The Soapbox: The western port of Bless Online feels like a curse
To say that the development of Neowiz’s high-fantasy MMO Bless has been somewhat beleaguered would be an understatement. Since the Korean import’s Western release was announced in 2011, it has weathered numerous delays; the loss of its would-be publisher, Aeria Games, which dropped out of the project in 2017 citing concerns about “quality standards”, and an ambitious “rebuild project” wherein Neowiz announced a massive overhaul of the game’s core systems and even considered “[abandoning] the current structure and [making] it from scratch.” Despite these obstacles, however, Bless made its Stateside debut last month when it hit Steam as an Early Access title.
Its launch, however, has been every bit as tumultuous as its development, if not more so: Alongside the standard slew of post-launch hiccups that tend to plague any major MMO release, such as login queues and server outages, Bless had to contend with constant balance issues, half-baked localization, community uproar over missing content, and at least a couple of potentially game-breaking exploits – and that’s just in the first week of launch.
But many a game has weathered a touch-and-go launch and hit its stride in the following weeks, so the question remains: How is Bless holding up nearly a month after its release?
The short answer is, unfortunately, not very well. Although Bless isn’t entirely devoid of interesting ideas, they’re largely overshadowed by generic systems that encourage – if not require – tedious grinds, a bevy of programming bugs, and countless questionable design decisions, all punctuated by poor performance optimization and conspicuously missing content.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to do my best to look past the game’s turbulent launch and evaluate it on its own merits, so let’s start from the beginning: character creation, of course. Bless players have a choice between two factions, Hieron and Unión (accent intentional but inexplicable), which are depicted very much in the mode of World of Warcraft’s Alliance-Horde duality: The Hieron are the “civilized empire,” while the Unión is a band of rebels who wish to live free of the empire’s suffocating grip.
Each faction is comprised of four different races, but I’m certainly stretching the definition of “different,” as one race – the Mascu, which I can only describe as the result of unethical genetic experiments crossing Guild Wars 2’s Asura with Final Fantasy XIV’s Lalafell – is available to both factions, and the other races are exact mirrors of one another, identical in every respect save for their names.
On the Hieron side, you’ve got the requisite human-analogue Habicht, the forest-dwelling Sylvan Elves, and the uncreatively, inaccurately, and somewhat unfortunately-named Lupus, who, despite the name, are more catlike than anything. On the Unión side, you’ve got the Amistad, the Aqua Elves, and the equally uncreatively but more accurately and not quite as unfortunately named Pantera. The lack of distinct races for each faction, or at least any effort to differentiate each race from its parallel on the opposing faction, smacks of laziness to me.
There are technically eight character classes in Bless, but at the time of writing, only five of them have actually been implemented: the Guardian, the Paladin, the Ranger, the Berserker, and the Mage. The other three classes – the Assassin, the Warlock, and the Mystic – are slated to be added in the future, but as of this writing, Neowiz has not provided any definite timeframe in which players can expect their arrival.
As it stands, the selection is pretty limited. If you want to play a tank, you’re stuck with Guardian; if you want to play a healer, you’re stuck with Paladin; if you want to play a melee DPS, you’re stuck with Berserker; and if you want to play a ranged DPS, you’ve got your choice of Ranger or Mage, depending on whether you prefer a physical or magical flavor. I suppose you could arguably whip up a DPS Guardian or a tanky Paladin or something of the sort, but I’m not sure how effective it would really be.
Limited race and class options aside, I have to give credit where credit is due: The character customization system in Bless is one of the best I’ve seen. With a frankly dizzying number of options available, from hairstyles to body art to iris designs and more, as well as a huge array of sliders for fine-tuning every aspect of a character’s facial structure and physique, the game gives players an absolutely astronomical array of features with which to make their characters look unique. It’s almost enough to forgive the copy-pasting of races across faction lines.
Unfortunately, I can’t give the same kind of glowing praise to the gameplay itself.
Let’s start with the combat. Bless attempts to set itself apart from other MMOs through its combat system, and while I’ll admit that it’s somewhat interesting, I’m not convinced that it’s actually any better than the genre-standard hotbar design upon which it attempts to improve.
There are two main types of active skills in Bless: chain skills and non-chain skills. Chain skills, which you can consider a class’s “bread-and-butter” moves, are tied to stances, of which each class has a total of six that are unlocked as they level up. Each stance has three basic chain skills tied to it (I’ll be calling them chain-starters); they occupy your first three hotbar slots.
Four additional slots are reserved for non-chain skills (usually support-oriented actions like buffs, debuffs, crowd control, etc.), which unlike chain skills can be used in any stance. Chain-starter skills are used to start skill chains (surprise!), which are combinations of skills executed in succession. Each chain-starter can branch into up to three separate chains, with most chains consisting of three skills total, including the starter.
