Previews

Blade & Soul - First Impressions

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It’s tempting to pigeonhole Blade & Soul as the latest in a long line of MMORPGs that, like Aion and TERA and a host of low-budget free-to-play MMOs whose marketers spam my inbox daily, seemed destined to find only niche success at best on our side of the Pacific. It’s an roomy mental shoebox for Asian ports to fall into, and one that many other companies besides NCSoft have spent a marketing fortune trying to claw their way out of. 

But NCSoft’s Steve Levy seemed bent on curing my Asian port antipathy with Blade & Soul, and in the course of an hour-long demo at a recent games event, he succeeded. While the art style is unapologetically anime, Art Director Hyung Tae Kim is a widely respected manga artist and, from what I saw, has seriously upped the visual presentation of the game while avoiding typical anime tropes: outrageous hair dye, oversized weaponry, rampant androgeny, and the like.

Blade and Soul Gon  Blade and Soul Kun

Blade & Soul's character models are more Bruce Lee and Lucy Liu than Charles Atlas and Pamela Anderson. (image gallery)

Development began in 2007, and while the game launched June 30th, 2012 in South Korea, it seems like NCsoft is giving the game a little more time in the oven before releasing the game overseas. Still, even as Guild Wars 2 is basking in huge numbers, NCsoft is pretty excited about Blade & Soul’s reception in Korea. “Even in beta, it was beating out games at PC cafes like Diablo III and League of Legends,” Steve noted. “We’ve had amazing peak CCUs of over 230,000 users with steady CCUs over 200,000, and that’s just in one market.”

Blade & Soul's Graphics and Story

Visually, the leap from Lineage 2 (Director James Bae’s last effort) is akin to that  from vanilla WoW to Guild Wars 2 . It’s that impressive. From the fluid, quasi-supernatural martial arts combat to deft movement along steeply sloped rooftops, it’s as though the anime MMO genre has finally grown up - especially when you factor in the relative lack of unwieldy armor, overwrought cleavage, and other over-the-top male gaze. It’s something you’ll get a small sense of from the screenshots, but moreso from the just-released Blade & Soul reveal trailer. And yes, Steve gives us his word that none of the cutscenes appearing in the trailer are pre-rendered – it’s all straight from the game engine.

Clan Han Moon's serenity won't last long.Blade & Soul has the boilerplate story setup of its ilk: the 1,000 year peace has been shattered by an ancient evil. But as Steve notes, it gets very personal very quickly. “It’s your very classic Asian vengeance storyline. At the very beginning of the game, your village is attacked, it’s in ruins, your entire clan is wiped out, and your clan master is assassinated – betrayed by one of his own students.

"So you have a very personal story evolving along with the global story arc. And neither ends when you hit level cap – we’re going to continue both throughout.” It’s a winning formula, as evidenced by the coterminous storylines of NCSoft’s other 2012 hit, Guild Wars 2.

Gameplay and Combat

As you can probably guess, Blade & Soul’s combat runs along PvE and PvP lines and is very button-driven. Steve cited the Street Fighter and Tekken series as inspirations for the variety of combos available even at the earliest levels., noting that tab targeting will be available at least for low-level PvE players.

But Blade & Soul takes combos two steps further: through group combos and active countering. “You’re actually engaged – doing combos based on your enemy’s attacks and movement. Your attacks will change depending on how you’ve responded to an enemy’s attacks, whether it’s an NPC or another player.” No worries if you’re a chronic button-masher, too; Steve noted that the game’s tutorial system will try to channel that energy into skill.

Blade and Soul Combat 1  Blade and Soul Combat 2

Active countering and group combos are hallmarks of Blade & Soul combat. (image gallery)

Steve mentioned that six classes will be available in the game, seemingly confirming fans’ notions that the Summoner is still on the table for NA launch, and definitely confirming that the Elementalist would now be called a Force Master. As for the other classes, Steve likened the Kung Fu Master to a ground-and-pound style MMA fighter. Then there’s the Destroyer (“Big guy, big axe. – an area-of-effect type of tank”), Force Master (“Your ranged mage for this game – fire, ice, shock, and just some beautiful skills”), and the Assassin (“Your classic, stealthy, sneak-and-attack character with some AoE options such as traps”). On the PvP side, Steve affirmed NCsoft’s commitment to competitive players, noting that that Blade & Soul would offer tournament PvP and larger scale faction-based PvP.

Inside the Game

Steve dove into Blade & Soul, noting the extensive character creation system that interestingly allows players to customize poses as well as appearance down to very fine detail. Loads of presets as well as sliders for every conceivable trait are available for the get-in-the-game-fast and the model-painter types alike.

The tutorial masquerades as a familiar scenario for most of us: waking up late for work. Our protagonist, ladies and gents, is a humble cook’s assistant, and we need to roll out of bed to get the kitchen fire started. It’s a charming example of how Blade & Soul seeks to teach through story, just like a good Eastern master would. The tutorial, Steve explained, is optional, but short enough that you might replay it just for the charm of the environment and characters.

