It may have taken nearly three years since its original 2012 release in Asia, but martial arts based Blade & Soul is finally being launched to all and sundry in the Western world. And best of all, it’s free to play.
Originally released as a subscription-based MMO in Korea, publishers NCSoft have followed the trend of many modern MMOs and are issuing the Westernized game as a free-to-play model. This was the same model that helped Blade & Soul garner nearly two million users in China alone at one point – an incredible number of players that NCSoft hope to emulate in Europe and North America. Such is the popularity of the game that it has even spawned its own anime cartoon series in Asia.
Korean developer NCSoft has a rich gaming heritage, with the likes of Guild Wars, City of Heroes and Aion to its name. The Western launch of Blade & Soul heralds the start of a busy period for the company, with Wildstar set for a new raft of content updates and an as yet untitled (in other words, top secret) MMO heading our way later this year.
So what is all the fuss about and what makes Blade & Soul different from the numerous other offerings out there? Based heavily on Korean and Asian mythology, this is a fantasy MMORPG with a strong focus on martial arts combat. The games setting and characters are based on the works of Korean manhwa artist Hyung-Tae Kim. Unlike the vast majority of MMO button-mashers, battles in Blade & Soul take place in real-time, and call on players to utilize a series of combos in order to defeat your opponents.
Whilst combat-focused MMOs such as Vindictus and TERA are nothing new to the gaming world, fights in Blade & Soul are more simple yet tactical affairs. At any given point during combat you have a set number of techniques to choose from, depending on which one you select, more techniques open up allowing you to perform combos on your opponent. Defend yourself with a counter, for example, and you can then follow up with a counter attack. If that is successful then more attack options are made available to you. It takes a little getting used to at first, but once you get your head around it, battles begin to flow smoothly as you begin to master your various abilities.
Combat aside, Blade & Soul follows normal MMORPG convention. This means the gameplay is centered on completing quests, forming groups and exploring the world around you. You can craft items to wear and sell, and become immersed in both PvP and PvE modes.
For Blade & Soul’s launch, four races and seven classes will be available that players can choose from, with 30 dungeons to explore and a level cap of 45. Plenty to keep you busy there, but if that isn’t enough, one of the most unique selling points is the 1v1 Arena, where players are given the chance to compete in the forthcoming Blade & Soul World Championship eSport. Yes, you too could be flying the flag in NCSoft’s very own version of the Olympics.
Of the four suitably Oriental-sounding races to play from, the Jin are the closest to humans, being the middle ground in terms of stats, but with access to the most fighting techniques. The Lyn are a slightly bizarre looking animal-like race, with long ears and fluffy tails. The Yun’s are a female-only race full of elegance and grace, whilst finally the Gon are muscular, heavy-set battle-masters.
Once you have chosen your race, you then need to decide upon a class. The seven classes are Blade Master (a sword specialist), Destroyer (a heavy damage dealing tank), Summoner (use of a cat companion), Force Master (a spell-caster), Kung Fu Master (hand-to-hand combat specialist), Assassin (a stealth class) and Blade Dancer (the Lyn’s version of a Blade Master that can deal more damage).
Only certain classes are available to certain races, so you need to select who you play as carefully. For example, the tanking Gon can only play as a Kung Fu Master or Destroyer, whilst the Lyn can only choose between a Summoner, Force Master or Blade Dancer.
More classes (such as the Warlock) are promised for the future, as the game follows a regular update calendar. Players can also look forward to an increased level cap of 50 and more environments to explore. Post-launch goodies include three more dungeons – the single player Mushin’s Tower, and the 4-6 player Naryu Mountain and Bloodshade Harbour. Finally, an epic 24 player dungeon, Nightshade Harbour is on its way too.
As a free-to-play game, it is refreshing to hear that NCSoft will allow players complete access to Blade & Soul’s content. If you are really intent on spending money, there is a cash shop which uses Ncoins, the same virtual currency that is used in other NCSoft titles. These shops will allow you to purchase cosmetic items for your characters, along with potions, food and the like. We have been assured that no power stat boosting items can be brought in these shops. All of the items available in the shops can be found in the game itself or by crafting them, but purchasing them in the shop is a more convenient way of saving time.
Two signature packs have been made available for the game’s launch; a Student pack that contains added inventory, boosters and a week of Premium Membership, and a Duelist pack which includes a month Premium Membership and even more experience boosters. Premium Membership (available for 30, 60 or 365 days) includes a set of bonuses allowing you to earn experience and gold more quickly, faster cooldown and recovery times, along with a unique Silver Dragon outfit, so you can really flaunt your wealth.
Of course, no matter how many items you own or how great you look, the real test of a player is in PvP combat. And it is here that Blade & Soul really excels. No matter what level you are, your abilities will be scaled to your opponent, meaning you enter on equal terms. Played out in a best of three matches, winners will receive Zen Beans that can be spent on more abilities and items. If you prove yourself a master in the arena, there is also the golden carrot of an entry into the Blade & Soul World Championship, an annual eSport that pits the very best players from all over the world against each other.
It has been a long time coming, but things do look very promising indeed for Blade & Soul. With nearly three years to perfect the gameplay, NCSoft are releasing what should be a very polished product onto the market. After all, 1.8 million players in China can’t be wrong…
Most Anticipated Feature: Battling it out in the Arena for a chance to enter the World Championship eSport.