Blade & Sword

Review by Lakerz
February 2004

Blade & Sword, developed by upstart Pixel Studio, is the new kid on the block in a growing genre, the action/role-playing game. It can be argued which game was the true originator of the ARPG genre, but most gamers' first experience with an ARPG was in the dark world of Diablo. For the uninitiated, an ARPG is the melding of a typical RPG game like the Ultima games with real-time action, usually presented in a three-quarter-view perspective. Blade & Sword provides the player with its fair share of hack 'n' slash fun, but does it measure up to the big boys?

Blade & Sword takes place in ancient China (BC 1044 to be exact) in the aftermath of a bloody feudal war. The evil emperor Jo, knowing defeat was near, set himself ablaze in a final act of defiance, filling the air with his burning hatred. Jo's grand wizard Wen tapped into his powerful abilities to send Jo's thoughts (soul?) from the human realm to the demon realm in the hopes that one day emperor Jo would find a way to come back to reclaim his reign.

The aftereffects of this wizardry were enormous. A rift opened between three of the six parallel universes (human, beast, and demon), enabling monsters of all shapes and sizes, alive and undead, to roam freely in the land. These monsters were controlled by Wen, the creator of the rift. The rift also created time-space disruptions, bringing many people from the past into the current world. The land is in desperate need of a hero who possesses the virtues and courage needed to find the source of the rift and destroy the evil that is at the root of the problem.

Installation of Blade & Sword was a breeze, although it expects a full install, which is disconcerting—the minimum specs to play the game are very modest, so the need to have 1.4 GB of free space definitely stands out. Once installed, all that is needed to start the game is the first CD-ROM. I'd recommend at least a P3 or equivalent to play Blade & Sword. I played the game on my XP powerhouse computer; out of curiosity I tried it on my old Win98 box with an AMD K6-2 350 MHz chip and 128 MB of RAM, which caused the game to get too jerky for my tastes, at least in the higher resolution mode.

I was irritated by the lack of a printed instruction manual. The box contains a nicely done screen layout/control sheet, which is a plus, but I ended up printing the 55-page on-disk manual because certain aspects of the game are confusing enough that I needed to be able to refer to the instructions while playing.

Graphically, Blade & Sword is on par with its rivals in the genre. Sporting a maximum 800×600 resolution, Blade & Sword's graphics are varied and unique, comparable to Divine Divinity but not matching the visual splendor of Dungeon Siege. A boost in resolution and texture detail would have been great, but I'm guessing there were budget considerations that factored in. Still, I enjoyed the oriental landscapes, and all of the little details drew me into the world. The butterflies flitting around, the fish and turtles skimming through the water, footsteps being left in the snow—these are just a few examples of the extra effort that went into creating a realistic environment. Blade & Sword also has day/night cycles with varying lighting effects, in addition to several weather patterns such as rain and snow. The character animations were good for the most part, although I noticed some stiffness here and there.

The music in Blade & Sword is great. From soothing music when roaming the villages to pounding drums when the bloodshed intensifies, the variety is impressive. This is one of the few games where I turned up my Klipsch sound system (and pissed off my apartment neighbors) to savor some of the tracks. My only complaint is in the length of some of them. I found a few tracks looping after only a minute or so, which is a shame.

There is no voice acting, so be prepared to read a fair amount during the course of the game. There are quite a few spelling and grammatical errors throughout the text—the most egregious of these being whenever the player gets killed, the monster that did the dirty deed is listed but the order of the words is jumbled.

The sound effects are good, though a little more variation amongst the grunts and growls, the yells and howls would have been appreciated. Still, the overall sound design for Blade & Sword is solid.

The interface is a mixed bag. The game utilizes both the mouse and keyboard to lead the hero on his or her adventure. Like most other ARPGs, a left mouse click directs the hero where to go or who to attack. Pressing the shift key prompts the hero to run instead of walk, the Alt key causes the hero to raise a shield, and a tap of the space bar brings about a nimble dodge move. The trouble begins when you add the other shortcut keys. Various items can be picked up from the battlefield and are sorted into two groups, a weapon group and a spell/potion/miscellaneous item group. Each group has six items that can be displayed on screen, and each has a hotkey dedicated to using that item (numbers 1 through 6 and F1 through F6). This system creates some frantic finger gymnastics during the heat of battle. I was constantly glancing down at the keyboard to find the right button to press to drink the health potion or cast the right spell. As an aside, I read about another player having an issue where he would accidentally quit the game because of the fact the Alt key would be held down for defense while hitting F4 to cast a spell! This did not happen to me, but it does exemplify the awkwardness of this control scheme. In addition, there are another 18 hotkeys assigned to custom martial arts moves that the player can create. Bottom line here is keyboard shortcut overkill! There is too much action happening onscreen to pay attention to the 30 different shortcuts on the keyboard. I ended up simplifying things a great deal by not using the majority of them.

The save/load/options screen is one of Blade & Sword's biggest flaws. The player can adjust the music and sound volumes from this menu, along with changing the graphics resolution, which is nice. The big problem concerns the save system. You can save the game at any time, but in doing so you are forced to quit the game and return to the opening menu. Upon reloading, you'll find the hero back at the nearest village (not necessarily where you saved), and all of the monsters that had been killed are back again! I found this out the hard way, making quite a bit of progress only to find myself having to fight my way back to my pre-save position in order to continue. True, one can run through various levels, dodging most of the monsters, but it is still a pain in the behind! There are teleportals scattered around a few of the levels that enable easy travel from the village to those spots. I adopted the strategy of saving only when I encountered one of them and hoping the game would not crash during the lengthy periods between saves. Thankfully, Blade & Sword was very stable all the way through. Not one time did I experience a lockup or crash to the desktop.

