Swordsman Online looks just like a carbon copy of games like Age of Wushu or any old other "generic" Asian adventure, and in many respects, it feels like it too. But that's not a bad thing, as I've come to figure out during my length of time with the game. Being a clone doesn't have to be a death sentence. Perfect World's latest free-to-play foray into the martial arts MMORPG scene boasts colorful garb, plenty of swordplay, and straightforward leveling and PvE as well as PvP instances. Just don't expect anything as "perfect" as the publisher's namesake would have you believe.
Swordsman Online has a glossy, polished, nearly anime-like quality to it, with lower-tier equipment and clothing looking all the same from the start, then offering quite a bit more variety later on in the game. Combat animations may be a bit over-the-top, but it's understandable given the environment and placement of the game in history, which co-opts the Eastern/Chinese feel. While there were many areas that ended up feeling unpolished, especially given the numerous misspellings scattered throughout equipment menus and in-game narrative, I still enjoyed exploring, especially when I was able to sprint along the rooftops of building after building or drift along the snowbanks in quadrants that looked more wintry than summery.
For the most part, the soundtrack was decent enough, though a bit forgettable. When it comes to those who enjoy dubbed audio over the original languages in most Japanese, Korean, or Chinese-origin MMOs, however, there's one caveat. Swordsman is sub-only, including the cut scenes and in-game voices. There's no way to change this, so if you're one of those people who can't stand listening to games, anime, or other pieces of media in its original language, this might be an important selling point, especially since this requires an abundance of reading. And when your screen is busy enough as-is, that can be one issue that certain players just won't want to deal with.
Initially, I was taken aback by how little there was to do in Swordsman Online beyond the game's constant hand-holding, but seasoned players urged me to continue, because "it gets better." So continue I did, and as I rose in level, I found that while leveling and grinding remained very straightforward and simplified, the story ended up taking a turn for the intriguing beyond my initial thought. The first 25 levels just zip by in a flash, with perks for leveling up, including handy auto-pathing and NPC search when you need to find a specific person to complete a quest. If you need a break or have to tend to tasks in real life, it's especially a godsend. Because by the time you reach level 30 and all the way on to the level cap of 89, grinding can become especially intensive, and you'll be grateful for the simplicity and the no-frills combat.
At level 30, the hand-holding and simplicity largely melt away and combat becomes much more of an entertaining affair. Between levels 30 and 40 you'll start seeing world PvP, because players under level 30 are protected from such actions. Multiple PvP battlegrounds and arena modes offer players the chance to normalize their stats for more skill-based matches, and a fairly sizable guild system allows those looking for group play. PvP is a large part of the game, so if you're looking for something beyond simple grinding or farming outside of solo-style or leveling dungeons, you'll want to make an effort to outfit yourself with new gear and make friends to embark on these journeys with. There's no real class system in place to govern who you can sojourn with, so your own socialization will be key.
There's very little that Swordsman Online does that isn't cut-and-dry and painfully by-the-book. Every single bit of gameplay is lifted from the "how to MMORPG" style guide (is there one out there? if not, there should be) and it's clear that those bare bones mechanics were dressed up with a little Eastern flavor to go down a little easier. Quests are extremely simple, and the variety of enemies is basically trickled down to "what color outfit is that guy wearing?" Given the fact that up until level 25 you may as well be playing on-rails quests over and over as well, it's tough to recommend Swordsman Online as a game that's promoting change in the genre, because it's mired in convention.
If you came into Swordsman Online looking for an exemplary adventure where everything runs smoothly and works perfectly all the time, you'll be in for a rude awakening. Players and items overlap with each other, with the auto-running option finding people running into and over NPCs, through doors, and getting caught on the environment here and there. Automatic mounting causes an issue more often than not as well, and moreover it just looks silly when your horse appears out of nowhere and you trot away on it into the sunset.
For example, in one instance I was caught in a loop where my character continually tried to run up a vendor and stand on the vendor while I tried to take manual control. I ended up having to quit the game and enter again, having lost a level or so somehow after doing so, which was endlessly frustrating. Collision detection is off, as well as collecting items. Holding down the Z key to absorb orbs also triggered a massive delay in which it seemed as though the game would crash immediately, but then the action went ahead and cleared. It only tends to happen in specific areas, such as outside of towns, so perhaps this is an issue that will find itself resolved in the near future.
With a level cap of 89 and all the hand-holding ripped from your grasp after you reach level 30, you've still got a ways to go as far as the grind is concerned. You'll be in it for the long haul, especially given the fact that you'll be open for other players to harass via the PvP arena, so expect at the very least 30-50 hours to reach a level where you truly feel like the souped-up samurai the game truly wants you to be.
While it's easy enough to find English-speaking friends, opponents, or players to trade with, there are unfortunately a good amount of spammers and players looking for a free handout more often than usual. In fact, the entire game seems built around soloing given how awkward finding someone to party with actually felt to me. What's more, during my time with the game it simply didn't seem as though anyone was interested in doing anything but dueling for supremacy rather than banding together to tackle something bigger.
Given the fact that you don't have to pay anything to get started and Swordsman Online's modest cash shop doesn't have too much of worth you'll want to part with your hard-earned money on, you can get by in the game without ever having to spend a penny, due to the massive amount of drops and powerful items you can simply find in-game by grinding. Of course, gem packs help, but don't bank on them for success. This is a game that can certainly be enjoyed without the extra hassle of paying real-world dollars.
Swordsman Online absolutely doesn't reinvent the wheel nor offer any novel or groundbreaking reasons to join its legions of fighters in battle if there's already an MMO you find yourself devoting hours and hours of your life to, but it's still a competent and engaging adventure that's worth a look, especially if you're wanting something a little less stressful than your average, run-of-the-mill jaunt through the world of grinding and farming, massively improved from its beginning stages in some areas, while succumbing to some issues in the next. It's still worth a look if you're into the wuxia genre, so give it a try if you've got a weekend free.