Blade & Soul Beta Preview

Developer: Team Bloodlust (NCsoft Developer Division)

Publisher: NCsoft

Platform: PC

Release Dates: June 30, 2012 (South Korea); November 28, 2013 (China); May 20, 2014 (Japan); November 20, 2014 (Taiwan); January 19, 2016 (North America/Europe)

There has been nothing truly new under the sun for MMORPGs for quite awhile. Blade & Soul has actually been out for three and a half years now, debuting in South Korea and, at last, making its way west after great success, largely because of how well it handles tried-and-true MMO concepts as a free-to-play title. Given that it’s a part of a genre saturated with attempts to improve the same formula, the question isn’t whether or not Blade & Soul will break the mold. Rather, it’s whether it accomplishes its goals better than its competition.

And I’ve had two beta weekends to delve in and find out!

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Whoever You Want To Be

My first stop in the Blade & Soul beta weekend was the Character Creation screen, possibly the most fun and addictive part of beginning any MMO. There are four races to choose from: the Gon, the Lyn, the Yun, and the Jin. Each race has a different personality and history, with varied physical attributes to choose from. All are humanoid, with the Lyn providing the most variety due to their shorter stature and animal-like ears and tails. Of course, each race has different classes associated with it, so choose carefully.

Character customization is as comfortably simple or delightfully complex as you want it to be. You can choose from several presets, randomize your character entirely, or play with sliders to adjust details down to brow height and nose length. A variety of backdrops and preset outfits help you see what your character will look like in different lightings and clothing styles, so you won’t be left wondering if that adorable kitty tail will clip through a dress in an odd way. Given the enormous variety of options from head to toe, it’s unlikely you’ll ever meet your double when exploring the world of Blade & Soul.

Then there’s your class. Blade & Soul offers:

  • Blade Master – a high-speed, balanced, physical attacker
  • Destroyer – high attack and defense, somewhat of a “tank” class though Blade & Soul does not use the trinity
  • Summoner – partners with a Familiar who attacks up close while the Summoner fights from a distance
  • Force Master – attacks from a distance using elemental abilities
  • Kung Fu Master – relies on counters and combo attacks to deal heavier damage
  • Assassin – masters of stealth, traps, and poison. excel at movement
  • Blade Dancer – a Lyn-exclusive variation on the Blade Master that sacrifices defense for more mobility and crowd control

The class options don’t seem particularly varied at first. A bunch of sword fighters and an odd magician thrown in, right? And in the early game, this holds true. But as you progress and the range of abilities you have access to increases, the more the classes differ in playstyle and feel. Not all are equal, either, but those that are more powerful in the late game come at the price of requiring more skill to master.

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For School, For Honor

Though the character creation system is glorious, the adventurer you create, ultimately, doesn’t have much bearing on the game itself…at least for the first 25 or so levels I played through. All characters, regardless of race or class, start in the Hong Moon school, as a student of their chosen class. There’s some tutorial there before the introduction of the primary antagonist sends you away from the school and into the main world, beginning in Bamboo Village on the Viridian Coast, where the locals are having some pirate trouble. From there, you proceed forward through the Viridian Coast, meeting new allies and growing stronger as a student of Hong Moon.

The linear nature of the questline will surely be tedious for those who make multiple characters, but on your initial adventure, the story is engaging and well-paced. There’s a primary questline that sends you through the world, and each hub features two-five smaller quests to compliment the main story, providing extra rewards and more information on your friends and enemies. The quests are standard RPG fare–kill x amount of monsters, collect this many items, and so on. But the decent writing and the relative ease at which quests and areas are completed keeps it interesting.

The combat system is simple to master, becoming more nuanced at higher levels of play. For questing, it’s perfect.

Some noticeable differences between Blade & Soul and other MMORPGs include the lack of “trash” items when killing monsters (you only receive gold, quest items, and occasional equipment), easy instancing that reduces loading screens while keeping the story flowing, and the difficulty in obtaining new gear. Early on, you’ll gain a primary weapon that you’ll use for a long time to come. “Upgrades” come by sacrificing lesser pieces of equipment you find in your travels to improve the one you already have, and some of the necessary reagents are only found in difficult dungeons. This provides a reasonable gate on equipment that keeps you from growing too fast, while making rewards feel…well, rewarding. Rings, necklaces, and other accessories are improved in the same way. Your outfit is not an armor piece, but half cosmetic, half faction-based. Some outfits will make you hostile with one group or another, while some are just for show.

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The combat system is simple to master, becoming more nuanced at higher levels of play. For questing, it’s perfect. Every class has enough powerhouse attacks and crowd control to effectively solo, plus several tools to aid dungeon groups. The tank/healer/DPS trio is non-existent in Blade & Soul. Instead, allies must work together to execute combo attacks for high damage, and rely on their own skill to heal and dodge powerful enemy strikes. Your left and right mouse buttons control your primary skills, and letters keys such as C, V, Q, E, and Tab provide other combat options unique to each class.

For instance, as a Summoner, I could root the next enemy, send my Familiar charging at it, then use my mouse to build focus points with minor ranged attacks and then spend them on big ones, while my Familiar kept the enemy busy. It was simple, and fun. New skills were gained every few levels or so, and  I look forward to further complexities toward the endgame.

Blade & Soul is free to play, with extra rewards and advantages for those with Premium Accounts that can include keys to unlock chests, better weapons, more healing items, more EXP, and so on. With a Premium Account, the game at times felt too easy. I was over-leveled for most encounters, and by level 18 I was soloing several dungeons. Without the perks, it looks to be much more difficult to obtain decent equipment and progress. But given how quickly things moved with the bonuses, the challenge might be welcome.

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Into The Deep

The most impressive feature of Blade & Soul thus far has been the dungeon queue. Far from the frustrations of hour-long queues in other MMORPGs, if you’re up for a dungeon in Blade & Soul, you’ll find a group within minutes. Dungeons unlock as you grow in level beginning at level 15, and at any given time usually include one level-appropriate major dungeon that requires a party of four or six to clear, and several shorter dungeons that are solo-able with level-appropriate gear and careful crowd control. Those looking for dungeon groups can utilize a specific chat channel that broadcasts those in the queue a quick Party Request button to join their group should you find the adventure enticing while out in the field.

But if you need a specific dungeon, entering the Group Finder lets you compile a party for whichever challenges you need, and send out broadcasts to the chat channel specifying your needs. Dungeon groups can go with as few as two and as many as six in the party, and are doable with fewer if the members have enough gear.

Without specific “roles” needed to be filled, parties form quickly, and everyone’s given all their dungeon quests immediately before entering. Though likely more difficult at higher levels, the dungeons I entered were a decent balance of challenging and fun whether my party was mostly lower leveled Summoners, or a good mix of stronger fighters.

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Summary

Though I only played for two weekends, Blade & Soul hooked me easily in the short time I spent with it. The story’s engaging, it’s a solid mix of easy to pick up and challenging to master, and the graphics and music are beautiful. There’s nothing earth-shattering about it, but that’s okay. It’s free, and it’s fun. I’m looking forward to playing more in January when the full title comes out, at which time I’ll offer a full review of the title from start to endgame.

A Premium Account for this game, including beta access, was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.