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Review by: Keith Durocher
Published: January 29, 2004
“The Chinese have a lot of hells, Jack.” – Eddie, Big Trouble In Little China
There’s something indefinably intoxicating about the ancient Orient. The enduring charm of B-grade Hong Kong action cinema is but a small part of this allure, with the recent success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero proving what can happen when Hollywood levels of cash are applied to that medium. Recently, a relatively unknown development team dubbed PixelGames decided to see what would happen if they basted the myths of ancient China onto the Diablo gameplay model and garnished the entire affair with classic arcade action. The end result of this experimentation is Blade & Sword, a unique take on a familiar format.
Set in a land ravaged by the vengeance of a fallen emperor, Blade & Sword carries a convoluted story of insane tyrants, honor and discipline, and heroics on an epic scale. The game starts out with a brief text overview explaining details regarding the fall of Emperor Jo at the hands of rival Emperor Wu. After completely botching the preservation of his empire, the thoroughly corrupt king locked himself in his palace for some seriously petulant introspection. While his holdings fell one by one and the invaders came ever closer to the heart of his lands, he crossed over past all reasonable definitions of sanity in his desire to see his enemies suffer. During the final siege of Jo’s palace, the Wu and all his armies were blinded by an explosive cataclysm of fire that enveloped the entire structure they were attempting to topple. Any feelings of sudden victory were wrenched away by a supernatural proclamation of revenge from the highest spire of the dying Emperor’s former seat of power. Thus begins a blight of undead upon all the lands once under Jo’s control, a scourge so overwhelming that the liberating army can do little more than contain it. Opportunities are ripe for warriors to make their mark.
Players traverse these lands using one of three character types. The first is a fast fighter, a young woman who uses dual daggers and a great deal of kick work to eliminate the rotting masses so inimical to life. The second is the stalwart swordsman that most closely fits the standard hero model – not quite as fast overall as the young heroine, but capable of blinding sword flurries. If you’ve had the pleasure to see it, this character type is pretty much a carbon copy of Nameless, Jet Li’s silent assassin in Hero. Finally, there’s the heavy bruiser archetype, who’s most likely patterned after a barbarian of the ancient northern tribes that controlled much of China before the Shi Huangdi (First Emperor) of Qin consolidated the six kingdoms into what’s now commonly perceived as China proper. This class carries a broadsword that’s almost as big as the light fighter herself, so if you prefer bludgeoning over finesse, this is your class. Aside from these basic approaches to combat, each of the three also has four different martial arts paths consisting of three special moves each that further define the flavor of the gameplay. Blade & Sword is level-based, and aside from things like stats, damage, defense and hit points increasing with each level, you also get skill points to “buy” these abilities. Each different skill can be upgraded from novice to expert to master level, so there’s always something to put points toward.
Looking at a few of these skills, we first have the fast fighters’ technique for solidifying chi (very much like mana in Diablo) into throwing weapons. The first level of this skill, called Emitting Shadow, hurls a single star of spirit energy in a straight line forward. The second level, Assaulting Shadow, differs in that it’s three energy stars in rapid succession that act like boomerangs, striking the monsters from behind as they return to the sender. The final level, Cascade, sprays out a wide fan of red boomerang energy bolts. Then we have the Cloud chaser, Leaf sweeper and Wind Walker sword techniques of the medium fighter. These also are all variations on a theme; in this case, all of them are types of quick-spin moves that are dizzying to watch. Finally, the barbarian’s moves involve as much brawling as skillful execution, like the Wrestling struggle technique where he grabs an enemy and uses it as a throwing weapon, or the Dragon Catcher, where the barbarian grabs an enemy and snaps its spine over his head. Finally, there’s the Tiger fight, a lunging move that ends with the pommel of his sword embedded in the head of the undead. As you can see from this narrow slice of options, there are many directions in which to take your budding fighter.
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