Blade of Darkness
Let me state right from the outset that I think Blade of Darkness (BoD) is the best video game of its kind made to date. It's also my all-time favorite game. Having said that, why do I find BoD so compelling? Well, there are a host of reasons. Most importantly, however, is that all of the various praiseworthy aspects of the game come together in a very special way to make BoD a complete blast to play. For me, the ultimate criterion by which a game should be judged is not its graphics, its audio, its storyline, its characters, etc., though these things may be important. Rather, the ultimate criterion for judging a game is found in a single question: is it fun to play?
I can't help but laugh at any number of gaming industry pundits who make stupid statements about the necessary components for a game to be fun and/or successful. When Half-Life was first released, for example, plenty of journalists made remarks to the effect that the storyline and immersion present in that game were now the standards by which any other such game would be compared. No longer could first person shooters rely on DOOM-style play (i.e., kill everything that moves, pick up everything that doesn't and find the necessary keys to open various doors) and be a success. First person shooters would now all have to have an interesting background story, immersive gameplay, etc. in order to be winners in the market.
This is, of course, a complete load of crap, as games like Serious Sam and X-COM: Enforcer demonstrate all too clearly. Plenty of great games have essentially no redeeming literary elements at all (e.g., DOOM, Tetris, Scrabble, Unreal Tournament, etc.). But this should matter only insofar as such a thing is essential to the type of game at hand. To my way of thinking, if a game is fun, then it's a good game. There are moral considerations as well, of course, but that's a subject for another essay. For the moment, I shall attempt simply to identify the various ways in which BoD succeeds and fails.
The graphics engine BoD sports is utterly incredible. From the real-time lighting/shadows, to the realistically distorting, semi-translucent water, to the unbelievably lovely particle system, BoD is simply gorgeous. Some of the cut-scenes approach cinematic quality. And all of this is delivered at a very playable frame rate in all but the most egregiously stressful scenes. In my estimation, the developers deserve the very highest accolades for delivering a graphics engine that seems more technically capable than anything else on the market today.
The character animation and modeling are simply fabulous. Yes, there are some minor flaws (e.g., Zoe walks like a man in drag, and I would swear Sargon has a corncob shoved... well... somewhere it shouldn't be), but the variety of animations and fluidity of motion in some scenes stand head and shoulders above anything else in the game industry to date. This is especially true given the variety of ways in which players and enemies can be ripped limb from limb by powerful attacks. When an enemy is cleaved in two, for example, he comes apart in precisely the right sort of way, which is really something that must be seen to be believed. In short, the game is visually stunning.
The audio is similarly quite good save for some minor gripes, and the musical score is simply phenomenal. I really enjoyed what little music there was in Rune, but the music in BoD is far more impressive, both in quantity and quality. The guy who did the soundtrack ought to win some kind of award. I enjoyed the music so much, I've copied most of the files in MP3 format into other directories for my digitized music collection. The music is well-themed, well-performed and, despite the number of times you'll hear it as a player, it just doesn't get old.
I do have one complaint in the audio department, however: some of the effects need tweaking. First, the quality and quantity of the sounds needs some attention. Some sounds seemed sampled at a low rate, or perhaps were distorted during whatever processing to which they were subjected, while other sounds are fine. There is a certain amount of inconsistency. Worse, the number of different sounds for a given action seemed pretty limited. By the end of the game, for example, one is about as sick of hearing the character's footsteps as one possibly could be. Oh, and hearing the sword-being-unsheathed sound when getting out a bow is just a bit disconcerting. All of these problems could be cured, I suspect, with about twice the number of audio samples.
The game interface is nicely done, if a bit console-ish. The menu system, though slow and too noisy for my taste, is straightforward and functional. The display of health, experience, level, current weapon and shield statistics and so forth is unobtrusive yet useful. Even the combat-lock display and the relative remaining strength of an enemy is helpful. In short, though the interface is quite minimalistic, it works. The only point at which the interface really fails, I think, is in terms of multi-player features, which are limited essentially to joining a local game or specifying an IP address. Come on, guys, even the original DOOM games did this much.
Two things stand out to me as big successes for BoD. First, the physics engine is better than state-of-the-art. There is some room for improvement here, no doubt, but for the industry at present, the physics engine is simply incredible. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I smashed a barrel and watched all the boards separate with various translational and rotational vectors! This has to be taken in contrast, I think, to games like Quake III Arena or Unreal Tournament wherein "physics" consists largely of making sure things fall to the ground when dropped.
Second, the combat system is awesome! It's simple enough that it can be used effectively with a little practice, yet it's deep enough to guarantee that no two fights are ever really the same. Do I rush in for the quick kill with my most powerful combo? Or do I dance around and cut him down a little bit at a time? Do I block with my shield, or should I simply dodge the attack and follow up with a riposte of my own? The game mechanics are sufficiently deep that BoD is the game that Rune should have been. The combat system clearly borrows from console games, but in this case the borrowing is a Good Thing™.
There are some flaws, however, in this department, the most egregious of which being that the player desperately needs the ability to side-step when in unlocked combat! The combat lock is really nice, but it can be a serious hindrance when facing more than one opponent. The lack of any ability to sidestep means that one must constantly lock on in order to avoid my opponents' blows until finding an opening and striking quickly, then unlocking to back off to a safe distance and come at them again.
Less egregious but arguably just as annoying (probably because of its glaring inconsistency) is that the player should be able to drop the bloody bow! What a stupid omission. Similarly, let the player drop arrows and/or quivers. By the time I came across some poisoned arrows, I had to empty my quiver of regular arrows into a nearby wall because I couldn't just drop them. How silly is that?
