Blade & Soul’s “Secrets of the Stratus” Expansion Brings Revamped Skill UI And Better Pacing

When visiting NCSoft at PAX East this year, I was surprised that I hadn’t previously heard much about its martial-arts MMORPG Blade & Soul, which has been around since 2012. As it turns out, the game only just arrived in the US as of January 2016, and as it enters its second year in the West, Blade & Soul is shooting for creative, ambitious content to lure new players and separate itself from the pack. Of course, the same can probably be said of any MMO with ideas and something to prove.

 

Thankfully, NCSoft are online gaming veterans, and if you’re not familiar, one of Blade & Soul’s big differentiators is its combat. Handling more like a fighting game than an RPG, battles depend on player skill, complex combos, and even single-frame split-second decisions as much as they do on leveling up and assigning skill points. My demo at PAX East 2017 was largely hands-off, but I did learn quite a bit about what NCSoft has planned.



 

As I mentioned, player ability weighs more heavily compared to assigned skill points than usual here, but the latter does still exist. However, NCSoft is distancing itself from the pack on this one with a new UI that shares little in common visually with, say, World of Warcraft skill trees. Instead, there’s a streamlined decide-as-you-go system being put in place, designed to prevent constant cashing in and redistributing of points, or a feeling of needing to look up the “perfect” distribution online. The ability to start over does remain, but the idea is that you won’t constantly want to, and will let go of that way of thinking entirely.

What I also found interesting is something Team Bloodlust (the NCSoft developer behind the game) is calling the “Hongmoon Training Room.” What this essentially allows for is instanced solo attempts at the game’s bosses, fiercest among them included, so you can hone the required combos and strategies in advance of trying the real thing. To be frank, my first impression on this was that it’s a little bit lame; okay, so I just grind these ghost versions of bosses until I master them, then do it for real? But when you see how Blade & Soul’s combat and general fighting differs from what people generally have in mind for MMOs, and the amount of precision involved, suddenly it makes a bit more sense. Think of it more like the training mode in 2009’s Punch-Out!! reboot and it should make more sense.



 

NCSoft iterated that the pace of updates for Blade & Soul going forward will be “larger and more ambitious,” which essentially amounts to less pressure to 100% everything before the next batch of content hits and an expanded focus on story and meaningful new things to do. For Secrets of the Stratus this includes three new PvE areas (Naryu Sanctum, Celestial Basin, and Mushin’s Tower respectively), with beginner, intermediate, and advanced skill-level content all included. I was also told the ability to start with a level 50 character is being added, though unfortunately doing so is barred behind a “purchasable voucher.” Still, it’s a nice way to try new classes on the fly if you don’t have the time to start from zero for each.

 

I think what’s most exciting is that after claiming it would do so in 2012, NCSoft has finally brought Blade & Soul to the West (as of last year), and is finally getting serious about substantial content to drive it forward (as of, it seems, Secrets of the Stratus and beyond). I do wish my demo included more hands-on time than it did, but I’m certainly intrigued by the game and intend to give it the old college try when Secrets of the Stratus launches on April 12th. Given the sheer number of games PAX-goers (especially members of the press) are asked to try leading up to and throughout the show ad-nauseum, perhaps this was NCSoft’s plan to begin with.