A double-sided blade.
Blade & Soul speaks to me in an unexpected way, not only because I miss beat-'em-up classics like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, but also because no small part of childhood was spent watching kung fu movies that my father rented in New York City Chinatown. Heroes would fly into the air in floaty clothing that flapped in the wind, and epically choreographed battles with villains would become a flurry of furious fists and clashing swords. Blade & Soul's combat system captures this spirit wonderfully, which is partly why it has such a passionate following in Korea, Japan, and China since the game's release in 2012. As you might suspect, though, the US release for this free-to-play action MMORPG shows some of the wear and tear of the game given its age.
Following the trope of many kung fu movies, the story begins with you training at the Hongmoon School of martial arts when a nefarious group led by a mysterious woman named Jinsoyun kills your master and flings you off a cliff into the waters below. From there, you awaken on a nearby continent and are caught up in a war between pirates and guards—the first of many plot points that occur as you continue to wander through the three beautifully-styled major areas of the game. As more motivation, Jinsoyun and her cohorts are messing with the balance of chi everywhere and has actually inflicted a curse on your body that's corrupting your soul, so you might as well follow the breadcrumbs of the cat-and-mouse chase anyway.
That said, don't be surprised if by the time you're Level 20 that you begin forgetting what the story is about in the first place. While the characters you meet aren't necessarily forgettable, there are enough required fetch quests and kill quests to make the adventure a slog, and you don't spend enough time with most of the NPCs before you need to move on to the next area with a whole brand new set of NPCs. In between these quests are even more fetch-and-kill quests in the form of side missions that are technically optional (and not voiced like the main story missions) but are the fastest way to earn experience points so that you can reach the level cap of 45. The fact that some enemies are copied and pasted into later sections doesn't help either.
Fortunately, the combat system has the active engagement and intricacy similar to a fighting game like Street Fighter that quests aren't as boring as they would be otherwise. No matter which of the seven classes you select, from the melee-focused Destroyer and Kung Fu Master, to the more ranged Force Master and Summoner, you will need to be proficient in combat. Case in point, there is no healing class in Blade & Soul. Apart from dumplings which only work outside combat and healing potions that work off a long cooldown, most of your healing is done through landing hits (if you navigate your skill tree appropriately). More than that, if you find yourself needing to heal often, you're doing it wrong.
No class demonstrates this focus on combat more than the Kung Fu Master, which I chose since the game ranks it as the most difficult class to use. One of its primary combo setups depends on countering effectively by looking at enemy attack animations (which was a bit hard since I chose the towering Gon race). Successful evasion through sidestepping or backstepping at the right time, if just to avoid yellow and red telegraphs that bosses reveal, also open another combo setup.
On top of that, the class has a moveset of CC attacks which grows in variety as more moves are unlocked as you earn higher levels. The UI interface for attacks is rather unwieldy to understand, since more than several moves are context-sensitive, but a little practice goes a long way. Whether it's dazing, stunning, knocking down, freezing, or juggling, stringing attacks together that combine together seamlessly is the key to combat. Once you discover three or more bread-and-butter combos—which the game streamlines by giving you an infinite number of free skill point resets—you'll cycle through each of them and conquer any foe that dares to face you. So long as you don't pull too many enemies at once (and have a decent ping), you can defeat almost every monster with ease in head-to-head combat.
Where the PvE can get tedious, though, is in the platforming and general traversal. Jumping, sprinting, and gliding through the air can be an exhilarating experience, but it's bogged down by a limited stamina meter (which could have been unlimited outside combat) and a few gameplay sections that require you to glide with precision onto floating platforms. Waiting around for respawning enemies to complete a quest can be irritating too, as you and everyone in the immediate area tries to get the first hit on an enemy so that it counts toward their quest. (It helps to be in an impromptu party, though it doesn't always happen.)
It's also a grind to find the proper transformations to upgrade your equipment and all eight pieces of a soul shield, which effectively replaces armor, while your inventory becomes easily cluttered with lots of crafting ingredients. You'll need to head through group dungeons and defeat field bosses over and over again to acquire the necessary ingredients or pay an exorbitant amount of money through the marketplace for transformation stones near the endgame. In particular, several Wheel of Fate lotteries are located near some field bosses and will randomly give you rewards for defeating them, though it might take you twenty spins to get the item you want. (Darn you, Pinchy the Scorpion!)
On the flipside, you won't need to worry about equipment drops too much, since you will keep your Hongmoon gear throughout the game and feed them weapons and accessories as offerings. Six-man dungeons and field bosses are challenging, especially those in the endgame and in higher difficulty dungeons that limit the group to 4 or 2 players, and well worth the effort in improving your character or gathering cosmetic items (the handy Wardrobe shows all of the costumes available in the game and where to find them). I willingly went through the same dungeon ten or more times just to collect all of gear I needed, and the cross-server dungeon option helps make sure that the process is as painless as possible.
The PvP fairs much better than the PvE due to the fine balancing between classes by virtue of the robust PvP scene that has culminated in the popular World Championships for the game in Korea. The arena will normalize your character to fit the Level 45 playing field, but it's better to enter the arena only once you're level-capped in the first place. Skill when it comes to spacing, attack range, and countering becomes a priority in the arena, which is far better than the standard faction-based PvP that's based on wearing one of a handful of PvP outfits. As more classes are added to the roster in future updates like the warlock, we'll hopefully see an American team that can compete on the world stage in the near future.
Although Blade & Soul is rough around the corners with its outdated quests and PvE envrionment, its strength in action-based combat and PvP shines through. Nailing a 20-hit combo on a poor fool has rarely been this satisfying outside of the fighting genre. The in-game store for microtransactions is mainly for cosmetic items and premium membership which keeps this free-to-play title away from the pay-to-win model, with Daily Dash prizes as bonuses for daily logins. While gold spammers had taken over the global chat, the new block spammer button has neutralized the situation. With NCSoft's attentive support of the title as the US release continues to catch up with the Asian release, the remaining story acts, classes, and dungeons will hopefully fill in the gaps by way of the developer's aggressive post-launch schedule. For now, Blade & Soul has a swift but cautious kick of a recommendation.