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to try out any online games for this preview, but they sound promising. Plus, we’re also told you can carry over your same army from the first game, if you’re particularly fond of it.

Hardcore strategy players will want to spend time poring over every new addition in this sequel, but even newcomers will probably be able to catch on quickly. Consider this: even if you’ve never played or really enjoyed a turn-based strategy game, Reign of Swords: Episode 2 may be the one that makes you appreciate the genre. Bringing new players on board’” now that’s a hopeful sign for iPhone gaming.