Blade & Sword
Review by Lakerz
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 disconcertingthe 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
Divinity but not matching the visual splendor of
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 snowthese 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 textthe 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
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 lengthythe 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
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.
Developer: Pixel Studio
Release Date: February 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
P2 266 MHz
128 MB RAM
4 MB video memory
1.4 GB free hard disk space
Where to Find It
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