Nearly four years ago, NCSoft launched Blade & Soul in South Korea. It's an MMO built from NCSoft's best and brightest, featuring the art of superstar Hyung Tae-Kim and a robust action combat system. The game has since been distributed to China, Japan, and Taiwan, but North American fans have had to muddle through a different language to enjoy the game. Those fans have been asking for a Western localization for years and NCSoft West finally delivered in January. Has Blade & Soul been worth the wait?
It depends on what you're looking for in your MMO.
Blade & Soul is visually striking right from the beginning. Sure, Unreal Engine 3 shows its age here with relatively poor textures if you look at anything closeup, but the general artstyle is wonderfully unique. This is a Korean MMO and that culture is painted upon every surface, alongside some heavy wuxia influences. Mountainside cities stretch into the clouds, waterfalls dot the landscape, and vast deserts stretch out before you. Blade & Soul has some stunning vistas.
Getting around those vistas is equally enjoyable. There's no mounts in this game. Instead, the player character is completely self-sufficient, able to float through the air, push themselves forward off of nothing, and walk on water. You can even wall dash! Finally, there's static Dragon Pulses in each region that will launch you from place to place. It's one of the game's highlights.
Blade & Soul's plot is threadbare and mostly forgettable: You're the last student of Hong Sokyun, master of the Hongmoon style. When your entire school is destroyed by the power hungry Jinsoyun, you're found floating in the ocean and saved by an old war veteran. So begins your quest to master the Hongmoon way and bring an end to Jinsoyun. That's pretty much the outline of the quest and while the game will touch upon your true mission here and there, it's mostly background to the leveling experience. It's certainly not up to snuff compared to games like Final Fantasy XIV or Guild Wars 2.
It probably doesn't help that Blade & Soul's Western release is plagued by poor voice acting and rough translations. Honestly, given the audience this game seems to be reaching, I think it might have been better for NCSoft just to leave the Korean voice acting in place, because it's much, much stronger.
Where Blade & Soul excels and innovates is in its combat. There's no tab-targeting, no auto-focus, and no static action bars. You have to aim at the enemy you want to attack with the game's camera, so if you visually miss a strike, it misses in-game. (You hold Alt to change mouse movement from camera to cursor, so you can select menu items.) When you're in combat in Blade & Soul, things are constantly shifting. You'll have one set of attacks and as the battle progresses, what's available to you changes. Is your opponent down? Here's a follow-up attack to stomp them into the dirt. If you've stunned an enemy, perhaps you want to grapple for an alternate set of attacks. Did another player just knock down that target? If you use the right attack, you'll create a combo with them!
Once you've mastered the combat system, you'll find there's a flow state of basic combos, counters, stuns, grapples, throws, and follow-up attacks. Blade & Soul's combat is active in the strongest sense of the word, even more so than other action-oriented MMOs like TERA and Guild Wars 2. It feels like a fighting game.
That's why Blade & Soul's PVP is where the magic is at. The PVP mode, which is split between 1v1 Duels, 3v3 Matches, and world PVP, is where the game shines the brightest. Tactics and tight reflexes unpin the entire PVP system, leading to some great matches if you find an equally skilled opponent. There's a strong give-and-take, waiting for your foe to overcommit so you can exploit their weaknesses with a stun or grapple. You'll find some very tense matches, where a perfect counter will take you from a near-loss to victory. I don't particularly enjoy PVP in MMOs, but in Blade & Soul it's rather fun.
Well, most of the time. Unfortunately, balance seems to be a struggle for the game. The Western client launched with seven classes: Blade Master, Destroyer, Force Master, Kung Fu Master, Assassin, Blade Dancer, and Summoner. The classes are divided between the four humanoid races: the basic Jin and Yun, the massive Gon, and the diminutive Lyn. The Blade Master is your jack-of-all-trades, using their swords to provide solid offense and defense. The Destroyer is BnS's heavy class, with a huge axe and the ability to literally pick up enemies and throw them around. Force Master is the long-range mage class.
Blade Dancer takes the basic idea of the Blade Master, but sacrifices defenses for offense and speed. The Assassin is all about your best Ninja fantasies, with a Decoy counter move and the ability to move swiftly around the battlefield. The Kung Fu Master is heavy on combos and counter timing, being one of the harder classes to play. Finally, the Summoner casts magic from a long-distance, while a cat familiar deals damage up close.
It's the last class that's currently reigning in Blade & Soul's PVP. The combination of a familiar, long-distance attack, and great control abilities tends to put most other classes at a disadvantage when playing against a Summoner. Summoner currently holds a strong spot on the PVP rankings and dominates low-level PVP play. (The Korean game has completely different rankings, by the by.) In contrast, the Force Master holds the bottom spot. There's a solid middle in the tiers, but it can sometimes be demoralizing to run into the same class again and again. Balance is a key part of any competitive game, so it's something that should be looked at a bit more here.
