Blade & Soul: hands-On

Game code provided by the publisher

NCSoft’s Blade & Soul isn’t exactly a new game; since 2012, the game has seen successful releases throughout the Asian territories beginning with South Korea, so you might be scratching your head as to why the game would warrant a preview rather than a review. The answer is simple: The MMORPG is finally headed to the Western world in early 2016, and we were lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to find out what makes it stand out from the crowd ahead of its release.

The biggest of these is the game’s narrative. Much like Final Fantasy XIV’s most recent expansion, Heavensward, Blade and Soul does away with the MMORPG mentality of old and integrates a compelling story into the game just like a more traditional RPG. While World of Warcraft and the majority of its expansions, Rift, and others made each player just another face in the crowd, Blade and Soul casts your character as the hero; the catalyst for change within its world, completely ignoring the fact that there are thousands of others in the exact same role.

While this doesn’t make any kind of logistical sense, it’s an enormous breath of fresh air in a genre that has long been stymied by the problem of integrating players into the story in any kind of interesting way. Blade and Soul deals with it by simply pretending it isn’t there.

As for the story itself, it doesn’t take much time to see enough to be unsurprised at the anime adaptation the game saw last year. Blade and Soul begins in a martial arts school with a handful of pupils that very quickly sees strife fall upon it in the form of an eclectic cast of villains that look and sound like they’ve been pulled straight out of a shonen manga, complete with exaggerated designs and personality quirks that will immediately endear them to fans of anime; but which might be a little too eccentric for your typical World of Warcraft player. The game seems to know its audience and fortunately doesn’t appear to be making too many concessions to a broader one in the localisation process.

Cutscenes also wear the game’s anime influence on its sleeve in bright flashing neon; pretty early on we were treated to some delightful madness in the form of the frail bunny-eared mentor putting on a battle performance Yoda would be proud of before calling upon the power of his weapon to turn into a giant whose muscles have muscles. It’s yet another anime trope – the henshin transformation – so your own feelings toward this may be coloured by your tolerance to anime. But if you’re a fan we feel pretty confident in saying you’ll be wearing a pretty broad grin by the time it’s all over.

Localisation of the script seems to be coming along well as there were no glaring egregious problems that we found, and the story seems like it will be a fairly dense one. Even the sidequests, which have usually been the domain of the laziest of writing in MMORPGs, have fairly solid narratives to them that occasionally intertwine or pop up later on.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these sidequests don’t deviate too much from the old MMORPG formula of killing or collecting ten pigs or carrots and going back to the quest giver for more experience points and gear. They don’t exactly make for compelling gameplay sequences, and veterans of the genre may well find their eyes glazing over at the familiar motions they’ll be going through.

Blade and Soul’s combat appears to be a little more action-oriented than the older games in the genre, though it still gets fairly rote quite quickly and we found it became quite a bore by the third dungeon we took part in as there was little diversity in enemy mechanics. It again feels like going through the MMORPG motions.

What is fairly unique to Blade and Soul’s combat is the reliance on parries. At least two of the classes, Blademaster and Kung Fu Master, revolve around timing their defensive ability in order to prompt a swift counter attack with immediate effect and bonus damage. Abilities can also be customised with a lot of depth, though we were unable to really dive into that aspect of the game over the preview weekend we took part in.

raphically, Blade and Souls is a mixed bag; sometimes the game looks surprisingly decent for a game announced in 2007, right until we noticed background objects with blurry textures the like of which we haven’t seen since the PS2. Fortunately these are only minor elements in the game, and the world and characters are rendered in an art style that hides the technical weaknesses of the engine.

At this point in development it’s unlikely to see any drastic changes to the game, and that’s a real shame: The focus on – and approach to – story is a much needed exception in a genre that’s been desperately lacking in that regard since inception and anime-inspired eccentricities make for an extra delight, but the gameplay doesn’t really do enough yet to stand out in the genre. With a few tweaks it would be a contender for our attention when the game launches next year, but as is Blade and Soul just can’t compete.

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Written by Adam S

Hailing from Parts Unknown, Adam grew up with a passion for three things: Videogames, anime, and writing. Unfortunately his attempts to combine the three have yet to form Captain Planet, but they have produced some good byproducts.

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