Every time I play Blade & Soul, I’m really playing a different game, which I dub Why Don’t I Like You More? The object of that game is to figure out why you like all of the pieces of something while not liking the thing in and of itself, like figuring out why you don’t like spaghetti but do love pizza when they both share the same overall ingredients. (For the record, it comes down to pasta-based trauma when I was younger. I wish I were kidding.)
Logging into Blade & Soul‘s launch version kept prompting new rounds of this game in my head, without any definitive answers. I could point to niggling issues like the lack of a borderless windowed mode or weirdness with the game’s subscription time, but those were just issues, not enough to really reduce or remove my enjoyment of the game. Even the server queues shouldn’t have done that. So keep in mind as I present my thoughts that all of this is coming from someone who really wants to like this game quite a bit.
Before launch and not counting beta tests, I had two major experiences with playing Blade & Soul. The first was when its localization was announced, in which I quite enjoyed the game – and since I had flown across the country and was stuck holing up in California for the duration, that’s saying something. The second was early in the beta, when I wrote another piece regarding my experiences testing the game. And it’s kind of odd to me, looking back, because I went from being far more excited about the game to a shrug and a meh.
Thus come the rounds of Why Don’t I Like You More because I clearly enjoyed what I played before, and I don’t dislike what I played now, and I continued to find myself thinking that the game was fine and I really should be liking it more. And yet… I didn’t. And I don’t.
I don’t dislike it, either. And after a bit of playing, I think I figured out some of what was getting to me, why I liked the game more the less I played of it. The game has a whole lot of depth, but all of that depth is concentrated in areas that I find far less interesting.
Case in point: the game’s combat. The system on display is indisputably deep and requires attention and careful play to make the most out of it. No simple matter of tabbing to a new target and following a steady rotating of combat. And yet the steadiness is still there; it’s just based upon a different set of timing, a cadence of block-attack-repeat in stable loops. The mechanics of combat are very solid, well-tuned for PvP battles and character duels, set up to become more interesting as blocking becomes second nature, and yet the practical upshot was that combat felt so rote that it became less engaging, not more.
Because of the narrow range of different skills available, everything comes down to that central mechanical flow. Rather than giving you two dozen different abilities with unusual interplay, the game gives you about a dozen with a very set interplay that you can mildly tweak in one direction or another. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not the part of MMORPG combat that I enjoy.
In my earlier impressions pieces, I suggested the game had much in common with third-person brawlers like DmC. This is still largely true, but that game was all about swapping tactics and motions, using new weapons and techniques against enemies, and being mobile. There was always an assault of new enemy types and always new ways to fight against them. In Blade & Soul, combat has a cadence that inherits the most execution-heavy parts of that game with a much more MMO-like set of abilities to reuse on a regular basis.
And in and of itself, that’s fine. The game knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and more to the point, it does it well. As active combat systems go, Blade & Soul’s leaves just about every other game out there in the dust, with a handful of exceptions. But it still has a certain degree of stiffness to it, and I ultimately felt that I couldn’t enjoy it. I can appreciate what it is without particularly liking it.
The same thing goes on down the line. It’s not that the story is bad, in and of itself; lots of MMOs have linear stories and/or stories filled with characters that I don’t particularly care about. But most of those games also have more space to move off the beaten path, alternate things to do, likable characters in the mix, excellent presentation… something to hold your attention as it all comes together. Blade & Soul never hit that critical mass. I enjoyed the cliches and the homage, but I never felt as if it was going anywhere. It was too straightforward to be parody but not engaging enough on its own.
Maps and regions seem to be neatly cordoned off, which is fine as far as it goes, but it leads to a flow that reminds me of nothing so much as Cataclysm. Grab everything in this little area, go do everything in a little area, be pointed at the next equivalently sized area that’s conveniently just a few beats away. Functional? Sure. But not terribly compelling, at least not to me. People who like that sort of quest design will have a ball.
It does mean that the only reason to play another character is just to explore a different set of mechanics. And for some people, that’s all the motivation you need. But even in Cataclysm, World of Warcraft‘s most one-route point, you still had multiple options about how to level. Your experience on a second character need not be a carbon copy of the first character.
And perhaps that changes as you get further on in Blade & Soul. Maybe at higher levels you have a plethora of options, and my worries are entirely based on problems that fade away once you progress through the game a bit further. I would like that to be the case. I hope that’s the case.
But my experience playing the game at launch didn’t convince me that I wanted to stick it out and find out. The fundamental philosophies of the game seem to be all about emphasizing the moment-to-moment antics of martial arts and dealing with complex interplay of upgrading weapons and soul shields, with the rest of the game as window dressing to facilitate that. It’s not something I find compelling.
When you add in the server queues, the issues regarding its female characters and costuming of same, niggling technical details like the lack of a borderless windowed mode, and the like… yeah, none of this made me spring to my feet enthusiastically.
I’m not going to say that Blade & Soul is bad because I really don’t believe that. The case could be made that it goes all the way to being actually good. But it’s only going to be good if you’re looking for something very specific out of your MMORPGs here in 2016, and ultimately I just didn’t enjoy it. Take that with the appropriately sized grain of salt and do as you will with it.