Also incredibly annoying is that the player can cancel only some of the cut scenes. Read my lips, developers: the player must always be able to cancel a cut scene. At some points in the game, I saved before a particularly difficult battle and after reloading would have to sit through some lengthy cut-scene(s) with no way to disable them. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to this as some could be canceled and some couldn't. I know that developers put a great deal of effort into such things and are terribly proud of them—and justifiedly so. But being forced to sit through yet another annoying replay is enough to send me up into a bell tower somewhere with a sniper rifle.
Finally, the player needs some in-air control when jumping. I'm not asking for the completely unrealistic control that has become too common thanks to games like Quake. All I'm asking is that the player retain the ability to spin around a bit or at least flail about trying to do so. Jumping puzzles were always tricky because of this complete lack of control. It also made a lot of running down stairs difficult insofar as the characters feet have a tendency to leave the ground—sometimes with disastrous results.
The story line is quite well done and is very open to any number of game sequels and other properties. Yet despite the fantasy aspects of the story, it was still believable enough that BoD is definitely not a kid's game. The whole thing had a very mature and epic feel despite the swords and sorcery theme. I thought it was very artistically satisfying. The story is advanced at the beginning and ending of most levels as well as at various other points by the semi-liberal use of cut-scenes, all of which use the in-game engine. The cut-scenes are very well done and do much to give flesh to the story or greatly heighten the dramatic tension of a situation.
My only complaint with the story is that it really could be presented more fully. If I hadn't read the manual as many times as I have, and if I hadn't really concentrated on all the dialogue, I don't think I would have gotten a bloody thing out of the final battle or even several of the cut-scenes. The story is really neat, but many of the levels raise more questions than they answer at first play in terms of how what is learned fits into the overall picture. BoD leverages elements of the Zoroastrian religion, which is hardly common these days, and it was only because of my familiarity with said religion that I picked up on a number of things that I would otherwise surely have missed.
The environments in BoD are the best done to date in a video game. The sun does not suffer from the lens-flare effect that is so cheesily employed in so many games. All of the areas are very nicely textured and are usually well thought out. The variety in the environments also bears special mention insofar as BoD includes deserts, snow-covered mountains, an island, caves, crypts, fortresses, dungeons, completely hellish environments, and everything in between. Throughout it all, the common BoD look and feel is preserved. That's really quite an accomplishment.
The characters are also very nicely differentiated. BoD is not like plenty of other games where one's choice of character really doesn't matter all that much. Each of the characters, largely because of the different character-specific abilities and restrictions on their use of armor/weapons, has a very different feel when playing. This isn't easy to do, but BoD pulls it off as well as I've ever seen it done. The game may not win any awards for replay value in terms of having different areas to explore from game to game, but I actually enjoyed the game more the second time through than I did the first. And what's more, I looked forward to the third time more than I did the second. That's high praise indeed!
The variety of equipment is wonderful. I was always excited to find a new weapon that my character could use, and I would immediately practice all the various moves that I could perform with it. This gave me a lot of incentive to level up so that I could unlock new combos. It really made me want to keep playing for hours on end because I just knew I'd find something cool around the next corner. Perhaps a little more variety in shields and bows would have been nice, but I can hardly complain.
The variety of monsters was even more wonderful. Ever since Tolkien, orcs, goblins and trolls have been overdone, but I have never seen a menagerie of monsters so creatively brought to life before. The ghouls that can sort of teleport from spot to spot as they hop close enough to cut you to pieces with the natural scythes in which their arms end are very spooky. I haven't jumped like that since the demons from the original Quake first growled and leapt at me! And the necromancer was just amazing! He is an intelligent fighter, packs a bunch of special abilities and is extremely difficult to beat with his ability to teleport. What a foe! The golems, though all ultimately very similar, are also very well done (particularly the fire golem) as are the rather largish minotaurs. With a game as large as BoD, a bit more variety would have been nice (or maybe I just got tired of those scrawny, chicken-looking orcs and annoying skeletons), but this isn't a serious complaint.
My only complaint with the game content is that the ending really needs to be changed. It was utterly ridiculous. One spends the entire game learning to put the business end of swords, maces, etc. to use. So naturally one might ask: how does one spend the final battles? Hacking and slashing for dear life, right? Nope. Dancing around like a sissy, "throwing" magic and/or a sword that acts like a bloody boomerang! How bent is that? This isn't such an objection when playing Zoe, but using the special abilities of the Sword of Ianna is almost mandatory with a character like Sargon.
The multi-player aspect of the game is its second-biggest let-down in my estimation. After playing through the single-player game, I was utterly rabid to jump on the Internet and go toe-to-toe with human opponents. Unfortunately, the game's interface doesn't provide any features for finding multi-player games, and even when one can find an opponent (which are pretty scarce), the network code is pretty bad. That is, while playing networked games, the lag can be utterly ridiculous even over the swiftest connection. I was fortunate to have a good friend who bought the game, and though he can normally connect to my machine with a 70 - 90 ms. lag under Unreal Tournament or other such games, BoD was nearly unplayable. It's a pity that the developers have so neglected the multi-player portion of the game as it would add greatly to its longevity. Fortunately, the community has stepped in to help, but the solutions offered are far from optimal.
Blade of Darkness, like any game, probably isn't for everyone. It is certainly not a game for those who aren't willing to put in any real effort. If you don't want to work at mastering some basics, then this is not a game you should buy as you will likely find it very frustrating. For those who don't mind a little work, however, this game is the sleeper hit of 2001. BoD brings in-your-face, bone-breaking medieval blood-letting to your PC with extreme technical wizardry, exciting content and positively artistic vision. For anyone who liked Rune but wanted something a little deeper, BoD is a no-brainer buy. If you aren't afraid of spending a little time mastering the interface, run to your nearest software store and buy this game today!
Reviewed by Phileosophos