Originally released back in 2001 for PC under the title, “Severance: Blade of Darkness“, Blade of Darkness is considered by many to be a rarely acknowledged pioneer of the ‘Soulslike genre, owing to its dark fantasy world, intricate gameplay mechanics, tough as nails combat, and having launched years earlier than Demon’s Souls – though I’m sure some of From Software’s earlier first-person dungeon-crawlers may disagree. Despite failing to set the world on fire on release the game has, over the years, gained a cult following.
Last year, developers Rebel Act, with the help of publisher SNEG, released an updated version of the game for PC. Now that the updated version has come to Nintendo’s Switch, it’s worth taking a look at whether or not Blade of Darkness is worth playing today.
Grimdark fantasy made slightly prettier
Blade of Darkness throws players into a dark fantasy world in which the forces of Chaos have once again risen to plague the world with untold suffering. Many years ago, Ianna, the mother of all living beings, gave the world a sword to smite Chaos with. And now the world is in need of a new hero to wield that same sword and destroy evil forever.
Okay, let’s get the changes out of the way first. Outside of changes to the game’s code to get it to run on modern machines and a basic visual update – up to a 4K resolution on PC – the developers have kept everything else intact. So it’s the same mechanics, level design, and sound design from 2001 – for good and for ill.
Visually, Blade of Darkness looks rather attractive for a game that’s only received what amounts to a resolution and texture facelift. Sure, the environments are sparse by modern standards, but it sports that wonderful BSP (Binary Space Partitioning) style-level design that I love. It’s all angular all the time and will be a treat for nostalgia lovers. The updated textures for the most part do look great, with a surprising amount of detail on walls and doors. The only time I noticed the limitations was when I popped into first-person mode to use the bow and those textures, specifically the tattoos on the Barbarian’s arms, looked like a pixelated mess.
Outside of that, enemies and character models generally look great, with a nice amount of wear and tear on player models when you or they take damage.
Intriguing but dated mechanics
But how does it play? Well that’s the question, isn’t it? The answer to that is going to be dependent on your ability to stomach old-school design, tank controls, and a serious amount of jank.
You’ve got four characters to choose from: a Barbarian, an Amazon, a Knight and a Dwarf, giving the game a very Dungeons & Dragons feel. Each character starts off in a different location with fairly different circumstances. The Knight, for instance, starts off in prison ala The Elder Scrolls and you’ll have to break out of your cell and fight bare-handed for a bit. The Barbarian starts off in a mountain fortress area, bringing some heavy Conan vibes with him, and so on. This design alone makes it worth playing through each character’s opening area before they converge on the same locations.
Each character has their own starting stats and preferred weapons, with stat increasing with each level up. this system brings the RPG mechanics to the table, ensuring a steady flow of new weapons you couldn’t use before, along with increasing your overall health and defence.
So far, so traditional. However, the combat – of which there is plenty – is the meat of the game and these mechanics will either make or break the experience for you.
First off, tank controls are alive and well here. You may be using the analog stick to control your character, but turning and movement are built around that archaic design, which can be very annoying in the heat of action. In general exploration, you can’t strafe to left or right, but you can move in those directions slowly when locked onto an enemy. A quick button press does a 180-degree turn but it’s rather slow. There’s a clunkiness and lack of subtlety in the way you move that takes a while to get used to but never becomes comfortable.
When fighting, the direction you move the analog combined with the attack button determines which attack you do, whether that’s to left, right, or forward for low strikes. It’s actually an intriguing system that takes a while to get used because it’s very timing based and tactical. A well-timed strike can lop off heads and limbs in one shot if you’re careful. You can also dodge left, right, or backstep when locked onto an enemy, but it’s easily the worst dodge I’ve used in some time as it’s very slow and, at times, it felt like it was conflicting with the tank movement style.
Admittedly, combat can be very thrilling and hard, especially if you’re dealing with multiple enemies at the same time – though you can cheese them somewhat by getting them to attack each other. In true ‘Souls-like fashion, you also have to watch out for your stamina meter that governs your attacks and that weapons have durability as well. Too much parrying and your sword can break, while shields degrade with every attack blocked until they break.
Sadly, it’s the bugs that bring the combat system down. Apart from the awkward controls, hitboxes don’t always work. That meant I wasted plenty of stamina only to watch my sword slide through an enemy that didn’t so much as flinch. Occasionally, this meant I also didn’t take damage but more often than not, I’d get hit by attacks that weren’t close to me either. The other annoying buggy element was the lock-on. It didn’t always work and, in some situations, switched off during a fight letting my character swing right past the enemy only to be stabbed repeatedly in the back.
Old-school level design still rocks
If there’s one area that I feel Blade of Darkness shines, it’s the level design. There’s a nice variety of locations on display, even if they are sparsely populated and most will loop back onto earlier sections, opening up shortcuts. Exploration is encouraged and a lot of fun as, scattered across each level, you’ll discover potions and food to pick up, crates to smash or burn, locks to open, and traps to either deactivate or avoid.
During the quiet moments, it’s the game’s sound design that stands out. Most of the time you’re treated to the sounds of wind whistling through eaves and monster growls just out of view, but then the musical score kicks in at specific points and ratchets up the tension and dread tremendously. While Blade of Darkness may lack the visual oomph that we’ve come to expect from remasters, it still boasts an incredible atmosphere and lingering sense of dread thanks to the amazing sound design and wonderful score, coupled with the tough fights you just know are lurking around every corner. It’s really quite wonderful.
Blade of Darkness is an intriguing time capsule preserving earlier video game design. In many ways, the game was certainly ahead of its time at launch, but certain aspects, specifically its movement system, haven’t aged well. Despite the problems and the combat bugs, Blade of Darkness still manages to remain addictively compelling and playable. And yes, extremely fun if you’re a fan of retro games. I always wanted to see what the next level would bring, or where another hero would begin their journey. Each death made me want to dive straight back in just to get that little bit further. It isn’t hard to see why the game has gained a cult following.
With its stellar sound design, fun if flawed combat, and a manual save-whenever-you-want system, Blade of Darkness is a game still worth checking out and one that I feel – especially given the popularity of the Souls-like genre – deserves a full-blown remake.
A review code for Blade of Darkness was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Blade of Darkness (Nintendo Switch) ReviewBlade of Darkness (Nintendo Switch) Review
- Intriguing combat system
- Wonderful atmosphere of dread
- Excellent sound design
- Janky, tank control system you have to fight against
- Collision detection bugs
- Wonky lock-on system