Long before NCsoft officially announced that Blade & Soul was heading west, fans were eager for the chance to get their hands on the game — including a number of us here at MassivelyOP. So I might have had a slight grin on my face when I sat down to experience a bit of gameplay on the Summoner class at this year’s E3. I also talked shop with Producer Nicolas Coutant, Social and Community Director Omeed Dariani, and Brand Manager Julianne Harty, who revealed Blade & Soul’s “full-access free-to-play” business model for the western market. We also touched on subjects ranging from story to closed beta and pre-order packs to cats.
Yes, cats. According to Dariani, “This game is all about cats.”
Very few gaming terms can elicit such an immediate and strong reaction as free-to-play, especially in a title coming from the Asian market. Even before a single other word is uttered, players already have certain images of the game’s premise and fate springing to mind. That’s why the devs focused a good share of our conversation on explaining the philosophy of Blade & Soul’s “full-access” free-to-play model.
First and foremost, Dariani emphasized that there will be zero restrictions to content. All players will be able to access everything; nothing will be locked away behind any kind of gate, be it a pay wall, factions, or even expansions. “We don’t plan to sell any expansions or DLCs or dungeons or any kind of content because we want people to feel like they’re all in the same place so they can form those social bonds that are super, super important for games.”
Skeptical because of how the business model works in other regions? Dariani’s advice is don’t be. He emphasized that when B&S launched in other regions, each one was able to tailor the business model to fit its specific needs. That is what is happening here in the west. He assured players that as producer, Coutant “has complete control over the marketplace and what we’re doing with that.”
So with that control, what can players expect to see in relation to the cash shop and membership offerings? “We can safely say there’s no pay-to-win,” said Dariani. How can he confidently say that? For two reasons. One, the shop won’t have any gear with stats, permanent boosts, or anything else that would give an unfair competitive advantage. Instead, it will be filled with various quality-of-life improvements (inventory, character slots), convenience items (food, potions), and cosmetic items (costumes, accessories for pets). It is important to note that items such as the food, potions, and repair tools can be obtained in game as well through regular play and things like crafting, but the marketplace offers players the chance to stock up on more.
Perhaps the best part of the deal is the second reason: Free players will have access to many of these same items from this same shop. Dariani stated that NCsoft believes it is important to take care of the free players because they are super valuable to the world, to the economy, and to the other players. Those who don’t purchase NCoin won’t be relegated to (as he put it) “a crappy second-tier shop” or a separate marketplace with minimal or substandard offerings. Almost everything in the marketplace that can be bought with NCoin can also be bought with a special currency that players will earn through gameplay. Other convenience items, such as repair kits, can also be bought with this as-yet-unnamed currency.
As for membership, Blade & Soul will offer a system that provides quality-of-life benefits for different tiers, and only the first tier must be purchased with cash/NCoin. This first tier of membership includes special effects for the Windwalk skill (each class’s skill will be different) and increases XP and currency drop rates. Players can then upgrade to the higher membership tiers using the special in-game currency; these tiers offer additional boosts in XP and currency drop rates.
On the topic of advanced purchases, there will indeed be pre-order packs. Although NCsoft has already decided that the game will offer three tiers of these packs, the devs said that exact pricing and benefits have not been finalized. One thing that will definitely be included in all pre-orders is access to this fall’s closed beta. However, those who aren’t into buying advanced packs will be glad to know that CBT keys will also be distributed for free in various ways to fans.
Hands-on: It’s all about the cats
You might have thought Dariani was kidding when he made the statement that the game is all about the cats, but he wasn’t. The cat is a big deal! At least for the newest class. It’s enough of a big deal that the felines get their own accessories and costumes! I selected a Summoner precisely so I could play with the cat pet, but players can also choose from Force Master, Destroyer, Blade Master, Assassin, and the Kung-Fu Master. Another reason I chose this class is that, as Harty pointed out, without a trinity, “It’s the closest thing you get to a healing class; it’s more of a support class.” However, she cautions, don’t think a Summoner can’t lay the smack down on some foes.
Fun fact: Although my character was pre-made, I learned that when you start out, you actually have to interview a bunch of cats to select your familiar. Yes, you interview them and they answer. Once you select your feline, you can decide how it looks to a degree, but no matter what you do, it ends up pretty darn cutesy. I am betting even the fat cat is adorable.
What about the gameplay? I didn’t have too much time at the controls, but I did get a taste. The combat itself is action style, with your attacks mapped to the two mouse buttons and special skills on specific keys. To witness these skills in action, I sicced my kitten on some enemies out in the wilds. And wow can that little kitty get vicious! One skill has that little feline knocking the foe over, sitting on it, and then after a pause rapidly raking her claws deep into it. In this duo, the cat does most of the serious damage and tanking while the Summoner stays back doing crowd control, buffs, and some healing effects. For healing, the skill heals the caster and the cat but sometimes spills over to others. Harty agrees that “the Summoner is very powerful in the early stages of the game.”
I also spent a moment checking out the weapon upgrade system. In an interesting twist, a player could actually start and end the game with the same weapon by just breaking down other weapons and feeding them into the original. Cannibalistic weapons! I liked how this made loot more beneficial instead of just being vendor trash.
The one thing I really missed trying out was testing the ability to run up walls as highlighted in the new trailer; there weren’t even any walls around! Maybe next time. To soothe my sorrow, I just sent the cat out to play with a few more mobs.
Another thing I didn’t get a taste of was the story. Blade & Soul is touted as being heavy on story. Fans familiar with the game’s progress in other regions know that six acts are already out for this season; the game will launch with three acts here in the west. The release schedule of the others will be determined by how fast it takes people to consume the content while in closed beta. Dariani hinted that there might even be more acts on deck for the first season! When it releases here in the west, the game will be available in French, English, and German.