My thoughts on Blade & Soul after spending over 50 hours playing it

Blade & Soul is a fantasy, martial-arts MMO with a heavy focus on combat, PvP and anything else that involves beating up scores of enemies. It initially released in Korea back in 2012, and has only made its way to the West near the end of January, 2016.

I'm doing this review/critique after about 60 hours of play, mostly because it took me this long to properly form my thoughts on Blade & Soul given that for each element it does right, there is an equally annoying counterpart.

As with other MMOs, its best we start from the very beginning, the character creation process. Despite being made in 2012 I have to commend Blade & Soul when it comes to customization. You are able to make your character look exactly like you want them, whether that means an action movie badass, skimpily dressed eye-candy, a ripped Eastern kung-fu master, or anything in between.

Fans of Oblivion's monstrous character creator will also find their place in Blade & Soul since messing around with the sliders can result in a character that look less like a human, and more like a dried piece of fruit masquerading as one.

Blade & Soul has some silly characters

Meet Gor'Blark, a visitor from dimension C-137

It is an excellent system as it allows all sorts of players to create a character to their liking. The overwhelming majority still went with the "lamp post with tits bolted on" look, but the rest of that wanted to be as cool as possible had plenty of options to do so, and I have to say that I'm incredibly proud of how my Assassin turned out. She wouldn't be amiss as a villain in some sort of cheesy B movie, and given the type of quests Blade & Soul sends you on I'd imagine her personality isn't far from that either.

A well done character creator, however, would be nothing with some nifty armor to put on, a commodity Blade & Soul provides to you in droves. I have never in my life seen an MMO that gives you this many good looking armor sets for relatively simple tasks early in the game. Unlike my experience with Black Desert, in Blade & Soul you won't be wearing dirty old rags until level 40, instead you will be constantly changing between a wide array of unique looking outfits spread across a variety of styles.

Obviously, you have the standard "boob window" armor sets and those that could barely be even considered clothing, but once you get past that there is a whole wardrobe of thematic gear for you to pick and chose from. You can roll with the shirtless kung-fu guy look, or go with the more dignified royal armor set, or perhaps lean towards villainy with the aptly named "True Evil" set or, if you're like me, wear the corpse of a fire-breathing demon over your head because nothing says hero like wearing the flesh of your enemies.

Blade & Soul cool Assassin costume

Its a shame you can't screenshot fire effects

After going through the character creator and designing myself the perfect Assassin I was in high spirits and ready to tackle whatever Blade & Soul could throw at me, words I would soon come to regret. It was not the complex combat mechanics, or difficult dungeons, that gave me pause, but rather the completely stupid story, mediocre translation and terribly inconsistent voice acting where great performances are constantly interrupted by annoying ones.

The main problem with the story is that your character is an idiot and will frequently get roped in to doing terrible deeds, all of the supporting cast is stupid and completely inept at both their jobs and at seeing obviously evil people among them, and to top it all off the main villains are all buffoons and either leave their minions to finish you off or simply decide not to, just 'cause. Are you seeing a pattern here?

I'm not sure whether the story was like this in the Korean version, or if the localization team butchered it, but its impossible to get invested in a narrative that only takes place because every single person in it is a blithering moron. Even the very first cutscene is guilty of this as your master sacrifices himself and the fate of the entire world in order to save your sorry hide, after which your character ends up near death anyway, but only survives because the bad guys were busy practicing their evil laugh. The entirety of the story would've been over within 5 minutes if your supposedly all-powerful master wasn't an idiot, or alternatively if the baddies simply finished you off.

I could rant for hours about the story and the writing that constantly mistakes puns and memes with humor, but quite frankly it doesn't deserve that much attention so allow me to sum up the entirety of it in one word: betrayal. Every single story arch contains one grand betrayal that you can see coming from a kilometer away, yet you're helpless to stop it because, as you might remember, your character in Blade & Soul has the mental capability of a newborn.

Blade & Soul has a very daft plot

Discount Napoleon over here is the most annoying character you will ever meet

While the story is completely laughable, the combat and general gameplay are some of the best you'll find in an MMO today. If you've played World of Warcraft during Burning Crusade then you have a general idea of the complexity and uniqueness behind each of Blade & Soul's classes. Every single one has their own strengths, weaknesses and a certain way of playing that will take you all the way till max level to fully master.

For example, in order to get the optimal DPS out of my Assassin I have to go through a complex, timing based rotation involving a dozen spells, and while that might sound overwhelming its all slowly introduced to you as you progress towards the max level. Add to that a bunch of defensive and evasion orientated abilities and you've got yourself an MMO combat system that is fast paced, reactive, skill-based, and most importantly a lot of fun to play with.

All of my story complaints tend to be quickly forgotten as I dash in and out of the fight, constantly ensuring that the enemy remains poisoned and my daggers planted firmly in its back, while simultaneously dodging an avalanche of spells that are hard hitting but completely avoidable through the use of numerous dodge, backstep, evasion and block abilities. Things get even more exciting when you introduce other people as they can perform combo attacks with you in order to stun, throw around or even flat out break the necks of the poor sods that dared stand against you.

