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In the hands, Phantom Blade Zero owes more to Ninja Gaiden than Soulslikes


Soul, the protagonist of Phantom Blade Zero, approaching a giant leonine figure with glowing paper lanterns forming lines to either side
Image credit: PlayStation

In the past I've described Phantom Blade Zero, the foetid and frantic new action-RPG from Chinese studio S-Game, as a Soulslike, and more specifically a Sekirolike. I must now hang my head and await the executioner's ludicrously oversized hammer, for while Phantom Blade Zero's ambience and layouts owe something to From's work, the moment-to-moment has just as much in common with older hack-and-slash games such as Ninja Gaiden. I played a bit of it at Summer Game Fest this week, and while I’m not rushing out to preorder (I never am, in fairness), I think it could be a good ‘un.

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In Phantom Blade Zero you play Soul, whose first name is not Dark, but who is certainly on that wavelength in terms of his demeanour and outlook. As the story begins, Soul has been framed for murdering the boss of "The Order", and all but murdered himself. Thanks to a mystic healer of some description, he’s returned from the grave and has 66 days to track down whoever framed him before the mystic healing runs out. Along the way, it seems, he will have to duel or assassinate everybody else in the Phantom World - an occult and industrial reimagining of historical China and kung fu cinema.

The Phantom World dates back to an RPG Maker game, Rainblood: Town of Death, created by S-Game Founder and CEO Soulframe Liang (yes, Soulframe is his first name, as far as I can tell) during his university days. It’s been fleshed out over the course of a few mobile games, and suffice to say, it looks a lot fancier today than it did in 2010.

The areas I saw were a mash of dripping and overgrown cliffside walks, crumbling tiled roofs and pockets of steam-powered gadgetry that blur into the undergrowth thanks to the murky colour palette. “Semi-open-world” is publishing partner Sony’s preferred term, which I would translate here as “bunch of interconnected, multiple-level arenas”, characterised by gentle platforming skits such as runnable walls or treasure chests tucked away on barrel-filled ledges. They're prowled by nameless archers and axemen together with vicious, monstrous bosses such as Commander Cleave, whose mishappen stone sword emits waves of energy, and the Jade Dancer, who struts around on bladed stilts.

You’re no babe in the woods yourself. Again, Phantom Blade Zero reads as a Soulslike from afar, but in the hands, it's a different species of doom-laden duellist. I had to rethink assumptions I'd brought with me from the trailer footage, including the belief that enemies would respawn when I died. Soul gets light and heavy attacks, a swooping dodge, a stamina-dependent block or parry, and the ability to switch between two weapon sets on the go. The execution is fast and florid, with a couple of button presses producing a Cirque du Soleil-worthy display of spinning strikes and kicks, to the point that I struggled to follow my own movements. That said, the game does a fair job of suggesting that blades are actually in contact, with dramatic twists of the body and accompanying sound effects when deflecting to help you build up the ol' muscle memory.

The weapons are familiar, but enticing to wield and especially, to switch between over the course of a gruelling skirmish. I got to faff around with twin knives that were useful for overwhelming an opponent’s defences, the obligatory all-rounder short sword, and an enormous two-handed blade for ponderous, overarm chops and ripostes. Secondary weapons include a handcannon shaped like a lion's head, a bow and arrow for sniping the snipers, and a flamethrower which I couldn’t hit a goddamn thing with.

Soul, the protagonist of Phantom Blade Zero, looking up at monstrous enemies who are floating in midair
Image credit: PlayStation

Regular foes put up a decent fight – I was killed twice by one of those malingering axe dudes, albeit partly because I kept getting crouch-walk mixed up with sprinting – but the bosses are, of course, the stars of the show. Unlike the rank-and-file, they can't be snuck up on and assassinated. Commander Cleave is one of those cheeky scallywags who looks like they’re helpless at range, only to slice your mittens off with telekinesis. He’s broadly an introduction to the art of dodging and countering so as to break your foe’s poise, not that I was able to defeat him during my 20 minutes with the game.

I’m interested to discover how representative the demo is of the beginning of Phantom Blade Zero. I’d definitely appreciate an on-ramp, but from the looks of things, Soul is framed as a master combatant from the get-go - no preliminary shuffling about in rags with a length of wood for this particular cursed wanderer. Still, if you survived Ninja Gaiden, I reckon you’ll be fine getting your head around this. And if you enjoyed Ninja Gaiden - and you still have the patience for Soulsy theming and aesthetics after a million derivations - I would offer reasonable odds that you’ll enjoy this.

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