Blade & Soul - Introduction
Blade & Soul has been on most MMO fanatics' radars for years now. With its native release in Korea roughly three years ago, it has continuously grown as a must-play in the minds of MMO fans everywhere. Launching in North America and Europe this past January, it has suffered under the weight of its own success, with queues still remaining on many servers weeks later as gamers rush to see what the buzz is about.
Reviewing an MMO is one of the more difficult tasks here at Ten Ton Hammer, because an MMO that’s free-to-play is more of an invitation than a commitment. It’s like reviewing free samples at the mall, you’re more or less commenting on if the calories / bandwidth are worth it, versus the actual product. It’s a tough dragon to slay and Blade & Soul is perhaps one of the fiercest, having a polarizing response with players – even here at Ten Ton Hammer.
Speaking of my own experience, it has been a delight. My co-editor Lewis Burnell hasn’t enjoyed it nearly as much, but that’s part of the beauty of Blade & Soul – if you like the standard MMO formula of quests with little meaning and mindless grinding, then it's probably going to be great, but if you need the formula turned on its head then by all means you'll likely want to skip.
That is in essence what Blade & Soul is – it’s a very stereotypical MMO done well, so well, that if you love the “generic MMO formula” then Blade & Soul will draw you in and consume your time, but if you’re waiting on a revolution – sadly (or in my opinion, joyfully) it’s not here.
Beneath the hood of this vicious martial arts adventure, you’ll find all of the standard dressing you’d expect. Daily login rewards, quests to level, dungeons, and a rather interesting loot mechanic where you have a single set of gear that evolves through drops. Plundering from WildStar’s free-to-play formula, Blade & Soul is completely playable in its free mode, while the subscription rewards improve the general quality of life throughout the game. You don't need anything from the shop to play, but a few things can be major time savers, and that's alright.
I could talk endlessly about the quality of the graphics – they’re top notch, surely, for the art style. But I can summarize the discussion on graphics by saying that character movement is ever so fluid, so satisfying in its form and style that I’ve spent much of my time just jumping and gliding throughout the game. I could go in-depth discussing the story, defending the “awful” parts of it for what it is – a Wuxia martial arts story, which is supposed to be “bad.” The cutscenes are done well, and playful camera techniques and various visual effects create some very gorgeous cutscenes.
Yet, what I would like to highlight most is the combat. There have been few MMOs that hit the nail on the head of what constitutes satisfying combat. Blade & Soul never makes you wait to do something, a skill or button to press is always available, and various combinations play off of each other making each class produce its own difficulty curve based on what is needed. I’d argue that Summoners are the easiest to play, balancing their lack of careful skill combos with the need to manage a pet (which is done ever so well), while Assassins require a steady hand and careful balance in combat.
Not everything is perfect, Blade & Soul has many of its own shortcomings. As I mentioned, there isn’t much innovation here. The overarching story is Wuxia through and through, but it comes in such small bites between mindless “save us” requests and excrement pickup requests. NPCs aren’t quick on their toes and rarely provide a challenge, except when their damage outmatches yours. The soul of Blade & Soul is the fact it’s a foundational MMO that does expected things well, but it doesn’t try to be more.
Especially considering that one of the demerits is that it feels very immature compared to a seasoned warrior like Final Fantasy XIV. While the UI is one of the most polished for an eastern game and the graphics are top-notch, the mechanics just don’t feel very serious. Combat, outside of PvP, while visually and tactically stunning, lacks any reward feedback for decimating troves or a challenge, especially on an easier class like a Summoner. In FFXIV, each engagement with an NPC is a duel to the death, where each slice of your blade determines the outcome, but Blade & Soul is far less tamed, having NPCs move from being Redshirts to demons, depending on where you find them and often their mood, at least until the very middle of Act 2.
Does all of that make Blade & Soul a bad game? No, because those failings are part of the charm of an MMO like this. It’s not perfect, but it also doesn’t sting to play it casually or in short bursts. Logging in and playing for a few hours is a beautiful experience and there is nothing yet in the game that demands more.
Blade & Soul - Positive Marks
Blade & Soul is visually stunning and character animations are top notch. Combat is engaging and provides a wonderful rhythem as you move between enemy to enemy and of course, character creation lets you pour your soul into your character. Player vs. Player combat is exciting and the combat makes it exciting to play. The cash shop is a near copy & paste from WildStar, which works well, and doesn't force your hand on purchases (including alternative cashshop currency earned in game and a very generous daily login reward).
Blade & Soul - Average or Neutral Marks
Controller support is rather lacking in a game where it would be glorious. Long launch day queues made logging into the game difficult and queues persist even now.
Blade & Soul - Below Average or Negative Marks
There isn't specifically anything new in Blade & Soul that hasn't been done elsewhere, possibly better. With the exception of the top-notch character animations and the rather gorgeous graphics, there is a serious lack of innovation within the game. Blade & Soul doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, and while that's alright for some, for many they may feel as if they've been there and done that.
Conclusion and Final Score
Blade & Soul is polarizing, you can either love it or hate it, but on its own merits. It's a solid game and will only get better as more content makes its way into the live client. I would say that if you love MMOs then Blade & Soul is likely to engage you, but if you're wanting something fresh, something new, then you'll need to keep looking as this isn't it, but I feel like it doesn't want to try to be something different. It's happy with being what it is and with that I find my own sort of happiness from playing what I consider to be a proper MMO.
To drag it back to my introduction, I would definitely say that if you love MMOs, then by all means, sacrifice the bandwidth for the game - you might be surprised, and if not, then by all means you'll have only lost a few gigabytes and, after a few more content updates, you may discover it is for you.