Martial Arts Adventure Island – Blade & Soul
So MMO Action RPGs are something sort of exist, but mostly on the edges of usual discussion, being attempts to remove (or at least, dampen) the cooldown musical keyboard game many traditional MMORPGs went with for their combat. Probably something that doesn’t help why they don’t get talked about is that a few tend to come from Korea, land of the notoriously grindy timesink design philosophy. Although we get a few shuttle their way over, usually with the incredibly slow progress stripped out and everything accelerated to fit, although Blade & Soul is one of those that simply didn’t come over.
Three-and-a-half years later, it’s finally getting an English release. Which is also over a year after it got a Japanese anime series. It took the long way round, which means it works quite nicely on older computers! Excellent.
They’ve been running some closed beta test weekends since October for the English release on the 19th of January, I slipped into the last one held last weekend as they were handing out keys for websites to give away like it was nothing and played it for a day and a bit. Then stopped playing well before the weekend was over, as I was having fun. Can’t get too invested now, I know what I’m like when it’ll go poof.
Blade & Soul is every martial arts stereotype and convention you can think of thrown in together (one of the classes is even kung fu master, includes grappling), and it knows it. Thus it very quickly starts having fun with its NPCs, with tiny old masters who hand out menial tasks to everybody trying to get lessons out of them and honourable warriors who’d rather you deal with their undead problem than them as they really stink. It even starts with waking up in a dojo that’s atop some mountains floating in the sky. You can also do aeroplane-pose sprinting and jump as high as a building because of course you can.
Therefore actual combat is suitably fancy, it’s more akin to playing a brawler with combinations of moves you can string together, some which only can be used after others, or get boosted from doing so, and the increasing suite of evasive skills you gain by double tapping the movement keys, or for some character classes, immediately swivelling behind a foe with Q or E. Even though there are a lot of skills you end up having, you never can use them all at once, thus mostly restricting you to about six buttons, left/right mouse, 1-4, and Tab by default. With some follow-ups triggered by F or Spacebar, and generally more supporting abilities on the bottom row of Z/X/C/V. It takes some learning, especially as to keep it compact skills automatically replace others in the skilllbar depending on the situation. Like for example, skill 1 might be a kick that knocks a foe over, but outside of legreach that slot is occupied by a boomerang throw of a sword, and if you activate another skill which suspends a poor foe with your best Darth Vader impression, it’ll become the act of slamming them into the ground instead. Though most attacks either consume or restore a class’ blue secondary bar, so they have be varied to not get caught short. Positioning is important, as standard attacks, triggered with left-clicks, allow you to move freely, which is something you want to do, and classes have different defensive options, some focus on blocking attacks, others on activating counterattacks, and some just rely on not being hit at all, instead darting out of strikes, and enemies’ larger attacks are telegraphed with not only their movements but also orange or red areas of impending doom on the ground.
You really don’t want to get hit, it hurts.
It feels very different from TERA, another similar action-based MMO which instead adhered more strongly to the holy trinity of MMORPG combat of tank-damage-healer, although had dodges and also used its superb hitboxes (better than Blade & Soul’s as far as I can tell, there were ridiculously detailed, just being short meant you could avoid some weapon swings), to allow for things like an ‘evasion tank’, that relied on simply not being hit rather than trying to deflect all incoming blows with blocks and the like, but could still parry blows in a pinch. B&S instead, from the early dungeon runs I did, it felt more like being a team of varyingly acrobatic fighters all fending off hordes of minons or all swarming around a titan of a foe attempting to coordinate attacks to stun them and create an opening. There wasn’t one person standing in the front trying to be the singular focus of attention, being fed most of the support from a back line, instead a rotation of dancers darting in and out of range or parrying whenever big attacks got pointed their way. Apparently later dungeons get more tactical, but from the outset it really doesn’t want to pigeon-hole people into having one sole role in a fight and nothing else, even the more spellcaster-archetype classes either have abilities to use at close range, or have to manage their own familiar sidekick to do melee for them.
This does mean there isn’t really heavy healing at all, only self-healing from certain skill upgrades or infrequent potion use, and larger dungeons actually offer dispensers of essentially extra health bars, usually two being the standard, which can only be replaced if lost from another dispenser in the dungeon. They seem to be located before every every major fight of a dungeon, and seem to do a good job of keeping fights dangerous if you mess up badly, but still giving you some extra wiggle room to fudge things. Although losing all your health doesn’t instantly mean death like it classically does, instead it means you go into a downed state where you can only crawl away from harm, not unlike Gears of War, of all things. You can pick yourself up if you’re uninterrupted and stationary for 20 seconds, which is quicker if an ally comes to help, but you can’t fight back like Guild Wars 2. You can even revive fully-dead allies this way, although it always takes an undisturbed 20 seconds to do so, and no amount of help makes it faster, so it’s a riskier process.
They seem to be taking a similar line in offering stuff for sale as Guild Wars 2, because they’re going as a free-to-play game, but after taking out the pay-2-win stuff it was riddled with because that’s how many of these games work in other countries, China in particular. Mostly in the store is cosmetic or convenience tat, and also the odds and ends that are somewhat useful but they give out for free for logging in and generally playing the game. Not content with that, they also want a subscription-like model that gives some benefits! Mostly just slightly less taxes on things like sending mail and a bit more earned experience. I’d prefer them not to have this nonsense, but really, the nicest thing on the entire list of benefits is a open-anywhere wardrobe for your outfits, so it’s not offering a massive amount. You also can sort-of trade your in-game money for cash shop currency in a somewhat limited way, so that’s nice.