A beautiful place to wake up late for work. (Blade & Soul image gallery)

The other feature I immediately noticed was the voiceovers – every character spoke aloud. I asked Steve if the game would be fully voiced, and he affirmed that he game would be fully voiced in English at launch, with other languages to follow.

The next teaching moment came as our boss, the cook, needed us to make a supply run. To do so most efficiently, he taught us the Swift Dash ability. I mention this not to drag out the word count of this article with some boring mention of the game’s sprint ability, but because Swift Dash is part of the game’s first combo, which allows Gliding, then later in the game (with some additional pulse abilities) Flying.  Swift Dash is the first of the game’s movement skills, a body of abilities Steve called Qing Gong (pronounced zhing-gong)..

Blade & Soul's Qing Gong movement abilities are as pretty as they are necessary. (image gallery)

Stepping back a moment, Gliding allows you to continue on in the tutorial by reaching the area near Clan Master Hong, which pretty much assures that you’ll learn your lesson well.

Clan Master Hong, a diminutive older fell with gold rings in the vast curls of his hair, is one of the four great masters who paved the way for the current 1,000 years of peace.  Hong teaches us our first combat abilities, preparing us for full membership in Clan Han Moon, then marches us off to the training dojo.  

Here we must learn humility, so the masters here defeat us, putting us in a down state. Blade & Soul’s take on defeat is among the best I’ve seen yet, and I was pretty high on Guild Wars 2’s full set of last gasp abilities, ineffectual as they usually are. “When you’re down,” Steve explains, “you have three different options. You can try to crawl out of aggro range and use meditation to revitalize yourself.” Ostensibly this only works against NPC opponents. “You can also request help, and anyone in the area can revive you. But then you can also teleport to a respawn point.”

After regaining my feet, the master advised us to eat food to regain health.  As for other consumables and pseudo-consumables, Steve noted that players can use skills, money, and gems to repair and improve weapons.

Without giving away too much, the aforementioned ultra-evil comes-a-calling in the form of Jin Seo-Yang, a former student of Clan Master Hong and the game’s primary villain. Jin turned to the dark side in ages past and forced Hong to defeat her. Resurrected by the “dark god” with a ravening hunger for a priceless possession of Hong’s, she’s back, with only half her soul intact, stylishly dripping dark chi, and more powerful than ever. Consequently, aged Hong makes a noble sacrifice to save our totally overmatched character. In short, the story turned out to be much more affecting than I’m used to in 20 minute demos, even if it atmospherically follows the first few steps of the classic Hero’s Journey to a T.

But the transformation from lowly cook’s assistant to elite fighter doesn’t spring from a spirit of vengeance alone, and after a long fall into the ocean from the airy confines of Clan Han Moon, our character comes under the protection of a fisherman in Bamboo Village. Not yet ready for prime time, she’s assigned the duties of ammo carrier as the nearby village mysteriously comes under attack from an enemy clan.

Blade and Soul Martial Wing  Blade and Soul Emerald Village

Things get even more serious in Emerald Village and beyond. (image gallery)

Fast forwarding a bit, Steve took us to Emerald Village, the first major city area players will come across and one under attack by what looks like zombies, for a look at some more advanced combos. Each carried a uniquely striking visual effect and tactical possibility. For example, Steve noted that the Force Master’s Force Choke ability allows you to ground-and-pound and opponent or toss them away from you for some lightweight crowd control. You could say that much of this seems derived from Star Wars tropes, but I think the developer would argue that both Star Wars and Blade & Soul are in fact drawing on the same distinctly Asian mythos.

Apart from the combos, what I first noticed that quests appear in fairly linear order, each assigned a sequential chapter number. Those who don't appreciate Guild Wars 2's reliance on dynamic events might be pleased to learn that I didn't see something comparable in the entire demo, short though it was.We left our character stemming the zombie tide as the demo period expired.

Q&A

We had time for a few questions, and I had to huffily ask what Steve meant by saying that Blade & Soul was in the process of being balanced for the Western gamer. “When I talk about balancing for the Western audience, I think of game dynamics – not the gameplay or the story, but experience curves, rate of reward, that kind of thing.  In Korea the leveling curves are a lot longer than what we like in the West.  We’ve been trained on Diablo and we just like lots of loot, too. Lockout timers are a lot less severe too,”  Steve insisted that these changes wouldn’t fundamentally change the game or the game’s challenge. “We’re just making some slight changes to meet the specific expectations of different audiences.”

It seems likely that we won’t see Blade & Soul in the Western market before 2013, despite some optimistic speculation of a fall launch. Steve also noted that NCsoft, like most publishers we met at gamescom and PAX this summer, is evaluating the viability of all revenue models – free-to-play with a cash shop, box-to-play, etc. – and will choose whatever makes sense for the market.

Our thanks to Steve Levy and the Team Bloodlust division of NCsoft for our first look at Blade & Soul.

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