Most Korean MMOs are built around the very simple design philosophy of “grind until your eyes bleed, and then grind some more.” Often, when a successful Korean MMOs hits the Western market, it sees initial popularity but eventually audiences look past the pretty graphics and get bored of the grind. There is clearly a difference in what Western and Korean audiences find interesting and fun. Blade & Soul released almost four years ago in Korea with a very different approach compared to many of its Korean MMO brethren. The emphasis of the game was put on combat, movement, and a more Western approach to the typical MMO grind. Combat in Blade & Soul was designed so well that it quickly became a huge e-sport at home. But can Blade & Soul’s success in Korea translate to international popularity?.
At its outset, Blade & Soul is your typical MMO. Player creation offers a choice of 4 races that include the large Gon, the small Lyn, the human like Jin, and the female only Yun. Race selection isn’t only for aesthetics, but it will also determine what kind of class you can play. There are seven classes that include the Kung Fu Master, Blade Master, Destroyer, Assassin, Force Master, Blade Dancer, and the Summoner. Each of the seven classes has a unique playstyle, and some are harder to play than others. This is due to the fact that Blade & Soul puts a huge emphasis on combat, so it’s important to choose an appropriate class to suit your playstyle and skill level. After class selection comes character creation, and this is where Blade & Soul will likely first impress many players. The creation engine is rather in-depth, and you can adjust almost any physical characteristic to create some rather unique avatars. Big, small, pretty, ugly, old or young, you can pretty much do what you please. However, be warned if you create a female character: the game’s female model suffers from some very unrealistic boob jiggle not unlike the Dead or Alive series. Almost every female character can be made with rather large…assets to exaggerate this. It quickly becomes evident that many female player characters and NPCs throughout the game are designed this way. If that’s your thing, that’s cool, but it can be pretty off-putting if not. The tutorial that follows character creation is rather quick, setting up the story and introducing you to the unique combat system. After that, you are on your way to becoming a martial arts master.
Speaking of combat, Blade & Soul easily has some of the best combat found in any MMO currently on the market. Blade & Soul has done away with the boring and clunky tab target method to target foes that you see in almost every MMO, and instead opts for an approach more akin to a third-person shooter. You manually aim the camera toward your opponent in order to unleash abilities on them, and while this can be a bit jarring at first to players used to traditional MMOs, anyone who has played a third-person shooter or action game will quickly find themselves right at home. This, of course, only scratches the surface of the combat system: Inspired by fighting games, the object of combat is to bog down your opponent in a flurry of combos that will either knock them to the ground, or send them flying into the air to incapacitate them. When your opponent is in either of these two states, your skills quickly change to fit the situation, which allows you to pull off an amazing chain combo of stuns or impressive air juggles. If you’re good enough to combo all of your abilities, not only does it look magnificent but it also feels extremely satisfying to wreck your opponent. I say “if you’re good enough” because a certain amount of skill is involved in order to accomplish these combos, especially for some of the more technical classes such as the Kung-Fu Master. Basic combos will come naturally to most players, but truly devastating attacks — ones that deplete enemies’ health bars before they can even react — require a deeper understanding of the combat system. Much like a fighting game, top tier players understand the importance of invincibility frames, animation canceling, when to block and the multiple ways different classes can escape from a combo. It will take practice and patience to master your class, but that is definitely the best part of Blade & Soul.
This robust combat system obviously lends itself to PvP extremely well. As stated earlier, Blade & Soul has become a pretty big e-sport in Korea, and for good reason. The skill and knowledge needed for each class allows for a huge difference in aptitude between players that in turn lends itself nicely to the e-sport scene. Arena PvP in Blade & Soul has two modes; your standard 1v1 mode, and an interesting 3v3 tag mode. In 1v1 you fight a best of three rounds match against an opponent on equal footing. In the arena your stats, weapons, and armor do not matter, which creates an even fighting ground between you and your opponent. The only thing that will separate you from your opponent, apart from skill, is the actual level of your character. Levels give skill points, and a player at max level will have all available skill points. A higher level is no substitute for mastery over a class, though, a fact that quickly becomes apparent when fighting in the arena. It is not uncommon to come across a player that will take your health from 100 to 0 in a blink of an eye. The ELO style rating system keeps matches even for the most part, but that doesn’t mean you won’t run into that rare player that is quickly jumping up the ranks that will easily defeat you. Overall, after playing 200-something matches I found 1v1 arena to be a ton of fun and very balanced.
The 3v3 tag mode is an interesting twist on the already robust 1v1 arena. This mode puts two teams of 3 against each other, but instead of playing 3 versus 3, matches are actually still 1v1. Each player takes turns participating against their opposing team’s chosen fighter, and players on the sidelines can tag themselves in to perform tag-team combo moves for 5 seconds. You can only tag in to assist so many times, so careful planning is needed to lead your team to victory. It is also important to note that the active participant is the only one who can decide to swap out, so if you find yourself struggling against an opponent you can tag yourself out and let your teammates take care of it. It has a very big Marvel vs. Capcom feel to it, and matches can be crazy fun with the right team compositions.
