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Bless Unleashed Demo & Interview (PAX West 2018)

Bless Unleashed Key Art

Bless Unleashed was the first appointment I booked for PAX West, and the one I looked forward to the most, simply because of the confusion surrounding its announcement the week before the convention. It’s no secret that Bless Online, the PC MMORPG from Neowiz, had a poor reception before it came West, and perhaps an even poorer one here in North America. One only needs take a quick glance at the Steam reviews to see that Bless has a troubled reputation. So when I walked into my appointment to meet the team behind Bless Unleashed, I had one question burning from hours of discussion at the office.

Why would Bandai Namco team with Neowiz to produce a Bless MMO?

The answers I was to hear in the interview would surprise me, both in their honest and ambition. But before that, I sat down to the demo to get a sense of what Bless Unleashed was.

The Bless Unleashed demo offered a small solo instance that gave a sense of what combat and controls would be like in the game. There were three characters available to test: Berserker, Ranger, and Defender. I tried my hand at the heavy melee Berserker, along with the Ranger, to get a feel for the differences in their combat styles for what would prove to be a very action-focused MMO experience.

Bless Unleashed does not use a “tab targeting” system, nor does it use a series of skills lined up on hotbars. Instead, the game’s combat is completely action based, focused intently on the console player’s experience. Each class has a “skill plate”, which includes a set of combination attacks bound to the controller’s buttons. Some of these are straightforward, while others have branching paths throughout the combo, giving you control over what moves best fit the fight you’re in. Players will be able to collect different skill plates, and swap them around to choose exactly what style they most prefer to fight with – rather than being locked to a single combo selection or being overwhelmed with dozens of skills and combos to memorize.

As your character executes a combo, prompts will appear on screen to indicate the next available attacks in the chain, along with the button they are bound to. You can also roll/dodge out of the way of attacks, jump, and use potions. A charge bar indicates your ability to use critical skills, which were accessed by holding down the right shoulder button.

One of the first things I noticed is that combat has a very slow, deliberate feel to it. This isn’t TERA or Blade & Soul, where your actions per minute ramps up sometimes to actions per second. Bless Unleashed has something akin to the “weight of real combat” (as much as gamers can claim to know about it, at least.) This was felt more with the Berserker and her two-handed axe than it was with the Ranger, though I confess I was far more concerned with my positioning and staying out of melee with the latter. If anything, the speed and combat felt a little more like Dauntless or Monster Hunter. Enemies have a variety of attacks, and tells, and knowing these – and how to dodge or deal with them – is key. Each major enemy I defeated did have a satisfactory feel to it, though some enemies felt too weak and I was disappointed I couldn’t jump over an eye beam mechanic in the last fight.

Bless Unleashed Archer

That eye beam was no joke, and unlike this screenshot, I had no help taking the heat off.

Once I was done with my Ranger demo (after having been sorely trounced by the final boss of the demo – it was no pushover even for the Berserker), I sat down to talk with In Joon Hwang, Senior Director, Online Publishing at Bandai Namco Entertainment America; Jehanzeb Hasan, Lead Producer, Bandai Namco Entertainment America; Jason Park, Head of Development, Round 8 Studio (a division of Neowiz); and Koven Park, Lead Game Designer, Round 8 Studio.

My leading question was the most obvious, and one they were expecting: how is Bless Unleashed different than Bless Online?

“There are so many differences, it might be easier to answer ‘What’s the same?’”, they began. Bless Unleashed is set on a different engine (Unreal Engine 4 versus Unreal Engine 3), the combat system is different (as evidenced in the demo), progression is different, and most other systems are different too (which we discuss a little later). While the assets are the same, they point out that it is more like an alternate universe of Bless; the political structures, the roles of the gods, the timeline, and the storyline are all different from Bless Online.

The creators of Bless were simply not satisfied with Bless Online, and so they set out on a mission to take the game’s gorgeous visuals and assets and reconstruct them into something new. The team is very self-aware of the concerns and feedback from former and current Bless Online players, and they feel it is fair and take it seriously.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” In Joon says, pointing out that when the game is released, players will quickly be able to see what the game is – and isn’t. While the announcement of Bless Unleashed may have seemed sudden to gamers, Neowiz and Bandai Namco have been working in partnership, joining resources and ideas, for some time to build a new MMO for console based on the Bless IP.

Bless Unleashed Defender

Expect to find large monsters like this dragon in the open world.

Bless Unleashed has been designed as a free-to-play game from the start, in part because the choice of a business model greatly influences design decisions. It may seem curiously strategic to approach Unleashed with a F2P model after Online’s struggles, but we’re reminded that these games are two completely different titles within the same universe. The team behind Unleashed had and have no control over how Bless Online was launched or run: the focus is on how Bless Unleashed will be its own free to play console MMO experience.

