Come sail (and dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge) away with me.

Swordship is touted as a “dodge-em-up”, which is like a shmup, only there are lots (and lots) of things you need to dodge. This time, everything is shooting at you, not the other way around.

Let’s get the obligatory pun out of the way and dive right into it. Speaking of diving, that is one of the tools you have at your disposal. The ship you are piloting is a sort of sci-fi speedboat with the ability to take short dives and to pick up cargo containers. Like many of its shmuppy cousins, Swordship is set up as a 2D lane runner. There is really only one wide lane in which you can smoothly move from side to side. You also get the depth of the screen to move back and forward in the field. Combined with the brief diving ability, you should be able to avoid all sorts of unpleasantness.

One of my gaming pet peeves is being dumped into the action with little to no explanation of the rules or goals. Swordship does a fair job at making introductions to hazards and moving your boat around and diving. Where it fell a bit short was in letting the player know what the desired containers look like and how to actually collect and deliver them. The short version is that the container is a long box at the end of a yellow runway; just center your boat on the yellow runway to intercept the container and you collect it automatically. Then you need to move your boat on top of a small (Swordship-sized) oval and wait for a couple seconds to drop the container. Hey, presto—you get some points!

Now that you know how to collect containers, you have a choice regarding how to use your newfound points. You can keep containers for yourself and add extra lives, or you can “donate” them to “the cause” and help everyone in your society. If you donate the container, you get points which can be used to upgrade your ship with added/new capabilities. If you keep a container, you get an extra life. This can be very important because the game is completely unforgiving when it comes to failure. If any enemy lands a hit on you, or if you touch any enemy unit, you die instantly. There are no “three strikes,” there is no damage meter, there is no do-over, there are no save points, there is absolutely no room for error; death is instant. If you have an extra life in your pocket, you can pick up from where you died, but if you don’t have an extra life you get to start over at city 1, level 1, every time. I found this disappointing, but I get it.

Quirks and irritations aside, Swordship is visually appealing and plays very smoothly and intuitively. There are not a lot of visual elements, but that isn’t really the point. All of the things trying to shoot, explode, burn, or otherwise destroy you are all bad-guy black, the weapon tracks are bright red, and your boat is very visible yellow. The rest is done well enough to look good without being too distractive. As noted, the container runway is also bright yellow, so it’s easy to see where you need to be, and in the case of the red stuff, where not to be at any given moment. The game does a good job of providing the player cues regarding all the dangers you will face. When you get too close to a mine, a red circle shows the blast radius. It starts out pale red and gets brighter and opaque just before it explodes. So too, with the laser cannon; they send out a targeting beam which gets brighter just before it fires, and so on. These cues are very handy for two reasons:

  1. You can make sure you “de-boat” the area at the right moment.
  2. You can use the enemy’s desire to shoot you to make them target each other. You even get bonus points for taking out the baddies this way so have some fun with it.

As one might expect of this type of game, you spend a lot of time replaying levels while you get used to the flow of things and gather enough upgrades to be able to survive a little longer. Don’t bother trying to figure out patterns, however; the levels are random enough to keep you on your toes.

Swordship offers enough challenge from the start to keep the player engaged, and loads of replay opportunity for those seeking the thrill of mastering shmups (or, in this case, anti-shmups).