For English-speaking fans of Blade and Soul, the finish line is finally in sight. Blade and Soul has been out for four years in Asian markets, but come January 19th it will finally be available for North American and European audiences—a painfully long wait for those craving the masterful approach to combat in this far-eastern MMORPG. As part of a week-long event culminating in the Blade and Soul 2015 World Championships, NCsoft invited me to get an inside peek at the development of Blade and Soul, experiencing both how it intends to conquer eSports and provide an engaging online world to explore.
As someone who has spent those years totally unaware of Blade and Soul, and then later disregarding it as "just another Korean MMO", I can safely say that, for the most part, this isn't the case. Imagine my surprise as I stand in a crowd of thousands of cheering fans during the Blade and Soul 2015 World Championships in Busan, South Korea, realizing that while Blade and Soul might have just been a whisper on the wind in the West, it is already a success in Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan.
"There's the immediate assumption that it's just another Korean MMO," Sean Corcoran, Senior Brand Manager at NCsoft said during an interview between a hands on session with the game. "With technical alphas and with the first closed beta, we've seen that people have been coming in and really enjoying [Blade and Soul], and then people who weren't expecting to enjoy it have been coming in and enjoying it."
"I still think that's still going to be a challenge as we spread out to a broader and broader audience."
After spending some significant time playing through Blade and Soul's introduction, sparring the other journalists who attended the event, bashing our faces against one of the challenging dungeons in the game, and then watching a team of developers as they put us all to shame running a different dungeon, I have to agree: Blade and Soul isn't just another Korean MMORPG—especially due to its suitability as an eSport.
"One thing we're being really careful of is we want to make sure the competitive community is there first before we come out and say, 'Oh yes, we're an eSport.'" Corcoran said with regard to the game's ambition of expanding its already successful tournament scene to the North American and European markets. "That's not how it's done. The community needs to be there, they need to be asking for tournaments."
"The minute you say it first, it takes away all credibility."
As much as Blade and Soul is built around the concept of player versus player action, much of that content—at least at the competitive level—remains locked behind the progress your character has made through leveling up. Unlike other eSports titles, Blade and Soul will not allow players to simply jump in and already be immediately competitive, they will need to level their character through dungeons and quests, unlocking skills to help round them out on the competitive side of the game. If that's the case, one would hope that the player versus environment aspect of Blade and Soul is every bit as compelling as the player versus player combat—and this is where I begin to falter in my optimism.
If you haven't had a chance to play Blade and Soul, it's hard to fully appreciate just how fantastic the combat is. Not only is it easily one of the most responsive and active combat systems I've played in an MMORPG, the branching levels of interactivity it leads to are a blast. It's refreshing to play an MMO where you don't stand in front of your opponent and trade blows; you juggling them in the air, pick them up and throw them, or even put them in grapple holds and snap limbs.
Not only that, but this is one of the few systems that truly places the emphasis on skill rather that stats. Unlike other MMORPGs that focus on your ability to absorb and mitigate damage, Blade and Soul emphasizes your ability to block or avoid it altogether. While each class does have its own versions of self-heals, none of them are the "get out of jail free" cards that we have come to expect from typical MMORPG classes.
But what really got me excited was when an NCsoft representative was able to confirm that, due to your ability to avoid damage altogether, it was fully possible to run a dungeon solo—there are even achievements for doing so. This sort of skill-based system means that combat is a joy, even against the computer-controlled enemies you'll spend hundreds of hours killing. Mastering your combos, knowing how to anticipate an enemy's attack, and understanding the nuances of movement, grappling, and debuffing your opponents makes Blade and Soul one of the most enjoyable MMORPGs to actually play.
As great as that combat is, I cannot help but feel a little disappointed by how familiar so much of the game feels. When a team of developers came to walk us through what a high level dungeon run might look like, unveiling the new E-Fleet Supply Chain dungeon at the same time, I walked away a disappointed by what I saw. For as innovative as Blade and Soul might be in its combat, the structure in which that combat is employed is so painfully similar to every other MMORPG on the market that, for anyone already tiring of the same quests and same dungeons, Blade and Soul might be a hard sell.
The E-Fleet Supply Chain was a gorgeous pirate themed environment that the team took us through, but beyond the pleasing visuals, there was little that excited me. Hordes of easily disposable trash monsters clogged the arteries between boss rooms, and the bosses themselves were the same grab-bag of tricks that have been used in MMO dungeons since pre-expansion World of Warcraft. While I can appreciate the nuance of a combat system free from the restraints of the "holy trinity" of classes (one that takes damage, one that deals damage, and one that heals damage), the strategies of each fight felt overly familiar.
The final boss, Poharan, a stylish woman wielding a gatling gun, had any excitement spoiled when the developer walking us through her encounter explained the mechanics. Every once in awhile, Poharan will trigger an ability that requires a member of the party to pull a lever that activates steam vents for the party to stand on. If they do it in time, Poharan's icy blast will be rendered useless. It feels like pretty routine stuff for a dungeon. It's absolutely challenging, but not very original.
Where I feel torn over this is the fact that Blade and Soul's combat adds a layer of challenge to the mix that might just prove engaging enough to power through those moments of intense familiarity. It also is worth mentioning that, while these mechanics aren't anything revolutionary, they are done well and they look great.
But I'm just not quite convinced that the massively multiplayer aspect of Blade and Soul is going to be worth it. Nor am I convinced that competitively minded players are going to stomach the enforced level grind in order to enjoy the otherwise brilliant player versus player combat. Blade and Soul feels like it is at odds with the various aspects of itself, and I have to wonder if the competitive side might be better off totally unchained to the MMORPG side—especially for those who don't want to deal with the tedium of yet another level grind.
But be that as it may, there is no question that Blade and Soul has me excited to try it out when it releases on January 19th (hell, I'll probably jump in for the upcoming beta weekends because I can't wait). Seeing it in action in South Korea, and watching the 2015 World Championships (more thoughts on that to come later in the week) has me more interested in this eastern MMORPG than I've ever been. More than that, I'm interested to find out for myself whether or not the things that Blade and Soul gets right are enough to carry it through the areas where it does little new or interesting. Blade and Soul might not be just another Korean MMO, but I'm a little nervous that, at its very best, it is still little more than another MMO.
Disclaimer: Travel and accommodations to South Korea were provided by NCsoft. They have not requested, nor were granted any oversight on the topics or opinions expressed in the coverage derived from this trip.