What happens when you mix World of Warcraft and kung fu? You get Blade & Soul, a free-to-play MMORPG from NCSoft, makers of Aion and Guild Wars.
Sticking close to tradition, Blade & Soul offers an experience that any seasoned MMO player should instantly be familiar with. This is both to its benefit and detriment, as you will see.
Players begin their journey at the Hongmoon School, a martial arts academy led by the unassuming Master Hong. Your character is affectionately referred to as “Cricket” by those in the school. You complete a quick tutorial where you meet the other students. But then, the ruthless Jinsoyun attacks the Hongmoon training ground Heaven’s Reach and systematically murders everyone you’ve just met.
Now without a school or master, you get rescued when found floating adrift in the sea. The main game begins here. Cricket vows to get revenge for the Hongmoon massacre and take down Jinsoyun once and for all.
Quests stay within the standard fare of MMORPGs. You take X thing to Y place, kill X amount of a monster type, etc. Though the quests don’t offer much in the way of excitement or story, they don’t overstay their welcome. So, it’s quick and easy to gain experience and level up solo or with a friend.
In fact, most of the game feels like a quick and easy way to gain experience and level up. Many enemies fall over at the slightest suggestion of an attack. The first large boss I encountered at the end of a quest line gave me hope for a challenging fight. But then I felled the monster in a measly three hits.
It’s a shame, as the combat feels responsive, requiring strategy and patience to combo moves together. But none of that comes through in the PvE encounters.
Combat proves to be the heart of Blade & Soul. It’s the biggest differentiator from other MMOs in the genre and much more involved than simple auto-attacking or waiting for cooldowns.
Every ability has a specific purpose. Weaving them together in the right order to get the most out of your character feels very rewarding. For instance, the Greatsword-wielding Warden uses health as the main resource for attacks, making each fight in theory a balancing act between dealing damage, resisting damage, and healing using specific abilities.
The only problem is that the aforementioned NPC enemies die in one or two hits, leaving the player no room for experimentation with the systems. You might discover some awesome combination of abilities that stuns the enemy and deals massive damage. But there’s really no use to get fancy with it when some abilities one-shot every monster around you.
There’s simply no challenge in PvE combat. The only time I ever died while playing Blade & Soul was at the hands of another player.
Fortunately, player vs. player combat really shines under the game’s unique fighting system. Blade & Soul has a thriving eSports community built around the arena gameplay. Every ability, combo, and decision carries much more weight when playing against another person on an even playing field.
In the early game, players can get their PvP fix by wearing uniforms to align themselves with certain factions, making the other faction fair game to kill. This causes some problems, though, as higher-level players will patrol the early areas looking for targets with the wrong outfit on.
Thankfully, the PvP arena equalizes gear stats, but lower-level players still don’t have access to all of their character’s skills. With this in mind it almost seems intentional that the leveling experience provides no challenge, as players can quickly get to the true star of the show.
It seems that combat, and to an extent the whole game, was designed with this arena in mind and the MMO around it acts as window dressing. Personally, Blade & Soul would be a lot more fun as a straight-up battle arena title from the get-go, rather than a barebones MMO with an engaging PvP component.
Another standout in Blade & Soul is the beautiful environment design. The Earthen Realm took my breath away in the more detailed environments like Heaven’s Reach with its gravity-defying floating islands or the gloomy skies of Everdusk.
Sadly, this beauty doesn’t extend to every area of the game, a completely understandable limitation. But around the fifth time you venture into an abandoned cave system with the same gray rocky textures, it starts to get old.
Thankfully, the movement systems in place in Blade & Soul make traversal a breeze. Sprinting makes crossing long distances much more bearable than the slow trod of the World of Warcraft without a mount. And gliding through the air feels fun and allows the environments to adopt a vertical design. Other movement options like running on water keep the environmental design varied and really sell the kung fu fantasy.
Blade & Soul doesn’t break the mold or revolutionize the MMORPG genre. But the innovations it offers in combat make for an entertaining, if simple, MMO and a challenging, rewarding PvP experience.
Don’t expect much in the way of story or immersion. But if the combat piques your interest, there’s no harm in giving Blade & Soul a shot.