I’m pretty sure Bladeless‘ title is wrong. Based on the number of heads I saw fly (many of which were mine), I feel pretty safe in saying that there are, in fact, blades. Either that or they don’t build unnervingly silent samurai monsters like they used to. But then, in this economy… Anyway. Bladeless’ focus is on briefly telegraphed attacks and split-second reactions. It’s hardly the most original formula ever (Hello, Punch-Out, every game that’s ripped off Punch-Out), but Bladeless’ side-scrolling duel setup and utterly sublime feel put it head and shoulders above the rest. At least, until a lightning strike katana slice trims off those conveniently exposed extremities.
Bladeless’ basic setup is so to-the-point that I couldn’t not indulge in an excruciatingly obvious sword pun. You walk forward. That’s it. There’s no jumping or block-pushing or powers. There’s barely even a background. Eventually, you meet another sword with a cloaked man attached, and you both quickly decide to not be friends.
There are three basic stances you have to account for, but picking a corresponding block/counter in time is tougher than you’d think. It took me a few tries to get it just right, partially due to a control scheme that maps counters where you’d expect (up arrow is high counter, down is low, etc), but isn’t consistent on blocks (A is high block, D is low block, etc). I found it a bit disorienting at first, but it didn’t keep me on the fringes for long – especially after I discovered I could both block and counter on A,S, and D. It was, admittedly, the less natural of the two key setups, but it got the job done.
Once I got into the flow of combat, Bladeless became an oddly rhythmic experience. There’s a certain nail-biting anticipation to each sword draw, and the resulting pitter-patter pattern of clangs, counters, and sickening slices is an excellent payoff. Truth be told, I didn’t find much in the way of progression (enemies stop getting tougher around the tenth), but that graceful loop of savage violence and fleeting serenity kept me hooked. I’m usually the guy that posts about cryptic, artsy story games, but I love stripped-down, compulsive mechanics like these. They’re very nearly primal.
Again, there’s not really a whole lot of content in Bladeless (and I’d kill for more, or a multiplayer mode at the very least), but it’s an impressive morsel nonetheless. Also, replays yield some neat elements of randomization, so it’s not quite as bleak and empty as its art style seems to suggest. Try it. You’ll probably move onto something else after 15 minutes or so, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll be back.