Within each class, there's a ton of variety. The skill system in Blade & Soul has you spending points to customize every single one of your abilities. For example, if you're a Kung Fu Master - my class of choice - you have five different abilities activated by hitting Tab. If you've chosen Flying Slam (a charge move) as your Tab ability, there's still five Tiers of changes within that one move that you can spec for. Perhaps, you'd like your Flying Slam to heal for the amount of damage dealt, or refresh the cooldown of other moves, or simply do more damage. That's just changes to a single move. Even before you get to PVP, finding a good spec is a mountain's worth of work, but it's important if you're going to be PVPing or doing dungeons on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, where Blade & Soul intersects with other MMOs is where the game falters. Leveling to cap (level 45 currently) is relatively quick, which is good because that leveling experience is rote and boring. Go to hub, grab a ton of kill or collect quests, complete them, return to hub. This is pretty normal for any MMO, but that's where Blade & Soul's strengths and weaknesses work against it in tandem. The combat is so great in PVP, but PVE against the AI is a ghost of that similar experience, with the player utilizing the same combos again and again. The story is so light and the voice acting so poor that you'll flip through questgiver lines at high speed. It doesn't help that most of the dungeons in the game aren't really dungeons, just progressive gauntlets of enemies with a boss at the end. It's the same stuff as other MMOs, but if feels worse here because of the contrast.
PVE in Blade & Soul is also a lonely and anti-social experience. No one really talks or communicates much, the mob tagging system means you'll actively avoid other players so they don't take your quest kills, and the dungeons are a free-for-all experience. You might have a poor player or two, but you can still complete the experience on your own if you're good enough. There's really no reason to care about the team. Rag on the holy trinity all you want, but it makes certain facets of a party needed and that need makes people more predisposed to things like communication.
Blade & Soul does allow for a decent amount of player expression though. The armor system, the Soul Shields, is completely separated from the visual costume system. NCSoft has created a variety of complete outfits for every character, usually themed. A number are available as quest and dungeon rewards, but some of the most extravagant are available through the game's cash shop. There's a constant infusion of new outfits in the cash shop, as that's where Blade & Soul looks to make the most of its money. That also ends up being one of the drawbacks as some costumes are only available through random games of chance, or even worse, are random drops from purchasable boxes on the cash shop. The latter is what has the Western fanbase mostly up in arms. (It would also be cool if BnS offered a costume dye system at all.)
While Blade & Soul is free, you'll find that you're rather limited if you don't pick up a Premium Membership or other add-ons. The Premium Membership offers a wardrobe deposit, increased experience gain, lower marketplace fees, and discounts on items in the cash shop. Even with a Premium Membership, you only have two character slots and a pretty limited inventory. Expect to throw some money at Blade & Soul to get the quality of life features that many players expect.
There's also something to be said for the relative lean of Blade & Soul's costumes. Artist Hyung Tae-Kim is known for his scantily-clad female characters with rather "healthy assets" and twisted spines, so you should know what you're getting into already. Many players use the rather robust character creator to make pretty female characters with absolutely huge breasts that sway to and fro, via rather aggressive jiggle physics. This is compounded by many of the female costumes, which are threadbare are best and rather open in certain regions at worst. This would be better if NCSoft had stuck to its promise to provide more even costumes for male and female characters, but you're far more likely to find someone took the shears to the female version of a costume, if there's even a male version available. Which is to say, if you're going to go that route, let everybody get in equally on the fun.
In the end, I didn't like Blade & Soul as much as I wanted to. General movement through the world and the PVP combat was a blast, but that's let down by the relatively boring PVE experience. Even PVP-only players have to grind their way through PVE, because you'll be missing certain skills and abilities if you're not at the level cap. Blade & Soul is a game going in two different directions instead of simply focusing on what makes it great. That said, if you're willing to blast your way through to level cap and you want to look flashy as you partake in some great PVP, Blade & Soul is probably the game for you.
Mentally, you should treat this as a fighting game with additional PVE gameplay. That means it'll last for a while and the US release is significantly behind the Korean one, so there's more content coming.
Blade & Soul looks really good, if you don't get next to some objects and see the poor textures.
Blade & Soul has the PVP pedigree to stand at the top of the MMO heap, which is why the rather rote PVE stands out. You'll have to go through some soulless grinding before you get to the great PVP. If martial arts-laden PVP isn't your thing, there are better MMOs out there.