Way back in June 2012, NCSoft released Blade & Soul, a Korean fantasy MMORPG based around martial arts and Eastern fantasy. The game launched as an action RPG with an equal focus on normal PVE play and 1v1 arena style PVP combat. For those who haven't been following the game, it's easiest to think of Blade & Soul as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The MMO. A few months later, NCSoft announced that it would be bringing Blade & Soul to the United States and Europe.
And then nothing happened.
Fast-forward a few years and we finally have a release date for the Western versions of the game: January 19, 2016. Blade & Soul in the West will still be free-to-play like its Korean and Chinese counterparts, but significant tweaks have been made to balance the game for our specific preferences. NCSoft's internal team, Team Bloodlust, has been working hard with Western development staff to adapt Blade & Soul for the US and Europe.
Last week, I went to Korea for a hands-on with the current Western version of the client and to talk with the development staff about how Blade & Soul is shaping up. So here's what you need to know about the our version of the game, based on my own impressions and conversations with NCSoft developers.
It's Not Grindy At All
I think a number of us have expectations that MMOs for Korea and China are more 'grindy' than their Western counterparts. Many of those biases are based in reality. Those regions are more used to games that have a significant leveling curve and allow players to outright purchase items to make that curve easier. Blade & Soul in Korea might be grindy, but that's not going to fly here in the West.
I'm pleased to say that in the current iteration of the US Blade & Soul client, leveling moves at a steady clip. I'd say I was able to bang out level 10 in several hours across two days and the level cap is only 45 for the current alpha and beta clients. If you focus on the quests the game throws your way, you're not going to have any trouble leveling.
"I think there's a challenge because there's a perception of what a Korean MMO is. People say 'They're grindy, you're going to spend forever trying to level up.' If you've had any time in the closed beta at all, you'll see that we're not that," explained Sean Corcoran, Senior Brand Manager for Blade & Soul. "We are not grindy, but I can say that all I want until you play it. That's the one negative with being a Korean MMO that jumps out as a challenge we have to counteract. Part of that is people getting to experience it for themselves. They're never really going to trust us."
"We're an Eastern MMO because of the content and the storyline in the game. There's no avoiding that and we shouldn't because it's a fantastic story. But you can level pretty quickly through Blade & Soul and a lot of people are excited about that, because they can get to the high-level PVP content."
And no, just because he talked about getting to high-level PVP content in that quote, that doesn't mean that's all you can do in Blade & Soul. One benefit of being way behind the Korean and Chinese release is there's a good deal of PVE content available for release.
"We have a pretty aggressive schedule right after launch for PVE content," Corcoran added. "We're in a unique situation where the game's already out in other territories. Certain content has been on the Chinese or Taiwanese servers, so people know what's coming. Our goal is to catch up as quickly as possible with that content. Probably within the first three to six months. There will always be a commitment to having strong PVE content."
Our Blade & Soul is Still Made By the Original Developers
This version of Blade & Soul wasn't shopped out to a porting house. The original internal development team is still working on the Western release in tandem with NCSoft West team members. There will be changes, notably in the game's paid items and economy, but for the most part, Blade & Soul is coming to our shores intact.
"The focus from the beginning has been that we want it to be free-to-play with no pay-to-win stuff. Everything in the game that you purchase will be either cosmetic or convenience items. The dev team [in Korea] worked with us on that," said Corcoran. "We're going through a lot of closed beta testing to make sure that our price points are correct for in-game currency and hard currency. That the level of bonus you get is fair. The US and European markets are where you need to take that approach."
"The vision of the game should not be changing. Our vision for this game is to let users have fun. We're trying hard to make changes for Western users so they feel good about Blade & Soul," added Blade & Soul development team head Moonyoung Choi (via a translator as he does not speak English).
"When we started service in other countries, there was major feedback that it was too hard to level up. So we lowered the difficulty," Choi said. "When it came to the West and [Closed Beta Test 2], we actually raised the difficulty level to around 140 percent of what it had been. We've gathered all the logs, including dungeon kills, and the feedback from CBT2 will be applied to the launch build in turn."
There's A Lot of Class Variety
On the surface, I admit I felt that the seven classes available in the Western version - Blade Master, Blade Dancer, Force Master, Kung Fu Master, Assassin, Destroyer, and Summoner - sounded conceptually similar. How do you differentiate between a Blade Master and Blade Dancer?
In actual play though, there's a good amount of variety in Blade & Soul's classes, mostly because the game's combat is active. I played the Assassin, who is the ninja-style archetype available. Wielding a short sword, the Assassin is all about quick attacks, dodges, and misdirection. The Assassin's counter move, Decoy, teleports you behind an enemy when hit, leaving behind a trope-friendly cut log in your place. You can switch places with enemies, turn invisible, or come flying overhead for finishing strikes. Honestly, the Assassin left such an impression on me that I'll probably play one come launch.
The Blade Master is the jack of all trades, switching between stances for offensive and defense, while the Blade Dancer focuses on high-speed attacks and crowd control at the expense of defense. The Force Master is the game's mage, excelling at long-range combat, while the Summoner calls on a very cute cat familiar to tank and deal damage up close.
The Destroyer is hefty axe-wielding class that can actually pick up most enemies to move them around the battlefield. The first time I saw a Destroyer pick up a boss in on my hands-on dungeon run, I almost decided that it would be my class of choice, but they're slow, which isn't my jam. The Kung Fu Master is Blade & Soul's current expert-level class, requiring split-second counter timing to protect itself from damage and turn the tables on foes. In fact, a well-played Kung Fu Master can solo dungeons according to the dev team, using counters and invinciblity frames to stay alive.
