A prolonged, evenly-matched fight in Naraka: Bladepoint is a thing of beauty. Picture two combatants, each equipped with grappling hooks and panache, twirling across a sun-dappled battlefield. They’re locked in a mind game of slashes, somersaults and parries, both attempting to provoke a misstep that will spell either instant death or the beginning of a chase. Now picture the latter, as they bound across rooftops or treetops, the hunted party ducking and diving, desperate to steal enough time and space to pop a healing potion. This is proper Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Stuff. I like it a lot.
I’d also be the first to tell you Naraka’s combat can be frustrating, and not everyone will find it worth persevering with. If you’re into swords, grappling hooks and battle royales, though, I mean, come on. You’ve got to try it.
I should stress that Naraka doesn’t feel all that much like other royales. There’s the usual enclosing ring of death, shrinking the arena until only one fighter’s left standing, or three if you’re playing in the more chaotic Trios mode. But this isn’t about creeping through undergrowth, your heart jackhammering its way out of your chest with death just a squeeze of a sniper rifle away. There are ranged weapons, sure, but they’re mostly just for softening people up. No - when death comes, it’ll be at the tip of a greatsword or a spear, right after you’ve rolled into someone’s swing or fluffed up a parry. You always have a chance to put up a fight, even if it does prove mercilessly short.
It’s much more Tekken than Chivalry. Fighting game aficionados will feel right at home here, au fait as they may be with combos, split-second timing and (once you really get going) animation cancelling. I’ve only dabbled with such things, and I suffered for it. I spent my first half a dozen hours (once I’d escaped the bots you’re initially pitted against) getting cut to a pulp, wavering over whether to dismiss the combat as messy and unfair.
After another half a dozen hours, ‘punishing’ seems like the better word. There’s a classic rock-paper-scissors style system at its core, where charged attacks beat normal attacks, parries beat charged attacks, and normal attacks beat parries. A successful parry can be absolutely devastating, because they both disarm your opponent and let you launch into a brutal and unstoppable counterattack that can rip through most of someone’s health and armour. Landing a charged attack is almost as damaging, especially with the beefier weapons, so fights tend to turn on a single mistake. That’s both a blessing and a curse.
It undeniably adds tension. Successful parries are punch the air moments, while getting dragged into a stun-locked drubbing feels teeth-gnashingly miserable. To make things worse, even now I’m not always sure why a parry didn’t work. Did my opponent change to a different attack at the last second? Did I just misstime it? Or was the server slightly laggy, or did the height difference from those steps mess me up? Naraka is at its worst when it’s being inscrutable, and the nuances take longer to scrute than I’d like.
It’s worth it, though. Around that six hour mark, I decided to arm myself with the advice of a friendly YouTube-man. I started approaching fights with more calm and deliberation, and realised that many of my deaths were thanks to panicked button-mashing. I was impaling myself on my own predictable movements. Then I had the good fortune of bumping into WeebPeepoClown, a green-skinned savant who tore through me as if I were used tissue paper. I watched him, and I learned. He fought with the economy of movement you’d expect from the protagonist in a martial arts film, timing every dodge and slash with focused purpose. Then, after several minutes of near perfect acrobatics, he got parried - and I realised he’d been hanging on to his ultimate ability in order to shrug off the worst of the counterattack. He turned into a four-armed giant, swept his assailment up in his massive troll hand, grabbed another fighter who’d been running nearby, then bashed them together for a double insta-kill. Game changer.
That said, for the most part the character abilities supplement the combat rather than defining it. You only get two (though each has unlockable variations) - a skill that’s on a relatively short cooldown, alongside an ultimate. My favourite fighter summons a whirling sword that she can teleport to, while her ultimate makes her leap into the air and do three huge, anime-sized purple slashes. She’s also got bare legs up to her crotch and a figure that breasts boobily across the battlefield. Some of the male character skins are practically naked too, but the female ones are still more titillating. Equivalency doesn’t amount to equality in the context of our sexist societies anyway, but it’s something.
Fortunately, the rest of the spectacle is less questionable. Naraka is gorgeous, even using the lower to middling graphics settings you might want on to maximise those precious frames per second. Most areas are bright and colourful, and because everyone has a grappling hook and can run up walls the landscape can be packed with otherwise impassible cliffs and densely-packed towns. It’s a joy just to move around, double jumping, sliding and wall-running to your heart’s content. There’s a skill curve to the movement, too, as you learn how to avoid awkwardly handing off ledges and internalise the exact range of your grappling hook.
Although, and this is something I’m not wild about, the exact range of your grappling hook can be extended using Glyphs. You apply these outside of the game, using a currency that can only be earned through playing. They’re tiddly numbers - an extra 2% grappling speed here, a -3% dodge energy cost there - but they do add up, and going into a battle royale where some players have a slight edge doesn’t sit right with me. In fairness, I do forget Glyphs exist most of the time, but they bother me when I think about them. I’m not convinced the (admittedly present) satisfaction inherent to making a number go up justifies sullying an otherwise even playing field.
It’s forgivable, or at least forget-about-able. I may not be a fan of meta-game numberwang, but I do like the ideas sprinkled across the arena itself. You can find “Soul Jades” which buff your attack, health or defense, alongside rarer and more interesting ones that change how your weapons behave. Those add variety to an already broad moveset, letting you, say, fire off two spectral slashes with a charged-up longsword attack, change up the third strike in a katana combo, or make your cannon shots bouncy. It’s nice to have something significant to hunt for that isn’t just a stat buff, and they mean I have to put thought into my loadout rather than just grabbing whatever’s shiniest.
Then there was the time I found a derelict waterwheel, accidentally fired a cannon shot at it, then watched it storm down a valley and crush my last remaining opponent. It’s the only environmental hazard I’ve seen so far, but it’s a corker.
I’m looking forward to more surprises, which isn’t as banal a statement as it sounds: it means I’m going to keep playing once I’m done with this review, which is pretty much the best praise a game can get. I want to be WeebPeepoClown, except also maybe not exactly like WeebPeepoClown. On a hunch I just checked the leaderboard, and it turns out he’s the 47th best player in the world. Lord knows what he was doing in one of my matches, but I’m glad he was there to show me the path to greatness. The combat’s frustrations can be overcome, though it’s a learning curve not everyone will want to scale - even if they can do that as an acrobatic warrior with a grappling hook.