In Joon adds that based on his personal experience:

The Bless brand is new. It’s not Elder Scrolls, it’s not Final Fantasy. We hope that it will be good enough to compete in that field, but if we go in immediately as a pay-to-play game, then you’re immediately competing with those big stars. We have the inspiration to be that good, but we have a lot of respect for them too. We want to make sure that we build the game well. So we’ll give it away for free, so people can feel comfortable to try us out as a brand new brand.

This humility also extends to their approach to publishing Bless Unleashed only on Xbox One at this time. With a new brand and finite resources, the team wants to ensure that they approach development carefully. Rather than spreading themselves thin to try to deliver the same game quality across multiple platforms, or simply reach to the largest market, Round 8 and Bandai Namco believe that focusing their attention on the Xbox One experience is best. Then, if everything else falls into place, they can consider expanding to other platforms.

Round 8 and Bandai Namco both recognize that they face challenges given the Bless IP’s current reputation. On the development side, Round 8 is preoccupied with the practical challenges of game development and design. But on the publishing side of things, it’s an uphill battle. In Joon points out that while he’s met the Bless Online team, he has no interaction with them. What Neowiz chooses to do with Bless Online is beyond the Bless Unleashed team – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t lend additional challenges for them.

“When we were coming up with the game name,” he explains, “Round 8 Studios told us, ‘Oh please, just make a different name.’ It’s the easy way to do it.” But after many meetings, the publishing division settled on Bless and Unleashed. “Should we make the Bless part very tiny, and the Unleashed part very big?” he half-jokes, pointing out it was nonetheless a serious marketing decision. Given the fact that the game is using the stunning assets already made for Bless Online, In Joon notes that it would be very disingenuous to try to hide its association with the PC MMO. Instead, the team will embrace the challenges its older sibling gives it, and work instead toward proving itself in gameplay.

All of these points thoroughly covered, we moved on to discuss what Bless Unleashed would offer in terms of new or changed gameplay systems (besides the combat covered earlier).

Bless Online is beautiful and barren, Round 8 explains, so their first goal is to fill the world and make it “lively and beautiful.” Rather than players visiting an area to never return, their goal is to make areas of the world revisitable, bring players together, and make sure there is always something to do.

Bless Unleashed Mage

The mage wasn't available for demo, but you can imagine it will come with powerful spells and powerful risk.

The world will be filled with named monsters and bosses, rather than shoving them off into dungeons. These encounters will be more casual and solo-friendly, allowing players to jump in and try the fights alone or gather groups together (some creatures, of course, will be more challenging than others). Random missions will appear in areas related to taking down these monsters, and these encounters are timed, so there is always a constant motivation to push players to engage these creatures. The difficulty of these encounters will be scaled to the number of players and the strength of those players. There will also be hidden treasure chests to uncover, and player estates that will feature large plots of land to build upon.

The mount and taming system will also be seeing a major redesign from its Bless Online counterpart. “It’s really hard to see what they do and why it matters,” In Joon says, pointing out that they seem more a cosmetic addition than anything useful. The Bless Unleashed team wants to make a taming system incorporated with the player estate system. Humanoids will be able to be negotiated with and form contracts with the player to work at their estate in positions like blacksmithing or farming. Animals will be able to be captured and place them in your estate to produce different materials and resources, as well as be stabled for use outside the estates as a mount.

Round 8 has rebuilt everything, even for simple items like costumes, location specific dyeing system, professions, and a karma based reputation system. Bless Unleashed will offer both PvE and PvP. In addition to the open, scaling PvE in the world, players will also be able to encounter legendary monsters in different tiers of dungeons which will each have unique combat mechanics and will require more strategy and strength than found in the open world.

There will also be open world PvP in certain zones, along with an arena-style battleground with tiered rewards and rankings. Open world PvP will be tied to the reputation system, which is very region-specific. Attacking players will result in bad karma, and this will lead to consequences within the world itself as NPCs begin to distrust you. You might become an outlaw, attacked by guards on sight, and so you must visit an outlaw town so that you have a safe area to access items and equipment – just perhaps at a higher cost. Outlaws will also be able to redeem themselves through quests or pay off NPCs to improve their karma to be able to enter more peaceful areas again.

This doesn’t mean that there is a single-player or small group focus; there will be larger scaled content in PvE and PvP that includes raids and larger battlegrounds. However, Bless Unleashed will be steering away from the guild versus guild territory battle system, as they feel that the style of PvP will eventually lead to an imbalance that can’t be fixed. Instead Round 8 wants to offer “selective RvR,” where players can choose to be player-killers (PK), defenders (anti-PK), or merchant and adventure focused. While there is a karma system, Round 8 doesn’t want to punish players for participating in PK: they want to make it an optional path to let players experience the game in the way they want most, including different quest lines for different styles of play.

You can find out more about the game, and sign up for updates, on the official website.

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