And outfits there are many, and all entirely aesthetic, except the few that flag you as belonging to a faction that uniformed members of the opposing faction can attack as a result, whether they’re other players or NPCs, meaning any open-world PvP is entirely opt-in. Design-wise, you’ve got your usual smatterings of ridiculous exposed tiny bras for some female outfits, although quite often the male equivalent ends up being shirtless, as this is a martial arts pastiche we’re talking about here. Instead numbers come from whatever jewellery you’re wearing, and the parts that make up your currently equipped ‘Soul Shield’. Which are the eight slices of the wooden hexagonal pie you’ve got on. They give you extra bonuses for using multiple ones of the same set, and can be modified by attaching stats from other ones to them. Certain weapons/trinkets can be upgraded by mushing them together with other weapons/trinkets to level them up, and then put into higher tiers or entirely different items by combining them with specific components. It’s nice as it means all that junk you’ve picked up, and probably can’t all sell as the player market is limited to ten listings a day, gets used for something, even weapons you cannot use, as the weapon type doesn’t have to match. Neat economic sink.
It’s not a personal drop system, but any rare purple equipment you find cannot be traded at all, which is often a blessing when you stumble across a purple you need in a dungeon, unless everyone else wants it. Then the bidding begins, as it has a loot auction system that has cropped up in other MMOs, but unlike some of them, the winning bid gets split evenly amongst the rest of the party instead of vanishing to the ether, and this combined with purple loot being unsellable, means people only get into fights over stuff they really want. Though it is funny if you happen to end up in a party with some rich people who just throw money around. I actually had my reserves triple just from one run with two such people who fought over multiple times. Although the bidding slows down dungeon crawling, at least at poor early levels when everyone’s trying to scrounge up cash, as leaving a dungeon segment removes you from the auction, and they generally start just before such transitions. Although at least some of the loot will be utterly worthless to you anyway, or can be fed to another item or melted down for materials. Especially when you’re looking for that last purple shield slice, arrrgh.
There’s a bunch of staples of Korean MMOs that are actually absent here, which is nice, like crafting or improving weapons never fails or runs a risk of undoing all of the work you’ve put into it… when often that no risk of failure would require some special high-grade material, that you can probably buy from them for money. If there was ever a thing to get people to sink time and effort into things, that’s one of the more transparent schemes. Thankfully it’s just not here. Crafting in general is a bit strange though, you can join two gathering and two refining guilds, and you get materials by… ordering them, from the NPCs. Then waiting until they finish. It’s odd, but seems to work, and as you can’t join them all, so you either have to set up an internal mailing network (no shared storage here, all tied per character, like that old standby comparison World of Warcraft) with your own characters or find other people to help you out, or just buy it directly. While there are some nice features like a cross-server dungeon group finder lobby, which doesn’t have role specifications, small solo dungeons, and experience bar requirements which don’t leap into the hundreds of thousands in five minutes (it’s just nice to keep track of numbers that make sense).
Although the quest design is very fetch-quest, they’re spread out a fair bit, and due to the pace quickening in localisation, I was actually overlevelling bouncing from quest to quest fairly handily, time will tell if they change that, but I really hope they don’t, and the game adjusts murder experience on your level anyway. Plus you have to go through a fully-voiced, somewhat self-aware, martial arts tale of looking for a “Chosen One” whom the Eight Masters aiming to defend the world have been waiting around for a week for and they’re getting bored of sitting around doing nothing. The story instances in which they do these are pretty seamlessly loading too, just through a doorway or cave and probably not even a loading screen. Sometimes you’ll even be in separate phase of a town that’s currently under attack so you’ll only see people who are also on that stage with you fighting back instead of being totally alone. Then sometimes they give you a random item to use, or sometimes just found on the ground, like flamethrowers, bombs or muskets.
Other nice ideas: can teleport to pretty much any town or outpost on the map for a small fee instantly from anywhere, kinda costly to begin with though it’s a game that really likes to keep low numbers on currency, coppers remain relevant for quite a while. For more scripted travels there’s the dragon pulses, which are basically dispensers of silly-looking superpowered chasm jumping and cliff running, certainly beats slowly flying animals. Also free refunds of your skill tree investments whenever you want! Yay! I’ve not done very deep into the upgrades, but since you learn skills automatically by just gaining levels, your choices come from what branches of what skills you want to invest in, and they often lend themselves to very different synergies with others, or more rarely, just change them outright, like turning an offensive attack into a dedicated parrying skill. Also when was the last time you saw a big game steeped in fantasy martial arts stuff? Jade Empire maybe? It’s just not something drawn up for games very often.
This is the part where I run out of concrete thoughts and ramble and trail off a bit, although that’s proof to me enough to carry on with it when it comes out proper, and probably pick apart some more unnecessarily.
Also because it’s free, that helps.
Even though their pre-order packs are either a lot of money for nothing or just a lot of money. £18 for just (pretty much) three-day early access, and the next one up is £55 (then £95!) Suuuure.