The vast MMORPG genre is defined by games like Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft, but since the release of those titans, it seems as though MMORPGs have lost their spark. Although World of Warcraft is still one of the most highly played games on PC, it is subject to criticism for remaining on the same engine and systems for as long as it has; meaning that some people view the game as being outdated. However, the success of World of Warcraft has spawned many clones, fittingly called "WoW clones," since they don't stray too far from the gameplay and elements that made World of Warcraft so successful. For the longest time, it seemed as though the MMORPG genre would be trapped by its past, since modern MMORPG releases couldn't provide gamers with a new experience. However, with Blade & Soul being released in North America and Europe later tonight, the wait for a truly unique MMORPG is almost over.
I had the distinct pleasure of getting early access to Blade & Soul during their Head Start period over the last few days. In these past few days, I've had more fun playing this game than any other game that I've ever played. I firmly believe that Blade & Soul has the potential to gain as much traction and influence as the titans of the MMORPG genre have gotten. It is an alluring game with a combat system and story unlike 99% of MMORPGs.
Being unique, however, doesn't necessarily make a game good. Blade & Soul is made good by its fluid and timing-based combat, its compelling narrative and soundtrack, its take on open-world PvP and PvE, but the major point I'd like to stress is its style of combat. Blade & Soul could be accurately summed up by calling it a mashup of a fighting game and an MMORPG. The game features 7 classes currently on the North American and European servers (there are more classes on the Korean server) and each one has a different feel and play style from the others. I chose to play as the Kung Fu Master, an aficionado on hand-to-hand combat, grapples, and situational skills. The Kung Fu Master had the highest difficulty rating, so I decided to roll with it, seeking the greatest possible challenge in Blade & Soul and with my class selection.
The first thing I noticed after choosing my class was the character customization and its intricacies. The art and look of the characters in-game have an "anime look" to them which won't appeal to everyone, but you are fully capable of making a character that doesn't look "so anime." The customization options go pretty in-depth. You can rotate features of your character, change positioning and shapes, and change the size of every part of your character. Given these tools and options, players will have everything at their disposal to make their own character.
After your character is made, you're thrown into some cinematic cutscenes that serve to orient the player in this new world. Your body is found in the ocean surrounding a tall mountain, where the Hongmoon school of martial arts is located though, to the man who saved your life's dismay, the school is aflame and you were the only survivor he could find. After this, your character is brought back into the past to show the events that transpired earlier that day. This section is essentially a tutorial to get players into the unique mechanics of the game and it shows the basics of windwalking, combat, interacting with NPCs and objects, and it's also an introduction to the story. Of all the students learning from the master of the school, Hong Sokyun, your character is chosen to learn the "secret Hongmoon techniques" that are powerful enough to rule empires. Feeling betrayed, one of the other students conspires with a sinister being of dark intent: a woman named Jinsoyun who has a strong connection with a great evil of the past. Master Hong is poisoned by this student and Jinsoyun attacks the school, killing everyone in it including Master Hong, and leaving your character with the dreaded "Mark of the Black Rose" that slowly kills its victims and turns them into a demon upon their death.
From there, your quest is largely based around avenging your master and getting what information you can on Jinsoyun. As you progress, you unlock more expansive and interesting takes on your abilities which you can even use to get a new ability entirely. As a Kung Fu Master, I was able to turn my basic Swift Strike into an ability called Tiger Strike, which hits multiple times and inflicts fire damage instead of normal physical damage. It also paved the way to new combos and attacks that I wouldn't have been able to use if I had gone with a different ability path. Every ability works this way, with trees designed to benefit your performance in PvP, PvE, or fighting major bosses. These builds usually entail high crowd control, high area of effect damage, or high single target damage, respectively and they will almost always change your abilities completely from when you first started training them.
The skill system is only a fraction of what makes the combat system shine. The combat revolves around timing and predicting your enemy's moves. Each different "type" of enemy has set attacks it can use and learning the timing on those attacks and how to counter them is the key to learning how to play in Blade & Soul. Even if you're fighting NPCs, they will use attacks based on their class; so if an NPC is a Blade Master or an Assassin, they will use the same abilities and fight almost like a player would. Of course, the timing isn't just important for defensive reasons, as your combos can prove even deadlier if you time them right. Timing things well can get your combos off faster and you will move blindingly fast once you master the fundamental mechanics of the game.
This means that soloing dungeons is actually possible and is widely done by most players. You don't have to rely on stats alone to do well; you can rely solely on your skill with your class and your ability to dodge and predict attacks. Even if you aren't a high enough level for a dungeon or your gear isn't up to par, you can still participate and even do well so long as you learn the attacks of all of the enemies and figure out how to dodge them.
