Blade Master – Prelude to Destruction Review: Whet your blades in this Action RPG

South Korean developer Minoraxis recently released Blade Master: Prelude to Destruction to the App Store, easily their most ambitious iPhone title to date. On first impression, the game struck me as being very similar to GameVil’s Hybrid Eternal Whisper. On closer inspection, however, I found this impression to be somewhat off the mark.

Blade Master is a side-scrolling Action RPG. The story is the typical RPG fare, somewhat convoluted in the telling. Calmark, a former knight corrupted by his insatiable lust for power, is a pretty bad guy and wishes to unite the realms beneath his cold, hard fist. On the eve of war, you take the role of Prince Aramis, the youngest son of King Umed of Necken, who sets out to right the world. The game begins by throwing names and events at you, bombarding you with asides from a large cast of characters, and filling in the world’s backstory as necessary via textual narration. It’s a lot to take in, and difficult to connect the many dots. Early on, it’s often difficult to differentiate the important characters from the mundane, or to tie events together in the historical stream, and none of this is helped by the clunky English translation. But if you’ve played any of the many South Korean RPGs in the App Store — Zenonia, Inotia, Guardian Soul, etc. — you should by now be well accustomed to clunky translations. The story attempts to run pretty deep, with an emphasis on character relationships, motivations and subplots. While it’s great to see an RPG coming to the iPhone with such narrative ambitions, the awkward translation and poor pacing of the tale somewhat defuse the drama. Some players will be able to overlook this and probably get into the story, while others will not. And while it’s nice that the story is there, it’s not the story for which you will play this game.

What sets each RPG apart from the others is its game systems, the mechanics upon which the game is founded. Blade Master, like Hybrid Eternal Whisper before it, is heavily focused on action-oriented combat, by which I mean that combat is not menu driven as in many RPGs. Rather, it plays out more like beat’em up titles such as Double Dragon or Golden Axe. But while Hybrid Eternal Whisper was based upon gesture-based maneuvers and stringing attacks into combos, Blade Master’s systems are all about the blades, of which you will have access to three types: daggers, swords and large, two-handed swords called slayers.

Daggers are the weakest of the three weapon types, but also the fastest and allow you to more easily dodge enemy attacks. Swords offer a balance of power and speed, and also have the best accuracy in striking down enemies. Slayers are slow to wield, but strike for immense standard damage and also offer a higher critical hit rate. Success in the game is not won by specializing in any one of these weapon types, but in training with all three and recognizing the appropriate weapon for each situation. There are also quests which will require you to use a particular weapon.

In addition to their standard attack attributes, players will quickly unlock three special attacks for each weapon. The attacks are granted as you increase your Weapon Mastery for each weapon, and by the time you reach level 5 for each — easily within your first hour of play — you will have all of the attacks in the game, albeit at their lowest strength. Using these special attacks consumes mana, and so their use is limited. The two highest level attacks for each weapon also require a recharge period after use, which prevents you from spamming your enemies with powerful techniques. Limiting the usage of your powers in this way balances combat, and forces you to strategize how best to use your resources.

The special attacks also have various attributes which you should be mindful of. For example, the lowest level dagger skill is an ice attack that can damange multiple opponents standing in front of you. The lowest level sword attack is a sonic wave that strikes only a single foe, but which has a penetrating effect on enemies with high defense.

As you fell your opponents, you gather experience points, increasing your overall character strength. By leveling up, you are granted points that can be spent to increase your four base character attributes –strength, dexterity, intelligence and constitution — allowing you to customize your character as a warrior, a magic user, a meat shield or an all-rounder. Using weapons also increases your Weapon Mastery, increasing your battle prowess with each and winning you points that can be spent to strengthen your special attacks.

During combat, you can recharge your mana at any time by holding down the recharge button, but this leaves you vulnerable to attack and will often draw nearby enemies in for the kill. If you can find an open area of the field in which to recharge, though, having a virtually unlimited mana supply is a great benefit.

