World Of Wuxia: Blade And Soul

What exactly is the incentive for a studio to bring another free-to-play MMO to the West?

Even among fans of these here grind-machines, the approval-rating of MMOs rises and falls with a steadiness usually reserved for politicians. But somehow NCsoft have managed to keep a stable of these games in their portfolio for years. The publishers have announced today that they’re localizing Blade And Soul [official site], its three-year-old free-to-play MMO, for North America and Europe this year, making this the fifth title from the company to launch in Asia before it releases in the West. We decided to take a closer look.

Blade and Soul already has a huge following in the East, senior community manager Mark Hulmes tells me. It’s free – no gated content and no strings attached. In other words, NCsoft are essentially reheating an old hit. But in a genre as unruly as this one, perhaps this is a glimpse into MMO development for the 21st century: a ready-made heavyweight, imported in from a continent afar.

NCsoft West’s senior vice president of publishing John Burns is calling this one of the most successful games in Asia, an eSports marvel that you’ve probably never even heard of – but trust me, the game’s got more countrymen than the whole of Zhanjiang. In China it got 1.5 million concurrent users at its peak. In South Korea it toppled Diablo 3 on the PC Bang charts at launch. It’s had three years to cultivate an eSports audience in the East, and even has a television show in Japan – an anime series by the animators of the brilliant Afro Samurai: Resurrection.

For its Western outing, the game launches fully-formed with three years’ worth of content. A convoluted Hero’s Journey narrative wraps around a structure of twitch-like, real-time battle systems, similar in style to its cousin Guild Wars 2. Watch a tournament play out between two duelling Blade and Soulers and tell me it isn’t a bloodied ballet. Combat is based around combo attacks, made from a combination of around 40 abilities – closer to what you’d find in fighting games than in a typical MMO arena glassing.

This too will be familiar to anyone who’s tested the waters of Guild Wars 2’s dynamic skill system, which changes the abilities you can access based on your character’s weapon of choice, and brings a certain amount of skill to the art of maniacal keyboard thumping. PvP carries with it a similar rough-and-tumble tone. The game uses an optional flagging system revolving around the doboks, a uniform worn by practitioners of martial arts which when added to your costume means you’re ready to be accosted by your peers.

But according to Hulmes, the team are particularly proud of Blade and Soul’s storytelling. This is a tale of martial arts fantasy, in which good and evil clash through battling factions and warring gods. And it’s a big story. The team has had to translate over three million words as part of their localisation effort, Hulmes tells me, and will launch this winter with the fully voice-acted results.

“It’s about a fledgling empire called the Wind Empire who is trying to overthrow the old Stratus Empire and unite the four continents in a new era of equality,” he says. There’s a subplot about the ancient and seemingly evil Darksiders, and Jin Seoyeon, a martial artist who’s become infected with impure Chi. It hinges on the often strange myths of ancient martial arts.

At launch this story will be made up of six acts, but the team already has five more years of plot points planned out, says Hulmes. The scale is bewildering. The team calls it the Game of Thrones of Eastern MMOs.

And it’s certainly dark enough for ol’ George R. R. The game’s introduction is like a trauma flashback to Red Wedding, as a nefarious crew wreaks havoc following a thousand-year peace treaty between the fledgling empire and the fading dynasty. Your master dies, dogs die, everybody dies. Despite all its high Eastern fantasy – frogmen and cat girls and Hopping Vampires – the green hills of the East are blood-soaked. The cutscene art style is beautiful, based on a visual style by the acclaimed artist Hyung-Tae Kim, known for his work on the Magna Carta series.

It’s classic wuxia – woo-sha – a kind of Chinese fiction that literally means “martial hero.” You’ll recognize it from late nights watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Wuxia is an exaggeration of martial arts, playing on the traditions of qinggong by incorporated things like wall-scaling, tree-mounting and a general ignoring of gravity.

And it’s integral to the team’s take on combat. Blade and Soul represents wuxia through super-human feats, perhaps the most significant of which is something called “windwalking.” You can float in the game, a wuxia movement ability that speeds you up but also doubles as flying transport. With that in mind, the world is designed vertically with enormous cliffsides and beaches that require you to dive way down, or reach awkwardly tree-high locals. A feature called “dragonstreams” is used to transport you to higher vantage points, launching you up the sides of mountains in a bewildering burst of energy with new and absurdly gymnastic animations unlocked each stream. Even the game’s weapon customization option is couched in wuxia lore – Swords can be upgraded by “feeding” them the weapons of your fallen enemies, meaning you can feasibly carry the same weapon with you from day one as long as you continue its cannibal diet.

The team want your weapon to mean something after all. The heroes in wuxia weren’t frivolous; they were a working class sort, a kind of roaming knight of ancient China who fought for righteousness at a time when Confucian tradition and its family dynasties restricted personal freedoms. It’s fitting then that Blade and Soul is a game that’s largely about player freedom: Letting players choose how to play, how to fight, and how to establish their individuality in a game of a thousand heroes.

Blade and Soul is coming to beta in the West this fall, then launches officially this winter. In the meantime, the first major Blade and Soul livestream will take place on Twitch on May 21st.

17 Comments

  1. HidingCat says:

    I love wuxia, but absolutely hate these grindfest Asian MMOs.