On top of this, there's no "holy trinity" of tanks, healers, and damage dealers. You can choose to generate more Threat on some abilities, effectively becoming a tank, or you can get some minor healing abilities as a Summoner, but that's it. There are no dedicated tanks or healers and it's generally up to each individual player to not die while in a dungeon. The major dungeons also feature huge boss fights with challenging mechanics and abilities that normally affect the entire stage you fight them on. They also have abilities that, if not dodged and if a player is under-geared, could take out a chunk of your party in one fell swoop.
I mentioned that the story is centered around finding and stopping Jinsoyun in her nefarious plans, but there is more to it. Blade & Soul, even as an MMORPG, is story-driven and actually tells a pretty good story if you stop and pay attention to it. Though it's more fun to skip all of the dialogue and cutscenes to get back into the combat, it's important to stop sometimes and take in what you're actually doing in the game. Your character starts out weak and your attempts to stop Jinsoyun and her allies are swiftly stomped out because your character can't match their skill until much later in the game, which makes sense as you were only a student. You eventually seek out the Eight Masters who guide you on the path to recovery to get the Mark of the Black Rose removed, as they also teach you new abilities and things your character can do. You'll learn new windwalking techniques, options to customize all of your skills and turn them into brand new skills, and more as you go through and reach certain parts of the story.
It truly was a breath of fresh air to feel some real incentive to go through the story and do all of the quests. At the end of every major quest, I received rewards in the form of outfits, weapons, crafting items, and even new abilities. Even without any rewards for completing the main quest, it's still an interesting story and delves deeper into storytelling than almost any other MMORPG. It's not the most well-told story, but it's still a good one and it's more than enough to keep me interested which is not something that any other MMORPG has done for me.
On top of that, Blade & Soul has a massive soundtrack composed of songs that create an atmosphere and really made me feel like I was a part of the story or dungeon. Upon entering a peaceful village, I'm given a relaxing song to listen to that encourages the idea that the village is safe. After entering a cave tainted by an evil shaman, I'm given a dark and eerie song that is unsettling and adds to the tension of the impending boss battle. Everywhere I went in this game had a unique soundscape to it in addition to their unique visual appearances.
On that note, I really have to compliment the game's lighting effects. Although the graphics of the game can't really compare to games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or other visually stunning games, Blade & Soul still captures its intended art style and the lighting really adds to it throughout the game. From what I've seen, there's no graphical issues with the game and everything works as intended and at maximum graphical settings, Blade & Soul actually raised the bar for me with graphics in MMORPGs as the game does look rather impressive with the maximum settings enabled.
There is a lot of content related to factions and PvP, but I've only scratched the surface on it. PvP is easy to get into but hard to master, and factions are a fun way to incorporate open-world PvP based on when players want to toggle it on or off. This is done by equipping the uniforms of a certain faction and finding players who have the opposing faction uniform equipped. This is how the open-world PvP is structured and all a player has to do to turn it on or off is equip or remove the faction uniform. If you'd like a more PvE approach to factions, there are certain locations where you can fight challenging NPCs of the opposing faction, though enemy players are able to join the fray just as allied players would be able to help you. The difficulty increases, too, as you keep fighting the NPCs, they will send for backup and a special team or faction officer will slam down into the field and attempt to stop you. As you ramp up kills and earn Prestige Points, you become a target for other players, but you can earn great rewards with your faction should you make it back to their camp and turn in your kills, which are lost if you end up dying.
There is also a PvP arena which allows players to duel in one-on-one combat or in tag teams. I got beat in my first match, though, so I didn't explore the arena or PvP at all. There is a ranking system that some players have already participated in, as well as a PvP currency that can be traded for unique costumes, weapons, and items for doing a lot of PvP.
Blade & Soul has been released in Korea since 2012, eventually making its way to China in 2013 and then Japan in 2014. Its popularity soaring, demand for a western release only increased over the years with the lack of new MMORPGs coming out. Its reception in those regions has been nothing but positive, with Blade & Soul being one of the most widely played games in those regions. Its skill-based combat system inspired an eSports league for the game's dueling and PvP combat, with tournaments being held for the game just like what you might expect to see for a fighting game.
All in all, Blade & Soul does exactly what it intended to do and more. It created an open world where players could master martial art combat, explore professions and guilds to make money, and a story that is easy to follow and interesting to keep up with. The game has masterfully designed gameplay and combat that makes the game fun to play, even if you're not fighting enemies. Movement and combos are fluid and everything makes sense; the game is so fun that it is sometimes addicting. Everything that the game does right - the visuals, the sounds, the gameplay, the plot - all come together to form an excellent game that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who likes MMORPGs, fighting games, or video games in general.
Given its popularity and fans' patience for a western release, I have no doubt that Blade & Soul will make waves when it's finally released tonight at 12:01 AM EST. With just over 7 hours remaining in the countdown as I write this, I imagine a lot of MMORPG enthusiasts are eagerly waiting on the edge of their seats for the game to go public.