Taking the Best & Worst of Side-Scrolling Beat 'Em Ups
Picture a dashing, young, tow-headed fourth grader attending a birthday party in a roller skating rink. The year is 1987, and after a few epic spills our hero decides to slink off to the sidelines to recover some HP. His attention is drawn by a flashing light registering in his peripheral vision. He turns his head to see a free standing arcade cabinet of Double Dragon in all its glory. This was my first exposure to what became the genre known as the side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Multiple players could control sprite-based 2D characters on a 3D plane and use cunning and martial skill to smash buttons as furiously as possible until the bad guys were dead or all the quarters were gone.
Blade Hunter is a browser-based MMORPG that taps into those ancient mechanics (and a nostalgic place in my heart) but brings them into the modern era by introducing many of the standard systems of MMORPGs today. This is not an entirely novel idea: Nexon imported the successful Korean game Dungeon Fighter Online, but it never found its footing with American audiences and was closed down. Reality Squared Games is taking a crack at it this time around, and I’m keen to dive in and find out if these two genres can be combined to create something even greater than the sum of its parts.
Since the graphics in Blade Hunter are pre-rendered sprites, the characters and backgrounds all have a really nice hand painted look that helps distinguish the game from other MMORPGs. I really appreciated the variety of background areas to fight in, and there are enough different kinds of monsters to hack and slash that the game didn’t leave me wanting for something new to kill.
The big disadvantage of using carefully hand crafted sprites for characters is that there weren’t any great ways to customize my character’s avatar, for example with armor or cosmetic clothing items. The end result is that if you pick a popular class (which I did), there appears to be a lot of clones walking around the hub areas. There is an option to toggle off other players in the area, but that seems like a poor choice: either take away the feeling of a social game or live with the confusing visual clutter of fifty exact copies of yourself walking around.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the gameplay is based around the old school beat ‘em up side-scroller games of days long past. If you’ve ever played these games, or more recent callbacks like Castle Crashers, then you’ll have no problem understanding how to get around in Blade Hunter. You pick your class, either a knight, a rogue, or a valkyrie, then you enter dungeons and hit things until they die and spew up treasure. It’s a fun system in short bursts, but doesn’t stand up well to longer play sessions.
Blade Hunter runs in a browser window using Adobe Flash, which I’ve generally found to be less responsive than I’d like when trying to input commands. The controls in this game are almost entirely mapped to the keyboard. I had a second or two of insecure panic when I had to take my right hand off the mouse, but soon enough using both hands on the keyboard to play the game felt natural. The only difficulty I had in terms of controls was that the system didn’t seem to respond well to chaining different attacks, making it difficult to follow up special attacks with a series of regular combo attacks or to launch an enemy into the air, jump, then juggle them in the air (a pretty fun move when the controls cooperate).
Given the throwback style of the game, I thought it might be fun to connect a controller and see if I could get it to drive the game. It took a little fiddling with, but I was able to successfully map the controls to the face buttons and triggers and really enjoyed playing the game that way. It would be cool to see R2 Games support controllers in some way more directly in game, but there are probably limits to the technology they’re using.
Since Blade Hunter is an intentional reference to an established genre of game, and a mash-up of genres that has already been tried and well-received, there isn’t much about it that screams innovation. It avoids being painfully derivative of what has come before, but I didn’t see much in my playtime that made me feel like it’s blazing trails. The gameplay is comfortably familiar, which is a pleasant feeling but doesn’t earn high marks for this section.
Given the relative simplicity of the controls for the beat ‘em up genre, this game was a good choice to develop for the web browser. Everything holds together nicely, and the game running in Flash crashed on me maybe once. Since the whole thing is contained in a tab in Firefox, I just had to restart my browser window and was quickly back more or less to where I left off.
There was an issue with the input lag that I mentioned before, but I honestly couldn’t tell if it was a problem getting the commands from the keyboard into the game or if the rhythm of combat was such that I just needed to be more careful about pacing my attacks. When I was chaining together combos of my basic attack, ti seemed like I could rack up huge combo scores. When I tried to mix in a jump or a special move on the fly, however. I found myself having to tap the appropriate button a few times before my rogue responded. I guess I could chalk it up to the old skillful control mastery versus button masher debate, but I wish the controls were so responsive that I didn’t even have a second thought about it.
The arcade machines from whence the genre comes were well known merciless eaters of quarters and arcade tokens around the world. The games were intensely difficult forcing players to either bring their ‘A’ game or pay a pretty penny while honing their skills. For some reason or another, that blood pressure raising frustration is what made those games so addictive. For better or worse, Blade Hunter doesn’t have that intentionally steep difficulty curve. Unfortunately, that also means it doesn’t have the same addictive hooks as those games did either.
I could definitely see popping in and clearing a few rounds of dungeons for a half hour or so, but the story isn’t the richest and the combat becomes bland and indiscriminate; it didn’t feel terribly important whether I threw a glaive that swept enemies into the air or threw a cyclone punch. They all died beneath my ferocious attacks, and didn’t really put up that much of a fight, making the whole effort feel less consequential.
The social aspects of Blade Hunter work well for a player like me: I’m not necessarily looking for deep conversations but I enjoy grouping up with or competing against other human players and maybe having a little interaction here and there. The group finder tool is nice. When you enter one of the dungeon areas, where you have to go since that’s where all the quest goals are, you are given the option to run it solo or look for a group. If no group has been created, you are given the option to create one yourself. The game announces that a group has been created in world chat and provides a link so that anyone interested can click on it and join up. Very seamless, but it does seem worth noting that the group content I tackled didn’t seem to require very much coordination.
People who are looking for a deeper social interaction will likely be disappointed. The world chat ends up being filled with group requests and system announcements which don’t leave much room for chatting. There is a system for guilds, but I didn’t get to test it out during my play time. According to the guide on the game’s website, players level 50 and above can create guilds which offer bonuses to members who can also participate in competitive guild versus guild events.
There is a cash shop in the game which seems mainly focused on selling VIP game time (which increases loot and XP gained) and the opportunity to buy gems which slot into weapons. The gems appear to be the only means of increasing stats as your character levels up, so these gems are pretty important. However, they can also be earned in-game via loot drops. The system isn’t explained very well and the diamonds that you purchase with cash to use in the cash shop seem expensive.
When I got to around level 32 I started getting messages when I would enter dungeons that warned me that my equipment wasn’t sufficiently levelled and I might have some difficulty completing the dungeon. I decided to motor on and give it a try anyway, and came through with only minor bumps and bruises. It could very well be that if I keep going and never spend the time and money to upgrade my armor and abilities that I will find myself in over my head, but as it stands those messages feel like a pushy salesman trying to sell me an extended warranty that I don’t know if I’ll really need. That is not a feeling I relish when I’m trying to relax and play a computer game.
Blade Hunter takes the best and the worst of the side-scrolling beat ‘em up genre and applies them to an MMORPG system. In the best case, running through dungeons is mindless, button mashing fun with loot galore. The art is very pleasant to look at, and the various effects for different powers are exciting and various. In the worst case, the quick-hit nature of arcade games doesn’t marry well with the long term time investment that MMO players seek. When I hop into an MMORPG, I’m looking to discover a world and a character with depth, freedom to explore and discover, and a wide variety of activities. I found fun times in Blade Hunter, but I didn’t find what I look for in MMOs.