You can equip two stances at a time and can swap between them at-will. Each stance has a persistent effect that remains active while you’re in that stance as well as a short-term effect that activates immediately upon switching to that stance. There’s a 10-second cooldown on changing stances, though, so when you switch to a stance, you’re stuck with it for a bit. This effectively prevents there being any kind of interesting interaction or synergy between skills in different stances, which I feel is a bit of a missed opportunity.
And really, “missed opportunity” is a good summary of the combat system as a whole. There are so many ways it could have been made truly unique and engaging, but the execution falls flat.
One of the most pronounced issues is that since skill chains are preset and linear, most stances end up having one chain that is just mathematically optimal for most situations, relegating the others to being used only as fillers when the “good” chain is on cooldown. Although at its core it’s not all that different from having a set optimal rotation as is often the case in other games, it makes it somehow even duller by reducing the number of buttons you have to press to execute it. It also makes PvP combat a bit too predictable; once you’re familiar with a class’s kit, it’s generally not too difficult to predict what’s coming based on the opponent’s choice of chain-starter.
I think the chain system could be interesting if it were more fluid and dynamic, maybe by letting players customize their chains or by providing ways to transition mid-chain from one chain to another, which would allow for mix-ups in PvP and give players more meaningful decisions to make based on the flow of combat. As it stands, though, the only real decisions you have to make are when to change stances and how to fill the gaps when your primary chain is on cooldown.
Beyond that, the way skill progression is designed tends to compound the problems. As you level up, you’ll earn three different types of upgrade gems: sapphires, rose stones, and beryl. The former two can be spent to upgrade your chain and non-chain skills, respectively, while the latter is used to unlock “abilities,” which I’ll get to shortly.
For non-chain skills, the upgrade system is pretty straightforward: Each skill has three upgrade paths, with each path generally enhancing certain attributes of the skill at the cost of others. For instance, one upgrade path might lower a skill’s cooldown time while increasing its mana cost.
The upgrade system for chain skills, however, is full of dubious design decisions. Every chain skill can be upgraded along one of two possible paths. One path usually increases the skill’s potency (i.e. its raw damage or healing done) while the other generally reduces its cooldown time or mana cost. Each path consists of three upgrade levels: The first level costs 7 sapphires, the second costs 14, and the third costs 21, for a total of 42 sapphires required to fully upgrade a skill. I didn’t think to keep track of the rate at which I earned sapphires as I leveled up, but at level 31 (of the 45 cap), I’ve got a total of 382, which is enough to fully upgrade nine skills.
Although a skill may be included in multiple different chains, even in different stances, upgrades to a skill affect only the instance of that skill in the given chain, so a skill in one chain may be significantly stronger than the same skill in another. This exacerbates the “one best chain” problem I mentioned earlier: If a chain is demonstrably the best choice in a given stance, you’re probably going to throw most of your sapphires into upgrading that chain. Moreover, if you have a chain that shares one or more skills with another, but one is upgraded and the other isn’t, there’s little incentive to use the non-upgraded chain. And since upgrades are chain-specific, and chains are stance-specific, not only will one or two chains be clearly optimal (especially after upgrades), but one or two stances will eventually be clearly optimal to the rest.
This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t for the issue of questionable skill/stance unlock progression. For example, I unlocked my Paladin’s second stance at level four, but it came with only one chain, the starter skill of which has a whopping 15-second cooldown, rendering the stance effectively useless until I unlocked another chain-starter for it at level 12. Even then, it was still largely inferior to my more fleshed-out first stance, as I’d already (perhaps, I admit, unwisely) invested all of my sapphires into upgrading its skills.
And on that note, some of the skill unlocks seem to have been given absolutely no thought at all. Paladins begin the game with a single non-chain skill, Concentration, which reduces the cooldown of five skills when activated. The problem, however, is that you don’t unlock the first of those five skills until level 21. Who thought it was a good idea to give a class a skill that is literally 100% useless for a good 20 levels? That’s nearly halfway to the level cap before you can make use of a skill that you have from the beginning of the game.
The problem of being pigeonholed into using only a limited number of stances and chains is further amplified by the outrageous respec costs, which run at a rate of five gold per upgrade. For reference, by level 31 – just over two thirds of the way to max level – I’ve got about 25 gold in reserve, and that’s with minimal unnecessary spending and semi-frequent sales on the auction house. To do a full respec of my chain-skill upgrades would cost me a staggering 125 gold. Naturally, if you don’t have the coin to shell out for a respec, you can shell out some real-world dough for a full-respec item available from the cash shop. For what it’s worth, the respec scrolls, which normally cost 300 Lumen (roughly $2.50 US) each, can currently be bought once per week for a single Lumen, but given that the cheapest package is $9.99 US for 1,200 Lumen, that doesn’t feel like much of a concession.
On top of the problems with the chain-skill upgrade system, the other primary form of character progression -the “ability” system I mentioned earlier – seems half-baked as well. I put ability in quotation marks because that’s what it’s called in game, but they’re really what many players in modern MMO parlance would call talents (i.e., passive upgrades that enhance a character’s attributes), so that’s how I’ll refer to them from here on out.
