My first experience with a true 3D game world was 1996’s Tomb Raider. I couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes into the first Peruvian level – already awed by the stylish opening cutscene and the thrill of gunning down pixelated bats with Lara’s dual pistols – when I stumbled upon what I thought was a precipitous cliff-side path.
As I approached the crudely-textured edge that dropped off into the void, the shroud of darkness that obscured the distant terrain was slowly pushed back, revealing what I first thought were distant mountain slopes and cyclopean rock arches. For a moment, I just sat there listening to the whistling wind and eerie echoes, fully immersed.
Of course, a minute later I would realise my imagined cliff was just a few sloped polygons leading to the cave floor; while in time, I would come to appreciate the rendering techniques used to avoid placing too great a load on the PSOne’s limited hardware. Regardless, it was and remains one of my most pivotal gaming experiences.
Having grown up playing side-scrolling games on an NES, before moving on to isometric RPGs and RTS games on PC, my mind ran wild with ideas of what else I might see during my playthrough. Although Tomb Raider (1996) ultimately proved more restrained than I expected, it was the first time I could truly appreciate the potential of exploring and navigating a virtual 3D space.
My mind frequently drifted back to that memory during a dozen of unexpectedly compelling hours with the lightly remastered and undeniably archaic Blade of Darkness port, as I pondered, over and over again, why navigating modern game worlds rarely feels like such an engaging and immersive experience.
What is Blade of Darkness (née Severance)
I’ll start with an overview of the game, as I’m guessing few people have heard of it let alone played it. Developed by Rebel Act Studios – many of whom would go on to form Mercury Steam – it’s third-person action-adventure that released on PC in 2001 as Severance: Blade of Darkness to a mostly positive reception.
The remaster is exactly the same game but now runs in wide-screen, at higher resolutions and framerates, while offering HDR tone-mapping, basic motion blur, and overblown bloom lighting. Like console ports of many older PC games, the perfunctory but awkward gamepad support makes for more intuitive and tactile inputs – but can’t obscure the fact it was designed around mouse and keyboard inputs.
What surprised me was how good Blade of Darkness can still look – if you keep your expectations in check – given the impressive sense of scale, thick atmosphere, and simple yet broody soundtrack. Sure, the environments are chunky and the mist-obscured rendering distance obvious, but a highlight are the striking stencil shadows coupled with limited dynamic lighting, which often lets you spot enemies by their shadows before you see them. The devs were also clearly proud of their water reflections and made it a dominant visual theme.
When it comes to movement and combat, character models are chunky but distinctive, and animation variety is limited, However, it still has satisfying dismemberment, persistent bodies, and gore splattering every surface after a battle.
The premise is suitably epic yet clichéd. An ancient evil is stirring and bringing strife to the world – an evil that can only be defeated by collecting magical runes and gemstones to unlock a mythical sword.
To its credit, there are four lengthy and enjoyable introductory missions – one for each hero – each set in a different location, with a distinct atmosphere, doling out a little more of their backstory and world-building. Unfortunately, the subsequent chapters rely on narrated map screens and short, crude cinematics that play out the same regardless of who you pick.
Rather than individuals with personal quest lines, they begin to feel like interchangeable classes – though that’s no bad thing. It’s not just a case of a reskinned character and weapon set as each has its own attributes – think size, speed, hit-points, and hit-boxes – along with different armour upgrades and a preferred fighting style. The focus is almost entirely on melee with the Knight and Dwarf offering durable tank-like classes, while the Barbarian and Amazon are nimble damage dealers that need to avoid blows.
I’ve seen many fans argue Blade of Darkness is an early example of Souls-like design, but with that classic PC ability to save anywhere, it’s more an unforgiving trial-and-error action game – even if it has an annoying stamina mechanic and a bizarrely-proportioned dragon circling a fort in one level. If anything, it feels like an evolution of 1998’s Deathtrap Dungeon, with the high difficulty a result of sadistic design coupled with floaty controls that feel like they belong in an FPS game (just with the view just pulled back).
With your hero of choice, you explore – level by level – abandoned or overrun cities, forts, mines, ruins, and tombs, on the hunt for key items or switches that’ll open the way forward toward some McGuffin you’re after. Complicating matters are crude platforming sections, deadly traps, and hordes of foes that include traitorous humans, corrupted orc tribes, several variants of undead, and a selection of recurrent bosses.
