Chances are you haven’t heard of Blade & Soul, despite it being an MMO by NCSoft that was released more than three years ago in June 2012. Since then, it’s expanded its reach to China, Japan, and Taiwan and is currently in the midst of technical alphas and betas, which have gone surprisingly well enough to have the developers refine its initial Q1 2016 release date to now January 19, 2016. To the small but vocal community in the States who have been waiting for Blade & Soul to arrive, that announcement alone is, well, a blessing.
The core innovation that Blade & Soul brings to the MMO genre is its timing-based combat system. While other MMOs in the NCSoft family like WildStar and Guild Wars 2 have active skill-based combat as well, Blade & Soul’s system takes a healthy amount of influences from the fighting genre, introducing juggles, knockdowns, dazes, and other crowd-control abilities that require precise execution to pull off. To emphasize this, Blade & Soul does away with the “Holy Trinity” of classes by doing away with a healer class altogether, making sure that every player has the chops to go toe-to-toe with an enemy. While each class tends to have at least some way to heal damage, the point is to learn the intricacies of the combat system and react to enemies and other players by noticing openings, finding attack strings, and keeping your enemy locked down and helpless while you dish out devastating combos.
In my six-hour session with Blade & Soul at the NCSoft HQ in Korea, I mainly experimented with the Kung Fu Master, one of the most difficult classes to learn. One of his core abilities for defense is the counter, a parry which requires you to time it appropriately with the enemy’s attack animation so that you take no damage and your enemy not only loses the attack but gets damaged in the process. It may seem as though you only have access to a small set of skills, but other skills rotate in depending on various conditions so you need to stay attentive for these windows of opportunity open.
If this sounds somewhat like a standard fighting game, that’s because the terminology for the genre—hitframes, recovery, juggles, knockdown, etc.—can be applied directly here. Performing the appropriate attacks with the right timing and the proper spacing matters, which lifts the rather basic PvE of the game that has you gathering all the standard fetch quests and such into a far more exciting experience. (It gives me yet more evidence that a Street Fighter MMO would actually work.)
As such, Blade & Soul has a robust PvP community to the point that it has a broadcasted PvP tournament, which I attended in Busan, Korea just a week ago before a live audience. Along with an almost otherworldly performance of an intense Blade & Soul musical (yes, a musical… that’s how big the game is there), I watched as players from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China fought against each other in one-on-one matches in a circular arena. Gargantuan axe-wielding Destroyers clashed against Force Masters with keepaway ice and fire magic, while stealthy Assassins cloaked themselves on the battlefield and Summoners kept their cat familiars alive while also staying hidden in the background. Ultimately, it was Sinkyum Kim’s domination with the magical, ranged Warlock that conquered the competition after a furious fight against Jungho Yoon’s Force Master.
What became clear after witnessing the tournament in person is that the classes in the game’s roster are actually quite balanced and that combat is based on the player’s skill and mastery of the character’s skills. Yes, maybe the Force Master and Warlock have a bit of an advantage right now since the other melee-focused characters need to find more openings, but the system has been strong enough to sustain five Blade & Soul tournaments so far. And the competition will soon extend to America and Europe once it’s released here (and we’ll hopefully be ready enough so that we aren’t just fodder for the top-tier Korean players, yes?).
While the PvE is really meant to be a training ground for the PvP, and it should be easy to level to the cap of 45, it is supported by a voice-acted story and challenging dungeons. The general plotline follows the typical kung-fu story arc that’s all about getting revenge on a mysterious clan who kills your old, kind-hearted master and your fellow friends. There’s also betrayal of course! Yep, it’s all fairly generic but at least it grounds the PvE adventure and makes it much more tolerable.
If anything, it’s the dungeons that will keep your interest in PvE against giant bosses that will test your ability to escape attacks, control threat, and shield yourself at the right time against instant-death attacks. Even after eight attempts with a six-man group at Level 36, we still couldn’t conquer a gargantuan beast that pounded the ground with thunderous AoE attacks. But every time we respeced our skills and coordinated our attacks better, we inched ever closer before we ran out of session time. I can’t wait to exact my revenge once the game is officially released.
The North American and European version for Blade & Soul will release in January 19, 2016. If you would like to gain access to the closed betas, name reservation, and more, you can invest in various founder’s packs available from the official site.