"My favorite class is Assassin, but the one that sets the game apart the most is probably Kung Fu Master," said Corcoran, when I asked about which class really sticks out in Blade & Soul. "It's not like it's a class that no one's ever seen before, but the level of skill it takes to be good with that class is pretty incredible."
And it's important to realize that we're only getting seven classes at launch. Korea already has the game's eighth class, the Warlock, available in game as the new mid-range offensive class. Not unlike the Summoner, the Warlock can call upon spirits and apparitions to deal damage from a distance. Beyond the Warlock, Blade & Soul still has another two classes coming. The ninth class, the Qi Master, was announced at G-Star 2015, while the tenth class is still under wraps.
"It's not that we're missing anything. We want to widen the variety of selection or choices that we give the users," said Moonyoung Choi. "That's why we're continuously investing in creating new classes. The ninth class is coming during G-Star and we're also preparing the tenth class for sometime next year."
The Jiggle is Here to Stay
When you load up the character creator for Blade & Soul, the first thing you'll notice is that it's rather robust. There's a ton of facial and body sliders available, allowing you to create a wide variety of characters. In fact, hitting the "randomize" button will most likely end in some funny results. NCSoft even has some presets that look like your favorite anime characters: I saw Naruto's Rock Lee and Sasuke as available preset faces in my build.
The second thing you'll notice is that when you make a female character and move her in any way, her breasts will jiggle wildly. In-game Blade & Soul seems to use the effect selectively: it's not always on for every move or cutscene, but when it is, you'll notice. I asked Corcoran if the jiggle and general revealing nature of the female costumes is something NCSoft West thought about toning down during the porting process.
"It's part of the game and part of the original art style of [character designer] Hyung Tae Kim. That's how he designs characters. We're not going to take away from that," said Corcoran. "One of the things we wanted to focus on with the Western market is equal treatment between the sexes. If there's a really sexy costume for a female character, then there should be a really sexy costume for a male character. Then our consumers can make the decision on which one to choose."
This doesn't mean the male characters will have additional jiggling crotches in the West (sad trombone), merely that our release will try to offer equal more equivalent costumes. That doesn't necessarily address the boob jiggle, but it's a start. The reason the jiggle won't be changing is to due Blade & Soul's existing community.
"There was a decent amount of censorship in the Chinese release," added Corcoran. "Many of our community members picked up on that and were concerned about that. We made a commitment early on to have no censorship and an equal treatment of the sexes. We're not going to take anything away that's already there, but we're going to try to make sure it's equal in terms of costumes and designs for the characters."
Of course, NCSoft isn't going to be cutting bits from the current male costumes to make this work. Instead, costumes moving forward will be made with this in mind and the team may add more revealing male costume options earlier in the game.
"It's not going to be changes to existing costumes for the most part, unless there's something that's way out there," said Corcoran. "Moving forward as new costumes roll out, we're making sure there's a fair treatment there. Even looking back at some of the old costumes, if we can add a new costume on the male side that helps balance things out, that's possible."
The Authentic Korean Voice Work is Coming
One thing that didn't come together for me while playing Blade & Soul was the English voice cast. I'm not a big fan of dubbing in the first place - I prefer to play games with their domestic voice casts - but the voice work presented wasn't the greatest. It's the kind of thing where I just cringe a bit and move on.
Luckily, NCSoft is looking to let players add in the original Korean voice work. Unfortunately, that won't be a simply toggle within the game.
"It's not going to be an option that's in the game," said Corcoran when asked about the original voice work. "We will provide the voice packs. We're working on a number of them, so we can't confirm which ones exactly yet. We'll share those and how to implement them. People will be able to do that, but it won't be an option where you can just click and choose."
Yep, PC players will have to get in there and do a slight bit of modding if they want to hear the original voices in Blade & Soul. It's a shame that it's not a toggle, but I'm glad NCSoft realized that it would be a big issue for some of the more fervent fans.
The Console Versions Are Still on NCSoft's Mind
Way back in 2010, Blade & Soul was originally announced for PC, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360 versions also on the table. Eventually, those versions just fell off the map, never to be heard of again. I asked Blade & Soul development team head Moonyoung Choi why the console versions disappeared and if we could expect Blade & Soul on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in the future.
"We chose to focus more on the PC version. It was challenging to get the console game controllers to match the mouse and keyboard," said Choi. "That was a major challenge for us, but we are actually R&D for potential console versions right now. We don't have any solid plans and we are continuously working on it. We're also supporting the Xbox One controller for the Western release and we think that's a small, but meaningful start."
The Anime Wasn't Great, But More Spin-Offs Are Planned
An anime adaptation of Blade & Soul created by Gonzo aired in 2014. You can find all 13 episodes of the series on Crunchyroll right now if you want to take a look, but reviews on the site illustrate the quality of the series. I personally felt it relied more on T&A than telling a worthwhile story or even providing amazing action scenes.
It seems the original developers felt the same.
"The Japanese animation was not very successful, but maybe we can try other mediums later," said Choi. "Blade & Soul has rich storytelling elements to it, so that's why we're trying spin-offs, with the musical, the webtoons, and a different mix of media. We have background stories of the Blade & Soul characters coming in webtoon format. We're also planning to have spin-off mobile games [involving our characters] next year."