Blade & Soul, NCSoft’s latest MMORPG, launched in North America on January 19. In development for nearly ten years, it has been available in Korea since 2012, so by now, most of the rough edges have been smoothed out and at least some of the MMO birthing issues should be minimal. While it’s not Hardcore Gamer’s policy to review an MMORPG at launch, I had the chance to jump in early and take a couple of characters to level 10, so this is less of a review than first and early impressions. We’ll do a full review a little later on.
The game begins with an impressively long and well-produced series of cutscenes and tutorial missions that both clarify the mechanics and Blade and Soul’s core story. It feels very much like an interactive anime film, and while the plot isn’t going to impress you with its originality, the production values are excellent and won’t make you feel like hitting the skip button…at least the first time. Your character has been training in ancient martial arts for years on an idyllic island dojo when it is attacked by the evil sorceress Jinsoyun and your master and just about everyone else is killed, thus setting up the story of retribution that will fuel the game’s action. Throughout the game, the main quest line characters are fully voiced, though the sideq uest characters are not. As in so many Korean MMOs, the English voice acting and localization is earnest but wildly contemporary and the attempts at humor are lame. Some credit must be given for introducing a wide variety of character types and a story that provides a little more context for the action.
Before the end of the tutorial missions you have been outfitted with the basics of your class and given a clear idea of how everything in Blade and Soul works, which in most cases follows the standard MMORPG playbook. There are variants: fast travel is called “Windwalking” and costs gold, quest markers for starting, ending and mid-point are specific icons, and of course there are the fairly frequent reminders to spend real money to expand storage space, earn faster XP, and or unlock specific items or abilities. As in so many Korean MMOs — the recent Black Desert Online included — the chat channel is chock full of gold vendors.
Blade and Soul does, however, manage to squeeze a little more juice out of the genre by emphasizing combo-based combat that isn’t simply mindless hacking and slashing or spamming spells. By the time my characters had reached level ten (out of 45), they had two main attacks and three additional combo moves, such as a kick/slash combo, or a grab and slam attack. Combat is actually quite fluid and dodging enemy attacks and putting together effective combos is fun. The ability to respond to and chain attacks with other players in a party results some wild, acrobatic, martial arts-movie chaos. Enemy AI isn’t especially advanced and disappointingly consists of mobs that primarily exist for no other reason than to be dispatched, with mini-bosses or bosses having more hit points and a slightly deeper set of moves. Likewise, the character classes — though, happily, not gender locked as in some Korean MMOs — aren’t incredibly innovative, consisting of the traditional tanks, range fighters, dual-wielders, casters, etc. The classes follow a specific progression so there is no way to build a tank/healer hybrid or dual bladed caster.
At least in the early levels, progression is well-paced and areas and mobs are introduced in a rather linear fashion that matches the approximate character level. Unfortunately — and this may change at more advanced stages of the game — the quests are the usual fetch and kill assignments that seem to be at the core of grind-heavy MMOs. The game seamlessly transitions between instanced dungeons or cutscenes and public areas though Windwalking back to hub areas necessitates a bit of loading time.
NCSoft MMOs — the Lineage games and Guild Wars — subscribe quite closely to the Asian MMO design aesthetic, with sexy female characters in skimpy, impractical armor, and male characters that are either androgynous or super bulked up. You either accept that female tanks wear stiletto heels, thigh-highs and micro mini skirts, or you don’t. Although its character creation tool is nowhere as impressive as that for the upcoming Black Desert Online, the game does allow for a great deal of character customization and it’s actually quite pretty. The environments I’ve seen so far — bamboo forests, quaint villages, beaches and caves — are a nice change from the medieval-style design that informs so many Western fantasy RPGs. The music, by noted Japanese film and game composer Taro Iwashiro, is beautiful, a synthesis of Asian ethnic instruments and a symphonic orchestra.
Blade & Soul is a great-looking, polished MMORPG, with more interesting and tactically flexible combat than most games in the genre. Unfortunately, that combat is in the service of rather uninspired early quests. Granted, the first ten levels probably don’t give more than superficial look at how deep the system can become, and later quests and bosses are most likely far more challenging. Blade and Soul both looks and sounds good, and it has a story that drives the action better than many MMOs. I enjoyed it much more than Guild Wars 2, if only because the graphics are sharper and the action more satisfying. At the edges of the game, the hectoring for money, the gold farmers and the insistence on grinding remind us that while they have been heavily influenced by World of Warcraft and other recent Western RPGs, NCSoft’s MMOs represent a markedly different and specific concept of design.