Blade & Soul features very difficult two man bosses

This bundle of darkness and fire is where I got my armor from... not the easiest of tasks

Unfortunately, while the combat system was designed to be as deep, complex and interesting as possible, the quest system was created in two days by throwing darts at the "generic MMO questing" board. Every single one involves either talking to a guy, killing a guy, picking up an item from the ground and then killing a guy, or worst of all, an escort mission where you have to kill other guys before they kill your suicidal companion.

The fighting system was so enjoyable for me I genuinely wouldn't mind if missions simply said "go murder everything in your path", but the developers, in their eternal wisdom, decided to make every single quest out in the world so insultingly easy I was only kept awake by playing a game of "find the plot hole" with my friend. On one hand you have an amazingly deep combat system with over 30 combos and abilities you can pull off, and on the other a bunch of enemies so weak they die before you even get to the letter C in combo. Its especially hilarious if you're an Assassin as the NPCs have no stealth detection and will happily stand there completely still while you make minced meat out of them and their friends.

Luckily, the dungeon design team doesn't share such a mistrust of players as it allows you to frequently find appropriate amounts of challenges in either solo, duo or proper team instances. Enemies in these areas tend to have decent amounts of health, good damage and unique mechanics that require you to use your class to its full potential, both offensively and defensively, with the main carrot behind it all being a chance at some of the coolest costumes in game.

You can go with 6 overgeared people and stomp all over the harder dungeons, but your chances of winning anything in this case are minuscule, so unless you're rich enough to outbid everyone else I wouldn't recommend doing so. A much more interesting approach, and one that me and my friend took, is to tackle these 6 man dungeons with smaller parties. In other MMOs this would be nigh impossible but Blade & Soul's skill based combat makes it not just possible, but also really entertaining to do.

Once you're without the safety in numbers you will quickly start learning boss patterns, optimal times to attack and when to initiate a stunlock in order to avoid some of the nastier mechanics. It might sound simple on paper but some of the bosses are real bastards that require a great deal of planning and execution from you if you expect to survive long enough to get anything out of them. We died, we died a lot, but once we finally managed to beat some of the toughest 6 man bosses with our tiny 2 man squad, the feeling of satisfaction and triumph as we looted the disproportionally large bounty was second to none. 

Blade & Soul flamethrower weapon

Solving the age-old spider problem through the use of flamethrowers

Besides just beating up other people, Blade & Soul has an interesting take on crafting where you hire followers to gather resources and craft components for you. Its a bit of a slow system as each item takes a certain amount of time to construct, but it feels great being able to consistently craft healing potions, keys or other goodies for yourself. That is, until you realize that every single crafting profession besides one is completely worthless, and that you actually lose money by crafting.

Let that sink in, you lose money by crafting! Why bother slowly leveling up your alchemy skill, or wasting half a day to craft a few dozen healing potions, when you can buy everything off the auction house for 1/2 the price and have it delivered instantly. The only craftable item that's worth a damn is the Moonwater Transformation Stone which is used to upgrade end-game weapons, but since everyone carries the same profession your profit margin is incredibly slim for the time needed to craft them, so you're once again encouraged to just make a visit to the auction.

The one part of crafting that's both interesting and well executed is the weapon & armor upgrade system. Given that your soul is bound with your blade (hence the title) you won't simply replace it with any old relic you find lying in a crypt, instead you will use such weapons as fodder to increase the power and unlock new effects for your soulblade. It might sound silly, but as a concept it works really well and ensures that the economy in Blade & Soul never goes out of whack given that weapon upgrading constantly removes both items and money from the world, an issue many other MMOs struggle heavily with.

Blade & Soul weapon upgrading

A simple example of how the weapon upgrading system works

After I've hit level 45 and learned what on Earth my class can even do, I opted to try out PvP and see how I fare against other players. I've heard from numerous sources over the years that Blade & Soul is a very PvP focused game, and that the balance is something other MMOs can only wish for, yet in the few hours of PvP I participated in, I've seen nothing of the sort. I will fully admit that this might be an issue with my small sample size but either the balance is completely out of whack or am "The One" of Blade & Soul.

Out of all the matches I've played, I'd wager 80% of them ended with me barely even being damaged as the combination of insane burst, constant stealth and crowd control proved too much for the other players to overcome. Perhaps things get better once you reach the higher echelons of PvP but after hours of feeling like a bully in the children's sand pit I wasn't very motivated to continue and find out.

I'm not exactly sure whether the problem lies with Blade & Soul's high skill ceiling, potentially poor matchmaking, balance, or whatever else, but if it couldn't find me consistently challenging fights after two hours there's something obviously wrong. For what its worth, I had fun with those few fights where the other player was actually capable of matching my tempo, but the wait between each such sparring match proved to be excruciating so I just returned to the land of stabbing bosses in the butt cheeks.

Verdict

Blade & Soul is the type of game that's difficult to recommend, not because its terrible, but rather because its focus is entirely on the "Blade" part of the title with the "Soul" completely ignored. I ended up enjoying it, despite the flaws, but I am fully aware that many will not, especially those that attempt to play it solo.

If you are looking for an MMO with an excellent combat system and fancy outfits to collect, but don't mind the cringe-worthy dialogue, terrible story and generic questing, then by all means give Blade & Soul a try. It might not be the most diverse game in existence, but what it does well, it does really well.

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