To deal with threats, Blade of Darkness features a surprisingly complex but poorly explained combat system. It seems simple with only an attack, block, and dodge inputs but modifying these with directional inputs is key.
Weapons have unique combo patterns – think sweeping crowd control, overhead strikes, low blows, and charged strikes – all triggered by holding the attack button and alternating directional inputs. All weapons offer a trade-off between damage, a defence penalty, and stamina cost – so a powerful blade might fell an opponent in one or two strikes, but missing too many swings can leave your hero doubled over, panting, and vulnerable.
The combination moves are more than optional flourishes as understanding each strike pattern is essential to hitting small or nimble enemy types, and bypassing shields or armour. One good side step and a high horizontal swipe can behead lesser minions, while landing a full three- or four-hit combo can cut down even the toughest of foes. Of course, the same holds true for you, so you need to be aware of which direction you’re strafing or rolling toward relative to the enemy’s weapon arm and swing.
Why I still love exploring early 3D worlds
Looping back to my opening statement, Blade of Darkness’ high-stakes combat is fun enough but it doesn’t evolve significantly.
Your hero grows in strength, gaining stamina and health points, and you acquire more powerful weapon variants – but the same applies to your foes to keep things balanced. Once I had an understanding of the mechanics and found my weapon preference, combat settled into a familiar rhythm and it was the thrill of exploring new and diverse environments that kept me going.
It helps that Blade of Darkness comes from an era when building massive worlds was hard, so verticality and density were far more important than breadth. Levels often make use of almost every corner of the map, often across multiple levels – even if it feels contrived.
Blade of Darkness features a nice mix of locations inspired by European, Middle Eastern, and even South American civilisations – often evoking a strong sense of isolation and vulnerability not dissimilar to the original Tomb Raider (1996) – but there are downsides like limited assets and repeating room layouts.
That said, every location still feels suitably hand-crafted and packed with secrets. If you keep an eye out for climbable ledges, survivable drops, risky jumps, and distant switches, you’ll often discover secret runes, powerful weapons, and potions that can trivialise tough encounters. It rewards those that explore thoroughly by reducing their reliance on combat mastery alone.
In 2023, many of these diversions look short and underdeveloped, but Blade of Darkness lacks both the precision movement of a game like Tomb Raider, and the forgiving assists of modern titles. Simple tasks like stringing together long jumps, crossing wide beams, or dodging instakill traps are tense affairs – though the ability to save anywhere feature somewhat undermines the tension (and the game will mock based on your total save count).
It’s clunky, sure, but the environments are also easily readable. You can always stop and survey the terrain to spot half-hidden side paths, potential traps, and likely ambush spots. In contrast, secret hunting in too many modern games boils down to tedious and systematic exploration of a large space in which the geometry and topography are mechanically meaningless and the scenery blurs together.
If I had to guess, I’d say the reason for this is both technical and by design. Firstly, modern gaming worlds are more geometrically complex and natural in design and characters have far greater animation complexity. They can run, mantle, and climb through environments fluidly – which makes artificial barriers more obvious and frustrating to players.
That leads straight into the second point which is ease-of-play considerations. Outside of dedicated genres – like platformers or puzzlers – developers tend to make getting around intuitive and fluid to the point of forgettable, presumably so you can focus on core mechanics like combat.
As a result, I found the Blade of Darkness remaster weirdly compelling and fresh by virtue of being 20 years behind the curve. By 2001 standards, the gameplay loop was enjoyable yet unremarkable; in 2023, it feels positively archaic yet almost novel again. I completely understand the thrill of unhindered traversal, but I miss the methodical nature of exploring early 3D game worlds.
If you’re remotely curious about it, the Blade of Darkness remaster is well-priced for what it is and will no doubt be on sale for even less soon enough. If nothing else, I’d recommend tackling the four diverse prologue levels with each character to get a feel for it as they provide an enjoyable microcosm of the game as a whole. From there, you can decide if I’m just wallowing in nostalgia or if it’s worth pushing forward.
Blade of Darkness was played on an Xbox Series S|X using a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4/5, and Nintendo Switch.