If you can't be famous, you can at least be infamous. Scarlet Blade is pretty much proof that while sex doesn't necessarily sell, it certainly gets attention. It's one of the most famous MMOs that pretty much nobody will admit to having played, which shuts down this month with rather less bang than whimper. Essentially, and by publisher Aeria's own admission, it just isn't worth updating any more, a botched patch has meant a lack of updates, and ultimately players have been asked to go find new adventure and shinier boobs elsewhere. Truly, the end of an era, and by that I mean of course, not.
Despite this, I thought I'd at least take a couple of minutes to play devil's advocate for the silly thing, and ponder its place in MMO history. In case you don't know, it's the Western version of a game called Queen's Blade - which I thought was based on the anime, but looking around it appears not. Scarlet Blade though is more like Richard Garriott's failed Tabula Rasa, only bouncier, being set in a post-apocalyptic world where aliens have trashed everything and only super-powerful, mostly female clones called Arkana can go out and save the day. If they succeed, they'll gain a place in the new world along with humanity, and perhaps even be allowed to wear shirts. Yes, it's Scarlet Blade, or to give it its other names, Everbreast, World of Phwoarcraft, Some Tail In The Desert, Asheron's Bootycall, Meridian 69, The Secretion World, Waifu, AIKA Virgin Online, Pirates Of The Burning Crotch and Virginity Of The Avatar: Forsaken Virtues.
Sigh. And to think we once laughed at Firiona Vie for always forgetting her coat.
It's eye-rolling stuff. Every character class is some kind of fetish, like the Lolicon healer and the self-descriptive Whipper. Mechs have jiggle-physics. You start the game running around in little more than a leotard with an incredibly painful wedgie, and the first armour upgrade you get? Gloves. Of course it is. The one thing the game won't let you do is strip entirely naked and run around, because - seriously - that's an item it sells in the shop. It's called a "Lingerie Unsealer". So, does that mean that the characters in this game have never, ever been able to take their pants off? Dear god that must smell fouler than any noxious alien goo. Even the two sides that you can choose to join are basically the Republic of T and Hegemony of A, represented by two Arkana facing different directions with big transparent or absent panels to show off the goodies. Scarlet Blade is shameless. But at least even-handed about it, I guess.
And yet, here's the thing. It's not a game I've ever had any interest in playing for more than a couple of hours, driven entirely by morbid curiosity. It is though pretty much the only MMO of its era to stand behind its sexy adverts and be the game it promised to be. It actually dates from a bit after Evony and its infamous adverts, with increasingly naked ladies fronting a truly tedious build-em-up game, but it is from the era where damn near every gaming webpage was typically surrounded with adverts for games like Wartune ("MALE GAMERS ONLY! ONCE YOU'RE INSIDE YOUR FRIENDS WON'T BE SEEING MUCH OF YOU!" "You Deserve An Orgy Today!" "Your Body Is My Party Let's Get Started") or Pirates: Tides Of Fortune ("Banned in 12 Countries!") or... well, you'll have seen plenty. They've hardly vanished in recent years, though they don't show up with quite such tedious inevitability on every website, with the main difference being how much money companies are now paying to advertise - be it Game of War flying the flag, or worse, James bloody Corden drivelling on the cinema screen.
At least he's not dressed as a skimpy elf maiden of any kind.
What they all have in common is that if you clicked on the link, all you were going to find was some bland Korean isometric game, probably cloned from a kit or running in about fifteen different versions around the web, quite often with lots of stolen assets and absolutely nothing sexy or remotely sexual. Wartune even got censured by the ESRB for slapping Adults Only logo on the game, which of course it didn't actually have. And obviously, there are reasons for this. If you actually make a game like that, you get to target a tiny slice of the market. Much better to create something blander, which can be sold to different market segments without really cutting anyone out. Maybe the person expecting porn will stick around a while in the hope of it showing up, or maybe they'll bounce right off, but at least they answered what's known as the 'Call To Action' and interacted directly with the game. At the same time, someone who clicks on some other version of the sell, like "Click Here For The Dullest Game You've Ever Played (It Might Have Morrowind Music In It)" isn't going to suddenly scream or melt like the Nazis at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the sight of a screen full of boobies.
