Blade & Soul Western Launch Review
Additional Images by Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), Portal Manager
It’s finally here… After several years of anticipation, North America and Europe finally has their very own version of the Asian sensation that is Blade & Soul. Created by NCSoft’s in-house development team “Team Bloodlust” and originally headlined by well-known South Korean illustrator Hyung-Tae Kim, Blade & Soul presents itself as a martial arts themed MMORPG filled with impressive combat, big boobs and even bigger ambitious for gameplay. Now with its global launch past, NCWest plans to go full tilt in an attempt to make the game a well-known eSport on top of it all.
I’m not alone in having been looking forward to this one for quite some time. For myself, the time sunk into the closed beta and last few weeks past launch confirm that everything was certainly worth the wait. However, I will also say that certain aspects of the game did leave a lot to be desired.
The control scheme are what you would expect from a modern MMORPG: By default WASD for movement, LMB for auto attack, and RMB, 1 thru 4 and Z, X, C and V for various different skills and abilities. The F key is also used for various context sensitive skills that change depending on the situation. For instance, while playing as a Kung-Fu Master, after performing an attack that procs critical damage, players will be able to perform a special kick attack for extra damage. Many other keys also allow for context sensitive skills such as Kung-Fu Master’s shin kick, or Blade Master and Blade Dancers sword throw which can only be used from a certain distance between the player and the opponent. Because of these abilities, the controls take a bit of getting used to, as most new players will have to learn how to position themselves properly along with making sure that their character and their opponent are in certain states in order to fight and battle effectively. Otherwise players may find themselves performing the wrong kinds of attacks or attempting to perform skills that are simply not available at the moment.
The combat system in Blade & Soul is in between the crossroads of a traditional MMORPG and a modern Action-based one. By default, the game uses a soft targeting system where you must aim a crosshair at an enemy, TPS style, in order to activate most skills in combat. Because of how sensitive the crosshair can be, combined with its tendency to stay lock-on to the first enemy to come in contact with, switching between opponents that are all clustered together can be a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, the game offers just enough options to make the crosshair sensitive more manageable.
For the first time in any version of the game, the English version of Blade & Soul comes with the option to play with a gamepad. As fun as it may sound for a game like this, after trying out a few quests using a gamepad, I would have to say that it works, but is not a very optimal way of playing, as the amount of reaction time needed, as well as the sensitivity of an analog joystick is simply not up to the task.
Also: For those that use fancy keyboards and mice with their PC setup, you may be disappointed to know that the game only seems to support basic key/button inputs. Sorry to all those that use devices like Razer Nagas or Logitech G600s, but those users will have to find and use third party applications in order to make full use of them, provided that the in-game anti-hack protection doesn’t have anything to say about them. (Thanks nProtect GameGuard.)
Gameplay and Features
As mentioned above, combat in Blade & Soul is sort of in-between a traditional MMORPG and an action based one. Compared to instanced MORPGs like Vindictus or open world action MMORPGs like TERA, Blade & Soul is more focused on timing, reactions, and subtle positioning, as many skills and abilities can only be performed depending on the current situation in a battle. There’s also a ton of different movement and defensive abilities available in order to give players the upper hand on their opponents, such as block, backdashing, evasive steps and more. Because of all the different ways to avoid and defend yourself from attacks, as well as the hefty cooldowns on more powerful skills, a single well placed dodge can turn the tide in a close PvP battle. That said, there’s no diminishing returns on CC, so if your foe precariously blows their CC escape skill early in a fight, they become all the more vulnerable to getting combo chained into oblivion like the sitting duck they are. Personally speaking, the amount of CC in this game could be seen as a turn off for some. However with the nature of the combat overall, I believe that it is could use some duration tweaks, but is relatively fine the way it is, especially in regards to the game’s PvP, which I will go into more detail later in the article.
Enemy mobs and bosses in Blade & Soul will attack, counter-attack, block, dodge, grab, grapple and perform various combo abilities, just like any player can. This mean’s PvE isn’t the mindless cakewalk you’d expect from most MMORPGs made in the era Blade & Soul was developed. Players will have to focus all of their attention on everything that happens during a fight and react accordingly, which makes the game very engaging and enjoyable. Learning tells and how your class (and later on in more advanced battles, your teammates) can properly counter or dodge incoming attacks makes the game feel more like a console action jRPG. The addition of no core healing class makes every hit or miss of damage all the more meaningful. Though the online nature of this game causes some issues in that regard.
B&S is a very ping dependent game that requires players to have decent connection speeds in order to play effectively, more so than most other MMORPGs out there. If you’re not connected to the servers with at least double digit ping (about 50 milliseconds and below), then classes like the Kung-Fu Master become nearly impossible to play. While this could be seen as an issue, most ISPs these days seem to offer up internet connection speeds that are acceptable for a game like this (assuming you’re US based like me), so while most players won’t be getting near 10 ping connections like in South Korea, many players shouldn’t be too worried whether or not their connection speeds will make or break their gameplay experience too much.
When it comes to party play, due to the lack of a holy trinity found in traditional MMORPGs, there are no hard class roles in combat. This makes gathering parties for the harder dungeons a breeze, though pugs become riskier later on due to how cohesive your team needs to be to chain CC bosses at key intervals. But again, thanks to there not being a constant highest bidder auction for tanks or healers, most players can enter the character creation screen free of the worries of 70 minute queues to get a pick-up group for a dungeon. Each class is rather unique too and seems to cater to a specific playstyle, and as I’ve mentioned before in previous B&S topics, many of the classes can be comparable to different playstyle archtypes in the fighting game genre. Some examples that come to mind are Destroyers as Grapplers, Assassins as Mixup experts, and Force Masters for zoning. However, certain classes have skills and abilities that make them more suitable for tanking or support, like Blade Masters and Kung-Fu Masters having defensive skills for tanking and generating threat towards bosses, as well as the Summoner and the Assassin having support skills that give players a small healing bonus, rather than having skills that will heal teammates directly.
