It’s been four years since Blade and Soul first launched in Asia. For western fans of the game, the wait has been torture. But now that it’s finally here, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. Blending the traditions of fighting games and MMOs is a great idea, but Blade and Soul’s smart combat doesn’t propel it out of the shadow of other MMORPGs. It has too few surprises and lacks too many features. Compared to its free-to-play peers—especially NCSoft’s own Wildstar—Blade and Soul is a hard game to recommend.
If you’ve played any MMO in the past decade, you’re likely already familiar with every activity Blade and Soul will occupy you with. On your quest to reach the level cap and open up the endgame activities, you’ll journey through fantastical mountains and jungles, run dungeons, and, if the fancy strikes you, dabble in crafting and gathering skills. Blade and Soul rarely endeavors to do anything original with this formulaic structure, and what few deviations it makes have middling results.
Kicking everything but tradition
Your quest to avenge your friends and master after they’re murdered by the mysterious Jinsoyun has the weight of a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s good fun, but not exactly gripping stuff. And though there are charming moments, they’re stretched over the PvE campaign and getting to them felt like sitting at the dinner table while my mother threatened to withhold dessert until I finished my vegetables.
It’s a ceaseless barrage of ‘go here and kill X of Y’ quests mixed with a few variants that always fail to mix things up. Escaping from these quests is nearly impossible as they’re the only way to level up at a reasonable pace. Dungeons and PvP might suffice for more patient players, but the paltry experience points earned in either means it would take much longer to reach the same destination.
There’s also an annoying lack of quality-of-life features. Monsters or objects that you need for quests are available to everyone, not just you, which can make questing in crowded zones a nightmare as there’s no way to share the progress you earn from killing monsters with other players unless you group together. You can switch between “channels” in hopes of finding an instance of a zone that isn’t as populated, but it’s an inelegant solution to a problem that was solved years ago, made even more puzzling when you realize that the many bosses found wandering the zones will share their rewards equally whether you kill them as part of a group or not.
Dungeons are typically a welcome distraction from the bread and butter questing in other MMOs, but I found many to be unimaginative and short—most are barely dungeons in the traditional sense. Instead, they’re five minute romps through one indistinguishable cave or another with an anticlimactic boss waiting at the end. Instead of demanding teamwork or mastery of your class, even the bigger, more elaborate dungeons feel like a breeze. I never struggled to beat them as an incomplete party well beneath the recommended level.
Gathering and crafting are underdeveloped, too, requiring nothing more than time and money. You can join two crafting and two gathering guilds, but the process of acquiring resources feels is just a money sink, not a rewarding investment. You simply select what item you want to craft or gather, pay the fee, and then wait a certain amount of real time (around 20 minutes) and collect the item.
Like most free-to-play games, Blade and Soul has an in-game cash shop for you to spend real money or a special in-game currency on. Fortunately, those who choose to ignore the cash shop won’t be at any real disadvantage as the items are either cosmetic or for convenience, like keys that guarantee the weapons found in a chest can be used by your class.
If there’s one aspect of the PVE experience worth recognizing, it’s that Blade and Soul’s environments are gorgeous. They don’t necessarily feel cohesive, and there’s very little convincing you that you’re exploring a living world, but the backdrop and flavors of each zone are wonderful to look at. Sadly, performance was somewhat uneven as frame dips and hitches were common and unaffected by tweaking the graphics settings.
The art design will be contentious, however, as it insists nearly every woman be scantily clad, busty, and tiny-waisted. The character creator has a good degree of flexibility, but it’s obvious what it’s going for. I had a great time hunting down new costumes, for instance, and all have elements of true artistry that I adored, but it’s disappointing that many feel like they were fully designed before someone sneaked in with scissors one night and snipped breast holes into them. At least the race you choose makes a difference—the Yun and the cat-like Lyn both seem to have more sensible portrayals compared to the Gon and Jin.
What ultimately turned me off about the characters was the embarrassing breast physics that caused every woman’s chest, big or small, to bounce around like two helium balloons on a windy day. I realize that skimpy costumes and absurdly bouncy chests are par for the course in anime, but the adolescent fantasy detracts from the whole thing—I want to play as a badass fighter, not a hypersexualized doll.
I know kung fu
All of this would paint Blade and Soul as another ‘been there done that’ Korean MMORPG if it weren’t for one thing: the excellent player-versus-player combat that feels more like playing a fighting game than an MMO. It’s already a popular esport in the East, and I suspect it’ll only continue to grow as western competitors join the ranks.
At any time, you can hop into an arena lobby and get matched against another player. In these duels the stats of your gear are equalized, making victory entirely about raw skill rather than who has the better equipment.
But there’s a big problem with the PvP: It can’t truly be appreciated until you’ve already pushed through the dreadfully dull PvE and leveled your character up to the cap. While arena matches equalize gear, you won’t have access to all of your abilities until you’ve unlocked them through leveling. Even worse, from what I could tell, little attempt is made to pair you with opponents of similar levels. Early on I was frequently matched against players 20 levels higher than me, resulting in a huge disadvantage when I hadn’t even unlocked my most powerful skills.
Each of the seven classes has their own unique approach to combat that feels highly distinctive. Though I initially fell in love with the kung fu master’s reliance on combos and counters, I quickly came to prefer the sheer brutality of the destroyer, who wields a massive axe and can chokehold opponents while smashing their face repeatedly.
Instead of mashing complicated hotkey rotations while relying on auto-attacks to fill in the blanks, combat in Blade and Soul lets you take direct control of your character. There’s a satisfying complexity to the way your abilities branch out over the course of a fight depending on what state you and your opponent are both in. Getting grabbed or knocked onto your back will swap the skills on your hotkey bar for situational abilities that can be properly timed to help swing the fight back in your favor. Playing as my destroyer, a well timed counter could send my opponent flying, opening them up to the punishment of a pile driver.
This fluid approach to combat creates a tense give-and-take that looks elegant while rewarding skill and timing. Even against an obviously better opponent, I never felt completely outmatched in a fight when one well-timed counter could swing the odds back in my favor. I threw my hands up in victory more than once.
Sadly, outside of the arena, combat doesn’t have nearly the same effect—especially against the countless monsters on the journey to the endgame. Though most will make some attempt to mimic the abilities used when fighting other players, they’re hardly a substitute. I found the general difficulty of most of the PvE combat to be disappointingly easy. Instead of dynamic and challenging combat, fighting most of the computer controlled enemies became a boring routine. Like other MMOs, I spammed the same rotations of abilities over and over again as I cleaved my way across the world while eying my experience bar as if it were the hands of a clock on the last day of school.
This is where the tension in Blade and Soul’s aspirations to be an MMO and a highly competitive fighting game is at its worst. And where I wish that the entire MMO aspect could be made optional or done away with entirely. If the PvE and leveling were actually fun, I might be more forgiving of the way PvP is held hostage until you’ve invested several dozen hours grinding your character to level 45. But as it is, I just can’t imagine many of the competitive players Blade and Soul could attract are going to look kindly on investing that time before they can even get to the good part of the game.
Without other distractions like housing or more in-depth crafting, Blade and Soul feels pretty light. Outside of the PvP, it’s just the same grind that’s already done much better in other games. If the PvP were more immediately accessible to new players, I don’t think that’d be nearly as big of a problem, but Blade and Soul insists on being a derivative MMO first and a great competitive fighting game second.