Scarlet Blade though? If you wanted smut, boy, did it deliver. This? Just a log-in screen. Somewhat depressingly, the security is better than most bank accounts.
The surprising thing is that once into the game, it turns out to be almost fun. Not so much for the MMO itself. The game is a stock Korean MMO with flashy but not very satisfying combat. But the writing is actually quite funny. I've always felt that if a game's going to be trashy, its best bet is to embrace that and roll with it, rather than doing what the likes of (rolls dice) Tera do, and hand out the insane costumes while taking everything seriously. Scarlet Blade doesn't take itself even a little bit seriously. One of its gimmicks for instance is that you're not actually your character, but her commander (or 'his' commander in the case of the Cyberblade class, but let's face it, nobody's playing Scarlet Blade for THAT option) sitting safely in an underground base. The Arkana is the one who actually talks to people and reports back on what she's doing, as well as generally chit-chatting about the current mission. Including a lot of pointed comments about being "here, in harm's way, while you sit and watch me prance around in skimpy outfits from the comfort of your armchair." Later, a pet robot has amongst its random barks "Arkana, have you ever thought about pants?"
Subtle it is not. This is a game where an early tutorial vendor asks "How was your first time? It can be a bit painful at first, but once you get the hang of it you'll find it really enjoyable!" A talking plant speaks in rhyme. I quote. "The sky turned red. The caustic wind blew. Alas, I was deflowered. How I wish it had been you."
It's terrible stuff. Of course it's terrible. But at least it tries, and tries to make the missions a little more than the 'kill X whatevers' that they clearly are - in this case X whatevers who almost never get to attack first. The intro chain for instance is about dealing with a saboteur who you accidentally help out, before a whole series of tasks involving one of your Arkana's old friends from before you were paired up together.
I don't know how long it continues in this style, my Korean MMO tolerance not being too high regardless of the wrapping, but at least up to the point that I quit to go and scrub away the shame with a metal brush, the highlight was definitely the writing and the fact that someone other than the artists was having fun with this ridiculous world. Personally speaking, the games that tend to bug me with sexual content are the ones that tip-toe around, that stick bikini armour into a supposedly realistic setting, that kind of thing. It's why I had a great time with Bayonetta, but get cross with Kojima when he sticks his hands into his pants and produces a character like Quiet, or the Beauty And The Beast Corps. Own your sleaze, basically. It's no guarantee it won't be offensive for other ways, obviously, and Scarlet Blade may well become so at some point - in particular, a mini-game is about unlocking sexy jigsaws that start out pretty tame but more graphic over time - but at least stand behind it and have some self-awareness about it.
I wouldn't have played this game for more than five minutes for the character models, no matter how bouncy, but with the jokes and the moments where eye-rolls turned into a laugh, I at least got a few hours of "Oh good god..." amusemement out of it that I think it deserved. It's not a good game, but it had more moments than it really should have had. Every now and again it even landed an interesting moment of darker tone or interesting twist, like the spooky doll children delivering lines like "What a pretty face. I wish I could cut it off and sew it on a doll..." that suddenly recasts all the fan-service as merely a mirror of society; a great philosophical point about death and rebirth. "Mind control is nothing short of rape," comments your Arkana. "Forcing someone to do something they otherwise wouldn't... it's like stealing their soul."
And then you remember who dresses them and who commands them, and in a moment of self-realisation, you feel ashamed of your words and deeds.
No, wait. The other thing. Ride a bike by presenting like a horny baboon.
If it wasn't for the writing, I doubt I'd have any soft spot for this game whatsoever. It's trash, in a genre with no shortage of trash. But at least to the point that I played, it was innocently naughty trash that at least had enough self-awareness to have some fun with that fact - and after all the games it followed, there is actually some honour in going all out to provide it. Some. A little. It's no great loss to gaming to see it shut down, but at least a little of that sense of humour and amusement deserves to stick around when it's inevitably looked back on with a sneer, a shudder, and nothing but the character art and somewhat unfortunate banner adverts left for context.
That said, if anyone's working on a spiritual successor... thanks, but we're good.