If Arena isn’t your thing, there is also open-world PvP though a two-faction system. Unlike the standard faction systems found in most MMOs, you are only flagged for PvP against your opposing faction when you equip your own faction’s clothes. This gives players who don’t want to participate in PvP the option to totally ignore this part of the game if they so choose, which is nice. If you do participate in open world PvP, it should be noted that fights are horribly imbalanced. On many servers one faction heavily outnumbers the other due to the ease of switching between the two factions, and the current plague of gold sellers in the game tend to fill one faction or the other which often leads the game to tell players that the factions are even in player count when they are not. This leads to stacking of one side, which can be pretty infuriating when you’re trying to get your faction-specific quests done while the opposing team is just camping out on spawns. Also, the game engine lags considerably — even on high-end PCs — when there are more than 15 players on the screen, making group PvP a nightmare to participate in. Hopefully this is something the developers will look into soon, as the only way to combat this lag is to turn off player character models, which, as you can guess, doesn’t help when you’re trying to kill another player.
Outside of the combat, Blade & Soul is your typical MMO. You complete quests, level up, gain new skills and continue on with the story. Unfortunately, Blade & Soul’s quests feel very archaic, including standard fetch-quests that went out of style years ago. Kill 10 of these, collect 5 of those, and talk to the NPC halfway across the map. It can be a slog to get through them, and for every fun quest you do find there are tons of boring ones. The story quests are a bit better, but the story itself is very hit-or-miss. The story tells the classic wuxia tale of seeking vengeance for your fallen master: Travel across the land helping others as you chase down your master’s killer. A lot of the cutscenes are fantastic to watch, almost as if they came straight out of a John Woo film. The voice acting, on the other hand, is painful to listen to. With the exception of a few plot-important characters, many of the voice actors are cringe-worthy and lines are repeated ad nauseam. If I have to hear “They changed our hours again?” one more time by that whiny NPC in the East Fleet Supply Chain, it’ll be too much. The story starts to pick up toward the end, but as of right now it’s lacking a conclusion, so you must wait to see how it concludes until the Silverfrost Mountain expansion is released later this year.
Thankfully, getting around the world to do a lot of these quests is a blast compared to most MMOs. For starters, there are no mounts in Blade & Soul; instead, your character is skilled in “wind-walking,” an ability that lets you sprint outside of combat at high speeds. While wind-walking, you can jump to take to the air and glide effortlessly over terrain. As you level up, your ability to wind-walk improves as well. Towards the end, you’ll find yourself walking up walls and diving from waterfalls effortlessly as you traverse the landscape. Climbing trees and other objects to get the drop on your opponent is very satisfying, and even just messing around in certain zones to see how high or how far you can travel is enjoyable. The game also provides Dragon Streams around the map, which are points that allow players to quickly traverse certain areas that would otherwise require a lot of effort to reach. The game’s different zones progressively allow more freedom to expand on your ability to wind-walk, and I hope that future zones allow for further creative use of the ability. The zones all look fantastic thanks to the art direction of Hyung-Tae Kim. The graphics of the Unreal Engine 3 aren’t top notch, but the art direction really makes the landscapes and characters pop out. Landscapes are also varied and fun to gawk at as you wind-walk around the map, especially at the beautiful Sapphire Basin. It all comes together very well to make it feel like you’re traveling though a traditional Asian landscape.
The one thing that most Western MMO gamers will ask themselves before trying Blade & Soul is “how long is the grind in this game?” Korean MMOs, as mentioned earlier, are known for their grind, but Blade & Soul is actually pretty light in that department. It takes a relatively short amount of time to reach the current max level, and a weapon upgrade system allows players to take their starting weapon and continue to upgrade it to it best form. In fact, it is extremely rare to ever find a weapon as loot that is better than your upgradable starting weapon. The highest amount of grinding found is usually to obtain key items required to upgrade your weapon, and even these can be found relatively quickly, with a little luck, which makes for a rather enjoyable experience compared to many other Korean MMOs.
My main gripe with the Blade & Soul — aside from its terrible questing system — is the incredibly boring PvE experience. While fighting other players shows off the amazing intricacies of Blade & Soul’s combat, PvE mobs are stale and boring in comparison. Trash mobs offer no challenge to players, and boss mobs are painfully easy to defeat. Even the hardest content in the game, which is the 4-man version of the Blackram Supply Chain, is incredibly easy if you figure out the boss pattern. All of the current bosses boil down to inflicting a lot of damage while avoiding AOE circles. Larger bosses are zerg fests in which a massive number of players rush to overwhelm the boss before it can pose any threat. Dungeons and bosses are fun the first handful of times, but they quickly become stale. There is also an extreme lack of end-game content, but thankfully the patch for more end-game PvE content is only days away as I write this, with plenty more on the way. It is a sore spot in an otherwise fun game.
Overall, Blade & Soul is a fun and interesting take on MMO combat and PvP that is 100% free to play, a price you can’t beat. It has a few bugs to work out, some translation errors, lack of inventory space, features that need to be added in (eg. vote-kick), and some gold sellers to squash, but there’s nothing that isn’t par the course with most MMO launches. If fast combat and PvP are your thing, then Blade and Soul is your holy grail of MMOs. Even if those aren’t your cup of tea, it’s still a great experience overall.