Blade and Soul is an MMORPG published and developed by NCsoft way back in 2012 around the same time as the London Olympics. The game is Korean (fun South Korea not scary North Korea) made and has worked its way around most of the Asian states since its release. A lot of MMO fans have been waiting patiently for this one and finally, after three and a half years, it’s finally made its way to the English speaking regions. The only question left to answer is, was it worth the wait?
The first thing you’ll notice upon firing up the game is how gorgeous the art is. The overall design of the game is heavily inspired by Chinese culture and specifically martial arts culture. Anyone who is into video games will probably recognise that there are a lot of Japanese games that also draw heavily from Chinese source material. So I was excited to see if there was any substantial difference in a Korean interpretation. In short the answer is: not really, but that doesn’t mean that the game isn’t absolutely drop dead gorgeous in some areas. Areas generally follow a specific theme, like cemetery or pirate cove, and because of this every new locale you come along to will be strikingly disparate from the last and you’ll never grow tired of the scenery the game has to offer you. Furthermore, because of the aforementioned Chinese influence, the architecture remains impressively coherent despite the radical changes there are from place to place. It’s a joy to look at and a joy to explore because of all the movement options you’re given from the offset. Before you even get your first weapon you can sprint and glide though the world. Having so much freedom of movement right from the start feels good because the environments you’re in are pretty expansive, so it helps you get from A to B and also to find the best spots to enjoy the view. I probably had the most fun in this game just roaming around and gliding from place to place.
Cosmetics for your character are another high point in the games artistic direction. Costumes are intricate and detailed as well as being numerous. There is only an option for body and head when it comes to clothing but I think it works in the games favour as everything has a certain cohesiveness to it and unlike other MMO’s you don’t end up looking like someone who’s just attached magnets to their body and taken a stroll through the local junk yard. In fact what you wear is completely a cosmetic choice in Blade and Soul as your defence and other attributes are tied to your soul shield. The soul shield is a circle split into 8 segments that you fill up however you see fit. Generally you get bonuses for using one complete set, but you can mix and match if you want. The true genius of this system however is that it is completely invisible in every regard other than its effect. Which means you never have to put on an ugly piece of gear just because you need the stats and you can truly make your character your own. Weaponry receives a similarly ingenious solution in terms of aesthetics. Say you were to receive a sword, fist, staff, dagger etc… that trumps your current gear, but you would really miss your old weapons design, well there is an option in Blade and Soul to “glamour” your gear. On every weapon there are several upgrading slots as well as a glamour slot, if you drag any compatible weapon type into that slot, the new gear will take on the appearance of your old.
It’s really unfortunate then that that all this artistic beauty is marred by the poor technical presentation of the game. Blade and Soul is not a 2016 game and it certainly does not look it, in fact is hardly even looks like a 2012 game judging by the muddy textures found throughout. Even when I maxed out all the settings the game wasn’t much to look at. Asides from the low quality texture work, the game suffers from massive pop in issues due to it being made in Unreal 3 and the draw distance is hilariously low which really takes the joy out of studying any of the games many vistas. I can’t speak for everyone, but I did suffer from a lot of hitching during my playtime, and I do have a reasonably decent PC. There is an option for low end PC optimization which is a welcome addition to help out people without the best gear, and the game does work perfectly fine at those settings, but to be honest most computers should be able to run this title anyway. I would say they’d be able to run it fine, but as I have been explaining, it’s not the best optimisation I’ve ever seen… the game will be playable on most systems regardless.
Character models on the other hand, do not suffer from this problem at all. They are of a very high standard all in all which means that all the fashion in the game is not wasted one bit. Korean development seems to have similar priorities to Japanese teams, that is to say characters over the game world. Word of warning, if you are the kind of person who finds themselves repulsed by over sexualisation in games then you may want to give Blade and Soul a wide berth. Chose to play as a female or a male it doesn’t matter, either way you’ll end up looking like something from somebody’s masturbatory fantasy. All the girls all look like Thai hookers with silicone injected into every conceivable oraphises, and to best show off their various assets you can pose them however you might so choose. The guys do receive preferential treatment here as there are two wet dream variants for the Y chromosome. You can either look like the Incredible Hulk after pigmentation correction surgery or literally any Bishi anime boy ever. Or you can throw all that to the wind and play as the loli/fur race. Not that I mean any of this as a condemnation, or as a commendation, all I mean to do is bring attention to it, so that those of you who want this kind of perverse fun know where to find it and those who don’t know to avoid it.
NCsoft have made a big deal about the Wuxia (pronounced: WU-SHI-AH) inspired story that this game tells. They have even gone as far as to release a write up on the history of the genre in their own forums. After carefully reading the material provided and giving a glancing eyes to the source matter, I can say without a doubt that it really doesn’t matter one bit. My interpretation is not literally, but Wuxia may as well translate to: any martial arts film ever. In fact the only thing that shocked me in this game was exactly how unshocking the whole thing was. It’s a revenge plot as tried and tested as any story telling convention you can think of. You are a member of the prestigious Hong Moon academy, trained by the great master blah blah, then you are betrayed by someone, you’re the only survivor etc… etc… actually, truth be told I originally wrote that sentence as a place holder before I got the names, but then I realised if I can’t remember anyone’s name, that’s a pretty damming statement right there. The bland (maybe they should have called it Bland and Soul heh heh) story is not helped one bit by the poor voice acting this English dub has received. It’s not Resident Evil bad but it’s definitely not good in any regard. Think more along the lines of Final Fantasy X’ infamous laughing scene and you’ll get the idea.
Now that’s all out of the way I can get on to the most important element of any game, the gameplay. There is a lot of noise about how this game plays differently from other MMO’s out there. The combat is much less about stacking buffs and who has the biggest numbers, there’s still an element of that but there’s a lot more agency present here than in your standard World of Warcraft clone. Every skill you employ has an effect that links into another skill you can select. Everything flows pleasantly in action and it feel more satisfying than clicking on something enough times that it dies. The inclusion of a block button helps a lot with this feeling of active engagement, rather than standing around and waiting for your opponent to smash you upside your stupid head, you can actually defend. It’ll take the right combination of defence and offence to make the most out of combat, much like it would be in any standard action game. However, you can have the best systems ever made and if your mission design doesn’t reflect it then it’s all for naught. Imagine for a second that you have the best car engine ever made, then you put that engine in a three wheeler. All in all Blade and Souls biggest issue is that despite its genuinely fun gameplay, it still plays out its main campaign like any other MMO. Kill X amount of Y creature to get Z item repeat ad infinitum, repeat ad nausea. Thankfully the PVP does offer a respite from the monotony of the main game and opponent dependent there are some genuinely tense and enjoyable moments to be had pitting wits and skill against another player. It almost turns into an entirely different game when you enter the arena, which is a completely separate zone, where only combatants may enter. If you’re looking for a more engaging PVP experience in your MMO then Blade and Souls might be worth your time.
So in the end what can I say about Blade and Soul? The game has this amazing sense of style that permeates every aspect of its design from the way the world stiches itself together, to the way the arsenal of your party reflects everyone else’s fashion sense. But it doesn’t live up to its full potential in the looks department because of lacklustre technical direction and poor optimisation across the board. It’s a game with a really engaging input method that throws it all away with boring fetch quest and grinding sessions. It’s a game with a lot of flourish and a lot of sex appeal that has no depth to it what-so-ever. Beauty is, after all, only skin deep, and that saying rings very true for Blade and Soul. If you’re looking for a new MMO to sink hours into, then Blade and Soul is worth a look, otherwise it’s hard to recommend anyone goes out of their way to play it.