    I suppose they’re counting of more whales to keep these projects afloat…

    • Luciferous says:

      Something you may like to know, apparently you can get to the current level cap just by playing the story – no need to grind!

      We shall have to wait and see if that is true, but that’s what the devs told Phil Kollar from Polygon.

      • Skid says:

        Just the main story? Or the main story and any other nearby quests, or site stories?

        • HidingCat says:

          Or side quests that are dailies? Or main quests that are dailies? DUN DUN DUN

          Sorry if I don’t trust Korean MMOs.

          • ssh83 says:

            Which western MMO doesn’t devolve into a grinding end-game or event content forever?

            The key here is that Blade & Soul actually has a genuinely fun and novel combination of action combat and traditional tab-targeting. That means approachable to WoW diehard but offer higher skill cap with twitch element like Vindictus, C9 and Tera. It’s kind of similar to DC Universe Online, but way way better fluid combat with much more complex and flexible combo.

            It’s like Counter Strike and League of Legends. When the core gameplay is entertaining and stay fresh, you don’t really care that you’re playing the same map over and over (up to a point of course. but since it’s F2P, you lose nothing for taking a break and come back later).

          • lumenadducere says:

            @ssh83: Guild Wars 2, for starters. SWTOR is pretty decent about it too, with new story content not requiring any grinding or gearing up to access (as long as you have the expansion, you can play it). FFXIV is a little endgame grindy, but provides a lot of alternate content to play as well. The Secret World is also handles it decently as well.

            I get the point you’re making, but there really is a world of difference between the stereotypical Eastern MMO and the stereotypical Western MMO. There’s a reason the former tends to be regarded warily, even F2P ones that promise to have great localization and adaptation for foreign markets. It’s often hard to remove all the monetization that’s embedded by design into the games, and so localization teams fail to do so. And no matter how engaging the combat, if you have to do the same exact fight for 50 hours to progress in any meaningful way, you’re going to get fed up real quick.

          • Kala says:

            “Which western MMO doesn’t devolve into a grinding end-game or event content forever?”

            Eve?

  2. GhostBoy says:

    Finally! Best news all day. I thought I would never get to play this one, after they cancelled the last localization attempt.

  3. Phenomen says:

    I’ve played B&S on Russian (private pirated) and then moved original Korean server. It’s one of the best MMO on the market, no doubt. Flawless combat system, great visuals, decent story and presentation (not typical for Korean game), many original ideas and mechanics. Yes, lategame is grindy but at the same time it’s interesting – late dungeons and raids are well-designed with tons of random events and cool bosses. Even if you hate Asian MMOs, you must try B&S – it’s very different.

  4. Baines says:

    What exactly is the incentive for a studio to bring another free-to-play MMO to the West?

    The cynical answer?

    You bring over an MMO. You build some hype around it. You make some nice promises. You get a bunch of players. Then you spend little to nothing on upkeep. You make promises that you never intend to keep. You cobble together events to make it look like you are seriously trying to support the game, when they are really just smoke and mirrors to get another year of sales from the cash shop. As for the cash shop, you gradually dig deeper with it, as you try to get your declining players to spend more. In a few years, you shut the MMO down.

    But that doesn’t matter to you. You’ve thought ahead. You knew that MMO was on death’s row the moment you brought it over. A year or two before you shut it down, you’ve already brought over a new MMO.

    Cynical? Yes. Truthful? Also yes, at least in the case of some companies. (Trion being a prime example.)

  5. Necron99 says:

    Wait. Wut? The same Trion that brought us Rift? (Still going strong), Defiance? (Still up and populated) and ArcheAge? (Scoring big on Steam). You mean, THAT Trion? The company that was founded in 2006 by Lars Buttler and Jon Van Caneghem (Might and Magic series fame) THAT Trion? Can’t think of a single game that they “shut down”.

    • Baines says:

      Defiance has fallen apart due to lack of proper maintenance. Many known bugs and issues have remain unfixed for a year. Events launch in busted states. When something actually does get fixed, it tends to break again within a month or two. Even new real money shop items are sometimes released in busted states. Complaints are largely ignored. Promises are often made, and just as often are not delivered upon. The views of the people in charge appear to be at a 90 degree divergence from the game’s player base. The main thing keeping it alive at this point may be the tie in with the TV series, and the dedication of a few players that have a lot of disposable income with no interest in other games. (Defiance is one of those games where individuals admit to spending thousands of dollars buying stuff from the real money shop.)

      And that already weak support became even weaker when Trion was shifting focus to ArcheAge.

  6. Skid says:

    I was tracking this game 3 years ago when they released the first few trailers for it, but now *shrugs* it’s free to play so I’ll give it a try. In all honestly the game really did look like a refreshing change from the way MMOs normally play, but again, that was from 3 year old trailers.

    • ssh83 says:

      Fortunately for NCSoft, there hasn’t been an MMO in western market that can make B&S obsolete. Plenty of good ones, no doubt, but none that can make B&S look outdated.

      Unless Black Desert comes out first of course.

  7. MaXimillion says:

    Still not giving NCSoft a cent of my money before they bring back CoH.

  8. SomeDuder says:

    Age of Wulin/Wushu (Euro/US releases) might also be worth a look. Its a lot more PvP focused with a few instances and raid-like stuff. The environments are great as well, plus the map is just… HUGE