Blade Sym­phony

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Blade Sym­phony is about the fan­tasy of be­ing a swords­man and all that comes with it: hon­our, skill and eti­quette. If you’re re­spon­sive to those ideas to even a small de­gree, it is a fight­ing game with tremen­dous depth and prom­ise. It’s a re­al­i­sa­tion of its core fan­tasy that’s orig­i­nal enough in its ex­e­cu­tion to stand up as a com­pet­i­tive game in its own right.

It’s also proof the fight­ing genre has an al­ter­na­tive PC his­tory, one with its ori­gins in mod­ding and in­die de­vel­op­ment rather than the ar­cade. Blade Sym­phony is a di­rect suc­ces­sor to the Jedi Knight se­ries and the scene that grew around on­line lightsaber du­elling. Oth­ers have come down the same path since – Chivalry and Lu­garu, for in­stance – but Blade Sym­phony is the first to cap­ture the so­cial spirit of Jedi Knight’s du­elling servers.

Like its pre­de­ces­sor, Blade Sym­phony is struc­tured around one-on-one duels. Two play­ers armed with swords face each other in a 3D arena with full free­dom of move­ment. The game is de­signed to be con­trolled with a mouse and key­board, and at­tack­ing is linked to a sin­gle but­ton press. Switch­ing be­tween three ground stances, charg­ing at­tacks, chang­ing di­rec­tion and jump­ing means that your at­tack can be mod­i­fied in dozens of ways, depend­ing on your char­ac­ter.

There are four fighters, each rep­re­sent­ing a dif­fer­ent style of sword­fight­ing. Pha­lanx is a fencer. His light at­tacks are jab­bing thrusts and his weak­ness is the rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity of his move­ment. Con­trast that with Pure, a whirling wushu fighter whose aerial power and ra­dial at­tack pat­terns are hard to read and even harder to parry. Judge­ment is styled like a sa­mu­rai and has the most pow­er­ful heavy at­tacks of all; Ryoku spe­cialises in fast, di­rect at­tacks fol­lowed by eva­sive ma­noeu­vres.

A char­ac­ter’s moveset is pre­sented as a grid at the bot­tom of the screen, with ver­ti­cal rows rep­re­sent­ing stances – fast, bal­anced, heavy and air – and the hor­i­zon­tal rep­re­sent­ing pro­gres­sion along each combo track. By switch­ing up and down through stances, any given combo can nav­i­gate a freeform path across the grid as the sit­u­a­tion dic­tates. Cer­tain com­bi­na­tions are more ef­fec­tive than oth­ers, and these are the ones you’ll need to mem­o­rise, but by and large the sys­tem is less di­dac­tic than fight­ing game play­ers will be used to. The em­pha­sis here is on-the-fly prob­lem solv­ing, on do­ing things your op­po­nent won’t have seen be­fore, and on be­ing acutely aware of your po­si­tion in 3D space.

A blade’s po­si­tion is cal­cu­lated pre­cisely, and where and how pow­er­fully an at­tack con­nects af­fects how much dam­age is done. Longswords and scim­i­tars can adopt a gen­eral block­ing stance, but other­wise par­ries need to be ex­act to reg­is­ter. To help with this, your next at­tack is tele­graphed ahead of you as a holo­graphic blade path that only you can see. This helps to en­sure that you know ex­actly what your sword is go­ing to do when you click. Fac­ing a charg­ing Pure as Pha­lanx, for

The em­pha­sis here is on-the­fly prob­lem solv­ing, on do­ing things your op­po­nent won’t have seen be­fore

ex­am­ple, you might step to the side at the last sec­ond and parry with a bal­anced side­ways swing. Pro­vid­ing your blades con­nect, or you suc­ceed in hit-stun­ning your op­po­nent, you can then tran­si­tion into a charged lunge in the fast stance, leap­ing in to strike and back to get yourself out of range. This pat­tern of at­tack, coun­ter­at­tack and eva­sion sets the game’s rhythm – ex­tended clashes are al­most al­ways lethal for one party.

The swords them­selves fur­ther com­pli­cate this al­ready com­plex sys­tem. You pick a blade type (and a cos­metic style) in­de­pen­dent of your char­ac­ter, and it’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two that de­fines ex­actly how you’ll go about try­ing to win. Longswords can block and do more dam­age when they lat­er­ally bi­sect an op­po­nent. Rapiers are ef­fec­tive at par­ry­ing and are lethal when com­bined with for­ward at­tacks. Katanas can’t block, but can feint out of at­tacks and do dou­ble dam­age af­ter a parry. The Chi­nese jian can in­ter­cept even heavy at­tacks. Sim­i­tars of­fer lower base dam­age, but the amount of pain they in­flict doesn’t de­crease over the course of a mul­ti­ple-hit at­tack. Re­solv­ing all of these in­ter­lock­ing sys­tems is the game’s chief chal­lenge, and the nor­mal tu­to­rial can only give you a ground­ing in the ba­sics. It’s pos­si­ble to down­load a more com­pre­hen­sive ver­sion from the Steam Work­shop, but even so the learn­ing curve is se­vere. Climb­ing it, how­ever, is aided by the game’s ex­cel­lent on­line struc­ture. In free-for-all mode, play­ers hang out in mul­ti­room do­jos, chal­leng­ing each other to duels. When a bout be­gins, other play­ers turn into out­lines and can’t in­ter­fere with the fight, but they can watch from the side­lines and of­ten do. Fail­ure in this mode isn’t pun­ished, so new play­ers can chal­lenge who­ever they like with­out fear of los­ing their rat­ing.

The game uses an Elo sys­tem to de­ter­mine a player’s rank. Un­like other on­line games, where you gain ex­pe­ri­ence and progress through fixed tiers, your rat­ing in Blade Sym­phony is based on your skill rel­a­tive to the rest of the player­base. Whichever per­centile you fall into de­ter­mines your league – from Oak to Mas­ter – and you can only gain or lose rat­ing by du­elling people in the same league on a ranked du­elling server, where play­ers queue for matches in walled-off are­nas.

Ranked duels have an ex­tra­or­di­nary sense of per­son­al­ity and carry sig­nif­i­cant weight, par­tic­u­larly be­tween high-rank­ing play­ers. The com­mu­nity is small, so you’re likely to see the same people a lot. Ri­val­ries form nat­u­rally, and the com­mu­nity main­tains a cul­ture of eti­quette. It is con­sid­ered good man­ners, for ex­am­ple, to use a bow emote be­fore a duel. It’s the com­bi­na­tion of this col­lec­tive role­play with di­rect com­pe­ti­tion that makes the game so com­pul­sive. As such, Blade Sym­phony is as close as you are likely to get to the fan­tasy of slowly be­com­ing a mas­ter swords­man.

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