Blade & Soul is a scenic, action-filled, free-to-play adventure, but its high points may not be enough to give it staying power.
Developer: Team Bloodlust (NCsoft Developer Division)
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)
Blade & Soul is live at last in North America as of January 19th. I had the opportunity to play this free MMORPG from NCSoft during two beta weekends back in December and report my initial impressions then. Given the fact that this title is an MMO and expectedly huge, I’ve spent the last month exploring the Earthen Realm in a series of review journals chronicling the leveling adventure and endgame content before dropping a final score.
You can check out my review journals in their four parts for in-depth discussion of the game and its systems: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. This is my final, comprehensive review, which will culminate in a final score.
Be the Hero of Your Story
For the duration of the leveling experience, Blade & Soul may as well be a single-player RPG. Sure, you see other players out in the world, but aside from the occasional dungeon help and world PvP, they are little more than decoration and added lag. You, Cricket, are the hero of the story, and everything in the plot revolves around your character coming into his or her own power, and either saving the Earthen Realm from sure destruction or pursuing bloody revenge for the game’s inciting incident.
A heavily detailed character creation system with four races, six classes (a seventh on the way!), ensures that whoever your hero is, they are completely yours, at least in appearance. And appearances matter greatly in Blade & Soul. The game itself is gorgeous, with beautiful vistas around every corner, sparkling waterfalls, distant mountains, lush forests, and vast deserts to explore. Even with graphics turned low, the world is a treat to explore, and its intricate character models add to the visual appeal. Add to this a soaring orchestral soundtrack that kicks in during moments of particular dramatic tension or exploration, and Blade & Soul effectively masters the aesthetic element of MMOs.
The story itself is interesting enough, with a few unexpected twists to keep you guessing, but it falls short of mind-blowing. You can opt only to follow the main plot, to branch off and finish all the sidequests in each area, throw some PvP dailies into the mix, or any combination of those, as long as the primary story gets told. Recurring characters help you along your journey with a pleasant balance of good humor and emotion as you aid them with their respective plights, area after area. Unfortunately, Blade & Soul’s questing never moves past the simple kill x enemies or collect x of whatever that MMORPGs are sadly known for. Regarding actual mechanics, your journey will be exactly what it says on the tin.
More Blade than Soul
Even though you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time killing x amount of enemies, Blade & Soul allows you to do it in style with its inspired combat system. Far from the simple target and mash buttons style of other MMOs, Blade & Soul uses a combination of tells (ala WildStar) and smooth camera aim to pit you against everything from boring old soldiers, to enormous boss enemies, to other players. A detailed skill tree offers both “Recommended” builds for PvE and PvP, as well as full-on customization with no penalty for changing talents anytime, anywhere. You can save multiple builds, too, and switch between them on-demand.
Every ability you learn can be morphed in various ways with skill points, providing a seemingly infinite array of options for playstyles. As a Force Master, I toyed with high-damage, low-health builds, crowd-control, self-healing, damage over time builds, and plenty of other combos that just didn’t work out. For leveling, you’re pretty much free to try anything. PvP and high-level dungeons may require more finesse…and a guide.
Gold spammers plague chat channels, there’s no way to play with or even talk to friends on other servers outside of cross-server dungeons, and there’s no Report function for harassment.
As fun as the combat is, be prepared to do a lot of it, especially at particular story intervals where the only way to further upgrade your equipment is to grind the same dungeon over and over again. A Loot Auction system ensures that those with the biggest piles of cash will take home the majority of the spoils, and while losers take your cut of the auction, it still doesn’t stop gold farmers from taking exactly the piece you need the one time it drops with insanely high bids. You’ll also be grinding PvP dailies and soloing other dungeons on a daily basis for loot, so enjoy the initial experience while you can–you’ll be rehashing the content again and again and again.
Other systems in the game include a transmutation system to forge new items out of parts of old, useless ones; crafting guilds to provide you with resources for sale or your own use; a cross-server dungeon queue to easily find a dungeon party, and a “Wheel of Fate” you can spin a few times daily for free items. While most of Blade & Soul’s systems work adequately at best, it’s worth mentioning the poor state of the social aspect. In spite of recent improvements, gold spammers plague chat channels, there’s no way to play with or even talk to friends on other servers outside of cross-server dungeons (not even in whispers!), and there’s no Report function for Harassment.
The Daily Grind
Once you reach level 45 and finish the main story, progression is largely accomplished solely by upgrading your gear to tackle more difficult challenges. And once your weapon and accessories are maxed out, you’ll just be farming pieces of Soul Shield (your armor, essentially) from a single dungeon until it’s complete. There are a few endgame dungeons you can run for different rewards and a single-player dungeon with seven levels (and an eighth on its way) for an added challenge. You’ll need to rerun old content, too, for keys and seals to unlock weapon upgrades and Soul Shields, though it should be easily soloable by max level. New content is being pushed monthly to keep the game fresh, but it’s arguably just more of the same each time. Another dungeon, another Soul Shield to collect via grinding.
PvP is by far the highlight of reaching the level cap. Once you’re decked out in the best gear, the dynamic nature of combat and unique experience of playing against other humans makes PvP the most variable and challenging of the endgame offerings. World PvP is available, as well as Arenas (1 v 1 or 3 v 3) with the possibility of Battlegrounds in the future. Rewards include better Soul Shields and unique costumes, and special items that make combat easier, such as special potions and stat-boosts. As fun as PvP is, once you grow a few ranks, it can become insanely difficult. While dungeon progression is simple enough if you keep improving your gear, PvP is mostly skill-based. If you’re not willing to min/max your character and learn to play your class nearly flawlessly, you won’t remain competitive.
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