The available talents are divided into four linear paths, meaning you can’t unlock a talent until you’ve unlocked any talents that precede it. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the talents in a given path, so to unlock the talents you actually want, you’re probably going to have to unlock a bunch of others that are completely irrelevant to your class or playstyle. This strikes me as bizarre considering how much the other upgrade systems seem to push players toward intense specialization. And as with skill upgrades, talent respecs cost five gold per talent reset, making experimentation quite costly.
Gear progression, too, is incredibly lackluster. I don’t have any hard numbers on this, but from my experience, it seems that there are maybe three or four armor sets per class per level bracket (roughly every 8-10 levels), and even fewer weapons, meaning that upgrades are meted out at a snail’s pace. To make it even less exciting, there seems to be very little aesthetic variation, at least on the equipment you get as you level. Many of the armor sets I found had identical models with slightly different color schemes.
As far as the actual game content itself is concerned, there’s not much to say; Bless deviates very little from the standard quest hub to quest hub, themepark design philosophy. There’s an auto-navigation feature to help alleviate the tedium of moving from one objective to the next, but the pathfinding is terrible and often results in your character attempting to run through impassible obstacles or over unnavigable terrain. Main story quests are fully voice-acted with quality ranging from tolerable to comically amateurish, but I can’t really blame the voice actors in light of the absolutely atrocious writing they had to work with.
The game’s dungeons, likewise, are largely unnoteworthy. The first handful, up to level 25 or so, are easily soloable, at least as a Paladin. The mid- to late-game dungeons generally require at least a tank-healer-DPS group composition and some modicum of cooperation, and from what I understand, the endgame dungeons are fairly difficult, though whether that’s the result of competent design or of the game’s seemingly perpetual battle with bugs and class (im)balance, I can’t say. If I were feeling generous, I’d guess it’s a bit of column A, bit of column B.
But frankly, I’m not feeling generous. Normally I try to give Early Access games the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re up-front with players regarding what they can expect from the game and its future development. In the case of Bless, however, I find it difficult to be charitable. The game has been in development since at least 2011 and has gone through numerous testing phases in its various international releases. Moreover, the aforementioned falling out with Aeria Games over “quality standards” and the subsequent rebuild project seem to indicate that Neowiz is well aware that the game is far from ready for wide release.
Sure, it’s not completely devoid of interesting ideas. The mount- and pet-taming system is appealing in a Pokemon-esque, gotta-catch-‘em-all kind of way, but it’s buried under so many layers of tedium and RNG-induced frustration as to leech it dry of any enjoyment it might provide.
The player-vs-player combat, which seems to be one of the game’s key selling points and endgame activities (insofar as there is an endgame at present) could be fun, but there’s virtually no incentive to participate in open-world PvP; in fact, there’s a cheaply available cash-shop item that allows players to avoid it altogether. And the instanced battlegrounds, when they actually work, are sullied by frankly embarrassing class imbalance and the game’s abysmal performance. Calling it a chore would be insulting to actual chores, like scrubbing soup-splatters off the inside of my microwave, which at least gives me some sense of satisfaction and accomplishment afterward.
And that brings me to my final point: the performance. It’s absolutely atrocious. I’m not talking, “It’s a little rough around the edges and could use some polish and optimization,” either; that would be forgivable. The game constantly stalls when doing something as simple as opening a UI window or talking to an NPC. Combat feels unresponsive, often requiring multiple key presses before it registered.
My PC is what I would consider upper-mid-range, capable of running games much more graphically impressive than Bless on high-quality settings. The fact that I, like so many others, had to resort to editing the game’s .ini file just to change some settings (which should be but for some reason are not present in the in-game options menu) just to make it playable is a testament to how little effort seems to have gone into quality control. To say that the game feels like an early beta would be borderline flattery.
Also, this seems like a good time to mention that all of the screenshots that accompany this article were taken from the game’s official site. I tried to run around and take some high-quality shots of my own, but after spending a solid half hour of constantly waiting for the game to catch up to my inputs every time I took a step, I got frustrated and gave up. If you have access to a rig capable of smoothly running the game on high enough settings to make it look like these screens, then congratulations on being a NASA engineer and/or obscenely wealthy.
Even if the game’s mechanics and features were groundbreaking and masterfully designed (and they are not), the fact is that Bless is poorly optimized, riddled with buggy shenanigans, and nowhere near finished, much less polished, enough to warrant Neowiz actually charging people money to play it.
Do I think Bless is a fun game? No. Obviously. Could it, with enough effort from the developers, become a fun game? Maybe. But at the rate things have been going, it seems increasingly unlikely that it’s going to happen any time before the sun implodes, heralding the end of days. Or before the game starts hemorrhaging money and gets shut down, which hopefully will happen first.