Blade & Sword contains quite a bit of strategy in several unique ways. First, there are three characters the player can choose from, a great blade warrior (brawler), a twin blade heroine (nimble), or a long swordsman (balanced). Each character has unique move sets and powers. As the character advances in level, the player accrues skill points with which to gain more attack moves. They come in four categories, and each category has three moves to learn plus a super finishing move. While this is impressive enough, what really sets Blade & Sword apart from others in its genre is the ability to link these moves into combos. Interspersing the special moves with sword slashes has the potential to unleash devastating kung-fu attacks, at least in theory. This, along with gem creation, are the two areas where I wish the manual had gone into more depth. I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with various combos, yet none of them seemed very effective on the battlefield. Even the example combos the instructions provided were weak in terms of damage caused. When I think of combos, I envision massive damage inflicted upon the enemy. In reality, I found myself having to repeat the same combo three times just to fell a hellhound.

As mentioned earlier, gem creation is another way to gain more power. Much like Diablo 2, Blade & Sword gives the player the ability to attach gems to the weapon and armor to increase various stats and abilities. Where Blade & Sword goes the extra mile, though, is in how the player manages the gems. There are seven different types of gems, each having three different levels of purity. The gem refinement process is key to creating a powerful character, as I found out later on. One of the most important items is the spagyric cube (how do they think up these names?), which allows one to refine gems to a purer state. One can also combine different gems to create more exotic and powerful ones! Once a gem is in your possession, you can find the nearest smithy and have the gem embedded into sword or armor, and during the course of the adventure, additional embedding slots will open up as well in order to become even more powerful!

Confused at first, I grew to appreciate the gem system in Blade & Sword. There are a few things I feel obliged to point out, though, that hampered my experience. First and most important, one's ability to experiment with the gem refinement process is handcuffed by the inanely restrictive save system. If you screw up (and I did, more than I care to mention), you are stuck with that flawed gem, as you can't load a game without saving the game first. You also can't quit the game without saving first. Blade & Sword really wants the player to be accountable for his actions, I guess! The manual itself says to go ahead and experiment with the gem system in order to create really powerful gems, but this ends up being a crapshoot. One can risk combining the three pure gems in the hope of creating an uber gem, but the refining process is just as likely to backfire as succeed. What compounds the frustration is the relative scarcity of the gems. I found enough to fill all of the slots in my sword and armor, but I was not able to experiment enough with combining them to create the special gems. It's a shame, too, because I needed all of the power-up help I could get in order to make it through Blade & Sword.

Blade & Sword's difficulty level is quite high. When a new game is started, one has the choice of three levels of difficulty. I chose the default "normal" level. A fourth difficulty level called "nightmare" can be unlocked by beating the game once. From my initial forays into the wild, it was immediately apparent that Blade & Sword was not going to pull any punches. Within seconds of exiting the village gates, I confronted a few ripe-smelling zombies. Sensing an easy kill, I ran in, wildly tapping the mouse button, eagerly awaiting my first kill. Three zombie swipes later, I was dead.

Death does not penalize the player too badly. Upon demise, the hero is regenerated in the nearest village with all equipment intact, except for the gold that remains lying on the battlefield. It's easy enough to go back and pick it up, and it's satisfying to take revenge on the monster that had the audacity to kill you. The smart player will make good use of the shield and dodge buttons when confronting the enemy, as well as not getting bombarded with enemies on all sides, which is easier said than done! The difficulty balance could have been better. It always seemed like the computer was two steps ahead of me in power of attacks, etc. Even raising my level like crazy didn't equate to being able to lay the smackdown on my foes. Anytime three or more bad guys surrounded me, I was toast unless I was able to run away, pump in the health potions, or use a super move. Don't even get me started on the boss fights! There are lots of minibosses to battle with, and they are almost always brutally hard to kill.

Throughout the 40 levels that comprise Blade & Sword, there are lots of NPCs to meet and talk with. Most of the quests in the game involve Fed-Exing various items between these NPCs. I like the way Pixel Studio tried to give all of the NPCs backstories, talking to the player about their past lives and how they all relate to each other. It was confusing at times, but I appreciate the effort in trying to draw me deeper into the game world.

The variety of monsters is pretty impressive. Kudos to the art team for thinking up some unique designs. The AI of the computer opponents is mixed. Some of the monsters have a pack mentality where they will surround and coordinate their attacks on all sides, which is very evil indeed. Other times, I could run up and start hacking away at a creature while its cohorts just looked on.

Blade & Sword is lengthy—the game keeps a running tally of time spent playing, and I had over 50 hours invested before watching the final credits. The back of the box boasts over 140 hours of gameplay, and with three different characters to play, I believe it. Whether one would feel inclined to play through the game a second time is another matter. One feature notably lacking is online multiplayer, something to which games of this ilk lend themselves well.

Overall, I can't totally endorse or condemn Blade & Sword. It's one of those titles that I couldn't help but have a love/hate relationship with. I'd play for hours straight and really get sucked into the world until I belatedly realized it was 4 a.m. and I was going to be hurting at work the next day. Other moments I'd be incredibly frustrated and wanted to quit and do something else. One thing I will say: Blade & Sword had enough addictive qualities about it that I was compelled to see it through to the end. Incredibly tough boss battles and horrible save mechanism aside, there is a decent underlying game here for the $30 MSRP asking price. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Pixel Studio
Publisher: Whiptail Interactive
Release Date: February 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

P2 266 MHz
128 MB RAM
4 MB video memory
1.4 GB free hard disk space
Win98/ME/2000/XP
DirectX 8.1

Where to Find It

Whiptail Interactive 29.95



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