As you progress through the game, you will discover more powerful versions of each weapons, but will only be allowed to wield them upon reaching an appropriate character level. As you might have guessed, a level 17 Slayer is more powerful than a level 2 Slayer. All blades may be further improved via the process of “intensification”. To intensify a weapon, you must visit a blacksmith with special enchantment stones acquired during play. Weapons also have a limited durability and must be repaired, again via regular visits to the town blacksmiths.

Forward progress in Blade Master is achieved through the completion of quests. There are both main story quests and optional side-quests for which are you are often rewarded in items, intensification stones, money, experience points or a warm fuzzy feeling. Quests often involve fetching items, delivering messages to other towns, defeating monsters and mixing beef cocktails for the senator (huh?). You know, the standard RPG tasks, plus beef cocktails. The menu screen keeps track of your quests for you, marking them by type with icons so that you always know which quest will advance the main story, and which are side-quests.

Similarly to Hybrid Eternal Whisper, Blade Master’s characters are rendered in pixel-based sprites on pixel-drawn environments, and combat occurs on a two-dimensional field allowing four directions of movement: up, down, left and right. Attacks can be made to the left or right against enemies located on the same vertical plane as Aramis. Aside from these basic characteristics, though, Blade Master are Hybrid Eternal Whisper really are very different games, as defined by their underlying systems.

Towns serve as waypoints during your journeys, and are each separated from the next by several fields of combat. On first visit to an area, all enemies must be defeated before you are allowed to progress. Once an area’s monsters have been eradicated, a portal opens allowing you to move on to the next area. On subsequent visits, monsters may be bypassed to expedite travel, or slain for experience and pick-ups. Many areas offer branching paths, though not all branches will be open to you at the game’s start. A mini-map accessible by tapping the upper right portion of your screen can help you to keep track of your path.

Likes:

Systems: As detailed above, Blade Master is built upon the solid RPG foundations of character improvement and customization, and weapon mastery. Combat is well-balanced and forces you to think about how to fight (though not overly much). Character progression is apparent, as foes who once gave you a solid beating will melt away before your blades once you’ve leveled up a bit and bettered your equipment. It’s satisfying to return to previous areas in which you’d struggled, dishing out your vengeance.

Graphics: As pixels and sprites go, Blade Master looks pretty good. Characters are drawn with a fair amount of detail, and the environments are well drawn. The caveat is that animations are skimpy and everything has sort of a generic-fantasy setting feel.

Tips: The game hands out useful information as tips during load screens, which is helpful in learning the rules of play, planning your point distribution at level-up, understanding your weapons and more. While many games do this, I’ve rarely found tips to be as useful as in Blade Master. The tips do an excellent job of educating the player without making them wade through pages of instructions.

Dislikes:

Controls: Blade Master’s controls work, but they don’t feel good. The d-pad is too unresponsive, making it difficult to maneuver with any amount of precision. Being limited to four directions of movement is also frustrating; 360-degrees would be preferrable, but at the very least it would be nice to move diagonally.

Reversing your facing is sometimes difficult, and you will often find yourself hit in the back simply because you were unable to turn around in time to make a preemptive strike. Luckily, being hit in the back turns you around. Still, it would be nice to have an auto-face feature that would cause you to turn and strike an enemy behind you if there were no enemy in front of you. We’ve seen auto-facing put to good use in Zenonia and Inotia 2 to help remediate jinky controls, and it would definitely be welcome here.

Dashing: Aramis walks slowly. Double-tapping the d-pad left or right allows him to dash more hastily, but doing so drains your mana meter. In my own personal experience, running in a straight line has never required that I exert any type of magical force. In this way, the game essentially punishes you for wanting to get a move on. Granted, you can recharge your mana at any time — providing you have an open area of field where monsters won’t abuse you in your vulnerable state — but it becomes frustrating having to pause to recharge when you’re trying to move quickly between key locations to advance the story.