This can be seen as both a pro and a con, because while this allows more freeform party compositions, it also means that most dungeons, especially early on in the leveling experience, will lack any distinct dedicated class role “challenges” that many MMORPG players would expect from the genre today. At first glance, many would see party combat in Blade & Soul as very simplistic, but because of gameplay mechanic such as “Joint Attacks” and other mechanics that require good timing and positioning from teammates, there’s certainly a lot more going on than just a flashy DPS race. Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that party play in Blade & Soul is either a “Love it or Hate it” affair.
Most quests are mundane and basic, but some quality work goes into the main storyline and repeatables.
The quest system is very much what you would expect from a modern day MMORPG: Go here, kill this, fetch that, talk to this NPC, etc. and Blade & Soul does very little to deviate from this formula. There’s not much I can even really say about the quest system because it’s so straight forward and basic that I can’t go into any further detail other than saying that its average, and it works. There are also daily quests available, scattered all across the game world, which offer various different items and goodies that players will need, regardless if they’re just starting out or are already deep into the endgame content, so at the very least, there’s always a reason to revisit older areas in the game. A bit more effort went into these daily quests compared to the base quest system, as many involve an instanced dungeon that helps build out the game world and story of the region in positive ways.
Movement is another big aspect of the game. Since there are no mounts, players will be using movement skills known as “Windwalking” (Also known as Qing-gong) to get around. This includes sprinting, gliding, dashing, wall running and more. A movement system like this should allow players to explore every inch of the game world, but players will quickly find out that there will be invisible walls everywhere that will prevent them from reaching any spectacular vantage points, or search for any hidden secrets scattered about. For explorer MMO players, this is greatly disappointing because all of the invisible walls only makes the game world feel less convincing and believable. While it still is fun to run around in the game, and there are moment where windwalking does come in handy, the lack of open world exploration use from windwalking feels like a missed opportunity.
Arena PvP is one of the main reasons for the game’s success. As previously discussed during CBT, Blade & Soul’s combat system makes for some exciting player vs. player action, and as one of the most popular MMORPGs in Asia, NCSoft owes most of the game’s success to the thriving eSports scene they’ve generated. With a primary focus on 1-on-1 battles, there’s once again clear similarities with the fighting game genre. It’s a lot of fun, but will feel overwhelming at first as you enter the school of hard knocks to learn what tricks each class brings to the table. With so many different skills and abilities that players can specialize their talent point into, even learning the typical attack patterns of a certain class won’t always prepare you for a high level player’s vast array of trump cards. In fact, because players can restat for free at any time, even before a match starts, they are expected and encouraged to change them depending on their opponent’s class to get any bonus advantage they can muster. In the end there’s far more tactical pre-fight thought that goes into Blade & Soul that you just won’t find in other traditional MMORPGs’ PvP. Invested players will be very inclined to spar with others or play new classes themselves if they wish to play at their full potential in the arena.
Some players may find some difficulty in adjusting to the nature of arena PvP in Blade & Soul, because with no diminishing returns on CC abilities, many players may find themselves in full stunlock combos of death. Some may find this to be a huge turn off.
Personally, I feel the lack of diminishing returns in a game like this is perfectly fine, because the game gives you just enough options available avoid and minimize your opponents attacks, so if players end up blowing all of the escapes and CC breakout abilities, then they only have themselves to blame. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy arena PvP in Blade & Soul. The structure of the 1-on-1 PvP focusing on skill over stats, the different ways to approach an opponent’s playstyle and the fact that matches can go on for minutes or end in seconds is very unlike the arena PvP found in other MMORPGs out there.
Player VS Player
If there’s one thing that I will fully criticize regarding Blade & Soul’s PvP, it’s the class imbalance. This is primarily due to the current patch that NA/EU players have been given compared to the South Korean version. Basically, NCWest decided to “Frankenstein” our version of the game by releasing a LV45 balance patch that’s actually meant for LV50 players (at the time of this article). And because of this patch, classes like the Summoner are currently on top of the food chain when it comes to their potential in the arena. Fortunately, NCWest has acknowledge the current situation by stating the game’s PvP season won’t truly begin until we’re caught up to the South Korean version of the game in terms of class updates. In the meantime many competitive players are just waiting it out, avoiding the arena until the imbalances are addressed.
As for the other aspects of PvP in Blade & Soul, Faction / Open world PvP is also a part of the game, but isn’t very fun in the long run, mainly due to stat imbalance. Because there’s no penalties for attacking low level players, and unlike the arena, stats are not equalized in open world ganks. Open world PvP in Blade & Soul comes down to ganking with brute force, or cheesing confrontations by camping opponents or hiding behind NPCs whenever possible. With no restrictions on stats and equipment, most of my fights ended with someone getting killed in either one to three shots. Rarely did I ever find myself in an encounter where I and my opponent were fighting on equal ground. Despite the arena attempting to be fair and balanced, skill can only get players so far once stats are involved. While faction PvP is not a mandatory part of the game, and players can choose to opt in and out of Faction PvP by choosing whether or not to don their faction uniforms, they do so in exchange for missing out on elements of the game. Without faction PvP you’ll be held back from the rewards including special potions, even more unique faction uniforms, equipment and more.