A storyline can be useful for its ability to frame the action; it gives you a reason to fight and fuels your hunger to reign victorious over the hordes of NPC baddies. But if you’re easily urked by mediocre stabs at the hero’s journey monomyth and just want to cut to the bloody chase, then Blade & Sorcery might scratch that itch thanks to its combat-centric sandbox and stab-happy rag doll enemies.
Blade & Sorcery Early Access Details:
Developer: Warp Frog
Available On: Steam (Vive, Rift, Windows VR)
Reviewed On: Rift, Vive
Release Date: December 11th, 2018
Note: This game is in Early Access which means the developers have deemed it incomplete and likely to see changes over time. This review is an assessment of the game only at its current Early Access state and will not receive a numerical score.
As a sandbox combat game, Blades & Sorcery doesn’t feature scores, leaderboards, and it contains no story; it’s a single-player game that puts you in the midst of successive waves of baddies that span classes such as lighting mages, archers, and a number of melee grunts that try to take you down.
There’s plenty of weaponry lying around to make whatever fighting style you’re keen to enact a reality. But before I get into that, there’s the sordid details of what it feels like to stab a dude in the face. You’ve probably seen a variation of the gif below, but here’s a great one from VR YouTuber The Baron for your viewing pleasure.
Baddies seem to be cartoonish enough to make the game’s hyperviolence less of a turn off than I initially thought would be the case. They’re more on the ‘zombie’ end of things, so pushing a dagger into a skull in slow-mo, or driving a Roman gladius right through the heart didn’t really present any of the moral quandaries I’m sure I’ll be forced to revisit when VR games have a greater degree of photorealism. For now, these are just virtual crash test dummies, so I let myself don the mantle of Beef Supreme and enter the arena unfazed by the horrible acts yet to come.
When Blade & Sorcery works just right, and you can pull off an epic chain of god-like hits and full-body stabs on several enemies, it really makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something awesome. In the two or so hours of playing, I was able to replicate some of these dashing moves seen above, although they certainly don’t come completely natural at first. You have to concentrate on making sure you remember your four holster points—two behind each shoulder and two on each hip—move through the fray, activate the temporary slow-mo at decidedly cinematic moments, and make sure to not flail around with your melee weapons. That’s a good amount to remember when you’re in the thick of it, but as they say, practice makes perfect.
Users are given a choice between various swords (both single and two-handed), a bow and requisite quiver of arrows, and various gear that you can either throw (or levitate) at you squishy enemies. That’s right, you can telepathically move objects including large rocks, weapons, and traps like a low-hanging chandelier that can cut down anything in its path. A single magic ability is currently available, a lighting spell, although the in-game menu has open spots for three more spells.
You can practice all of this either in the arenas before you order up a wave of baddies, or in your home which has a full selection of weapons.
As a physics-based game your weapons have a virtual heft to them, letting you finally clank your swords together for that gladiator-style cinematic moment, or stab straight through the belly of your enemy. You shouldn’t rely on your natural instinct to strike quickly though because your physical hands will go out of sync with your virtual counterparts. This, in my opinion, is an awesome way of making sure the player doesn’t waggle the sword, or treat it like it’s a weightless object with impossibly fast strikes. Frankly, physics-based melee combat is something I wish more games used, making Blades & Sorcery one of the exemplar titles to accomplish it with such apparent ease.
The game doesn’t go without some personal niggles though, which you’ll find in the Immersion and Comfort sections below.
Although Blade & Sorcery is clearly a sandbox game, I still can’t help but wish there was something behind the combat, some reason to finish off a wave and move forward outside of virtual bloodlust and the primal urge to gank dudes 300-style.
The environments are well constructed and could ideally play as a backdrop to a much larger game. As it is now, the game is pretty bare bones; there isn’t a progression system, unlockable areas, unlockable weapons, arena bosses—there’s just you and the waves of bad guys that your order up to slay at will. That said, Blade & Sorcery isn’t biting off more than it can chew, and that’s probably for the best.
Each of the three arenas has a pedestal with a book-style menu where you can select your difficulty and wave number, the latter determining the number of baddies that can spawn at the edges of the maps. Having to deal with baddies in the here and now always has its way of physically immersing you, but the book menu isn’t really the most graceful way of tossing you into the action. This is an early access title, so there’s plenty of community-driven improvements likely yet to come, but dropping you into an arena and making you choose one of four arbitrary difficulty settings with no real knowledge of what they really entails makes it feel more like a tech demo than a game as such.
If I had to change just one thing about Blood & Sorcery, it would be this: Instead of three random arenas (castle keep, medieval town square, and Roman arena) that you can select at will, I would love to see some sort of progression system that lets you unlock each successive arena after winning, eventually ending up in the hardest area at the hardest difficulty.
Stepping back from ‘ifs and buts’, once you’re in the thick of the action, the immersion factor ramps up nicely. In terms of locating baddies when on the move, the most noticeable class by far is the archer, which makes a twiney stretching noise when they draw their bow. Otherwise detecting baddies is mostly visual, as you can quickly find for or five armored brutes sneaking up behind you with little else than a few spoken lines to tip you off.
Controls aren’t overly complicated, but like I said, they do take some practice to master. Knocking an arrow is less ‘automatic’ than more archery focused games, although aiming and shooting is mostly an easy experience. There are no visual stats HUD or HP counters, only an increasing level of blood-red in your vision to tip you off that death is imminent.
Comfort options are fairly thin at the moment. Two artificial turning options exist at this stage in development: smooth turning and snap-turning, the latter of which is actually just a very quick smooth turn. You can also choose to turn off both if you happen to have a room-scale sensor setup.
While I have no problem with smooth forward motion, which is dictated by either head-relative or hand-relative direction, the snap-turn left me feeling a bit unbalanced after a solid 30 minutes of playing. I think a hypothetical blink-style snap-turn would have let me play for longer, albeit less visually immersive amounts of time.
If you’re prone to nausea due to artificial locomotion, you may want to adjust your play style accordingly. There is a jump button, which personally made me feel a bit wonky with too much use. I never really found a need to jump though, so you can ignore it, or even turn it off the menu settings.
Blade & Sorcery strongly demonstrates that physics-based melee can work in the right conditions. It’s not clear at this point whether it will stay on the tech demo side of things instead of a more fleshed-out game though. Early adopters of the game GORN don’t seem to have a problem with that in the slightest, so hopefully those impressive slow-mo combat gifs will keep on coming.
Note: This game is in Early Access which means the developers have deemed it incomplete and likely to see changes over time. This review is an assessment of the game’s current state, and will not receive a numerical score.