Loading: For every change of area, a load. For every change of scene, a load. And every time your access or exit your inventory, a load. The loads are generally short, and not as obtrusive as in other RPGs I could name, but they’re still tedious. I can easily accept the loads between areas, but the inventory loads really break up the action and provide anti-incentive for accessing your menus during combat.

No Weapon Quick-Swap: The inventory loading issue could be very well addressed by the introduction of a quick-swap system for weapons. As it stands, to change weapons you must open your inventory and navigate the clunky menus to change equipment. If you’ve played Zenonia, expect a similarly abysmal inventory management experience. Because of the game’s emphasis on utilizing the three different types of weapons, however, I think it’s unacceptable that you must struggle so much to equip them. There should be a way of equipping your preferred blades for each weapon type, then hot-swapping them during combat using a button or swipe gestures. Being able to quickly change weapons during the action, without the clunky inventory menus and without the loading pauses, would be a major improvement to the game. Let’s hope Minoraxis might address this in an update.

Performance: Blade Master has a pretty low frame-rate, which hurts it in several ways. Characters do not animate smoothly, and movement feels somewhat sluggish. I think characters need more frames of animation, and I think the game needs to push frames a little faster so it all feels less stiff. The recently released Inotia 2 handled this very nicely for those characters which actually move, and should be a reference point for Minoraxis’ animation department.

I’ve also experienced several crashes, and the game sometimes loads up without backgrounds or sound — just blackness with character and enemy sprites. This has happened to me twice, and was solved by restarting the game. Version 1.0 crashed frequently on my iPhone 3G; the 1.0.1 update mostly fixes this, though it has crashed on me a few times since the update. Make a point to save your progress often.

Backtracking: You will often find yourself retreading familiar ground, whether to fulfill side-quests or because the main story requires that you revisit towns for events. The backtracking becomes needlessly tedious due to the aforementioned loads and the restrictions placed on dashing. While I don’t expect to see backtracking reduced in an update, I should think Minoraxis could very easily retool the dashing to alleviate the tedium.

There is one way of getting around the backtracking, though, and that’s by purchasing portal stones in the item shop, or finding them as monster drops. Portal stones allow you to teleport back to a specific town.

Music: Musically, Blade Master fumbles the same as nearly every other Korean RPG we’ve seen. Generic and uninspired tunes delivered in short, repetitive loops are the order of the day in Blade Master.

In addition to the main game mode, Blade Master also includes a dice-rolling mini-game, like a single-player board game. Each turn, you roll the dice to advance your character. You have a limited number of hit points to reach the end of the board, with points being spent for each dice roll. As you land on the spaces of the board, events may occur such as picking up treasure, being attacked by monsters, or other random events that may help or hinder your progress. Rewards won in the mini-game are carried over to your character in the main game, though rewards are lost if you fail to complete the board. The mini-game lacks depth and wouldn’t stand up on its own as an app, but provides a nice distraction and makes is a welcome addition to the package.

Despite the long list of dislikes above, Blade Master offers a pretty solid gameplay experience. For those who like the idea of Hybrid Eternal Whisper, but might have been turned off by the complexity and the required precision of its timing-based combo system, Blade Master may be the alternative you’ve been wanting. It plays like a deeper version of Sega’s original Golden Axe. On the surface, the button-mashing combat is very accessible; for those who want depth in their RPG experience, however, the systems underlying the combat provide it. The game’s narrative ambitions are admirable, if shaky, and it’s a game that I’ve been really enjoying, its shortcomings notwithstanding.

Blade Master is not the App Store’s next killer RPG; it just doesn’t have the polish necessary to reach such lofty heights. But there’s depth to be found, a lengthy quest to be had, and it nails the RPG bases. It has problems, but none of them damning and it’s a game I mean to keep playing for some time to come. Definitely worth a look for RPG fans; not so much for casual gamers or first-time RPG buyers. The game is presently at a 40% discount until the next update.

Blade Master: Prelude to Destruction is developed by Minoraxis, and is currently on sale at 40% discount for $2.99.

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