It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a fighting game enthusiast. I get into the complex mechanics, the show-offy moves, the mind games, and high execution curves. When I saw Puny Human’s Blade Symphony, a tactical sword-play 3D fighter, I knew I was in for something good. Created in the Source engine, the game was originally a Half-Life 2 mod, and in 2011, the company ran a successful Kickstarter. It is hard to believe, but yes — this beautiful-looking title is an indie production. Totaling five years in development, I’ve looked at the Early Access version of the game, so keep in mind that many features of the game can change or improve.
Gameplay in Blade Symphony is fairly straightforward. Users can engage in one-on-one fights, facing off in a two-round battle. Lowering the enemy’s life bar leads to victory, which can be achieved by using a variety of blades: Katanas, rapiers, jians, longswords, and so on. Swings are decided by three main factors. Anyone has access to three stances; fast, balanced, and heavy, which differ in number of swings and their animations. Any attack can be held to increase its power, and finally, you can do a sideways variant if moving. Jumping — a somewhat awkward, high hop that falls really fast unless you execute an attack — is also possible. I’m also a fan of the soundtrack in the game. A duel will pick a fast-tempo, piano-electronica piece that goes along with the game’s theme really well, and I quickly found my favorite tune.
The blades, other than looks, have a complicated technical aspect to them. They do different damage depending on the type of interaction with the opponent, but most importantly, the mouse right-click can either be a block, a feint, or a parry, vastly changing the strategy. The most deciding aspect, however, is the character, and Blade Symphony has four right now: Agile, wushu warrior Pure, ninja-like Ryoku, fairly-balanced thruster Phalanx, and slower, stronger Judgement. Any person can be matched with any armament, but some combinations will work better than others. It was both fun and a little overwhelming, but in the customization screen there is an explanation for each weapon, though it’s just a little hard to notice at first. While it’s good to dabble in everything, I didn’t really gain ground until I stuck with one style and got to know it really well.
Combat nuances are where the game shines (there isn’t anything else to do but duel, anyway). It’s easy to find a sparring partner on one of the servers – you just come up to someone and challenge them with a button. It’s also advisable to use emotes, like sitting when you’re AFK and bowing at the beginning of a duel. The dojos, hosted on various servers, are a nice hangout spot, even if there’s nothing to do but talk and duel. The first few hours will go very similarly for everybody: You’ll land on your cybernetic-punk warrior bottom many, many times. A few charged strikes can take a great amount of life, especially if the opponent was extending himself. Some emerging strategies are to charge heavy attacks and approach when the charging is over. When you realize charging blindly with the strongest strike doesn’t work against your current opponent, you’ll find yourself dancing in circles, as your partner is, until someone approaches with a lighting-quick strike.
I appreciate Blade Symphony for the mind games it creates. Each duel is a private face off not just in the 3D-space, but between the personality and patience of each person. The shuffling, waiting, charging, and feinting really depend on specific choices, as well as the stance switching, revealing the mettle of each fighter. The game accomplishes this, but there are also so many other games that do so.
Animations are key, and while the game is visually-stunning, with intense, oriental temples or futuristic, tech-city rooftops, there’s a dissonance between the artistic attack animations and techniques in the games. An effective playstyle equals a dizzying frenzy of jumps, jump cancels, and dodges. The jump cancelling is unfortunate in particular. It’s not mere attacking and jumping, but performing parts of regular attack strings and throwing a hop in there, which drastically affects the strategy and balance of each moveset. The better players often jump like a mosquito at tasty flesh, rather than a graceful fighter with precise moves. As detailed as the moves are, players are left to throwing things out in hopes that they’ll break through. Sure, you can definitely dodge attacks and punish missed sword heaves, but in general, what happens on the screen is not a completely pure transfer of a players’ skill.
Attacks can clash with each other if equally matched, and stronger attacks will press advantage; however, it’s hard enough to tell what happens and when for it to have an impact in the duel. Since the camera is always positioned behind the fighter, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening in front. You’ll see really good, top-ranked players occasionally losing to some beginners, and it’s unclear whether Blade Symphony wants to have skilled enough players so that they can always outmatch a newcomer, or have beginners succeed by some flukes, luck, or just a strategic approach. I got a round off a brilliant Ryoku player who expertly baited and punished my strikes, and I couldn’t tell if I got lucky, or if I already grasped enough of the game to do so. My ranking is around 6,000, and his or hers was in the 100s. While I wasn’t victorious, it’s not uncommon to see good players lose far too easily. Additionally, I found it bizarre that a time out results in a draw, even when my life bar was practically untouched, and my opponent’s was critically low. I haven’t had anyone play cat and mouse with me in the ring, but if life bars are anything to look at, this doesn’t make sense.
Maybe Blade Symphony needs to further revamp its combat system, or remove life bars completely — but something needs to be adjusted. It needs to either further tread off on a less orthodox fighting game path, or get back closer to its conventions. In between, it feels neither like a solid fighting game nor an engaging action title. Perhaps if the developers toned down the 3D movement (which not only results in a lot of circling, but the environment isn’t very interactive anyway) as well as the jumping, they could focus more on what’s coolest, and most attractive about the game — the interaction of blades. It feels too clumsy right now, and when the combat gets heated, it almost always devolves to a barrage of clicks, with a simple hope of muscling through. Occasionally, I’ve gotten hit by side strikes that don’t look like they cut through me at all, or my fast strike was beat by a heavy strike which didn’t look like it came out yet. While there’s definitely strategy involved, I’m honestly not counting on it to gain much traction in either the competitive or casual crowds, but time will tell. The tutorial mode included was immensely helpful, and getting better involves some tutelage and serious rounds of defeat, which is good. There is some depth to pick at in Blade Symphony, but it never kept me very engaged to stay studying in its dojo.
I fondly remember the PSX 1997 release of Bushido Blade, a pseudo-3D fighter with tenuous, decisive-strike combat. There, a player’s life is decided in one or two presses, putting a different kind of pressure on each player. This kind of feeling is what Blade Symphony needs.