Good Old Reviews – Blade of Darkness

Editor’s Note: This article also appears on The Escapist.

I like my fantasy bloody. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly love the occasional Tolkien-esque tale of high fantasy, but at the end of the day, if I’m given the choice, I’m a lot more likely to re-read my Conan the Barbarian collections than I am to delve back into my hardcover of The Lord of the Rings. There’s something about that kind of story -steeped in grim and sleazy brutality- that I find appealing. Who knows? Maybe in a past life I was a barbarian warrior who slew my way to fame and fortune. Granted, it’s probably more likely that I’m just a late-20s nerd trying to vicariously experience things I’d probably faint at in real life, but who’s to say I can’t dream?

If there’s one area of my life that I can say my taste for gritty fantasy has absolutely bled into, it’s video games. Dragon Age: Origins, Mount & Blade, Dark Souls; my favorites list of the past few years has been dominated by titles that give me the chance to join in on all the medieval horribleness that makes Game of Thrones so damn much fun. I was delighted, in turn, to discover that Blade of Darkness fits in with that crowd as perfectly as a dagger in the ribs of a rival lord.

Originally released in 2001, it sets players on a quest to thwart an evil necromancer and defeat an ultimate evil that can only be stopped by wielding a magical sword powered by six hidden runes. In other words, it’s a fantasy game. You’re the hero up against all odds and fighting a dark force threatening to overtake the world. It’s standard fare but it works, in no small part because the game manages to paint a world that feels genuinely dangerous and oppressive. Environments are commonly dark and shadowy; your only company being your enemies and the scattered remains of those that came and failed before you. Most tellingly about its tone, you yourself are not a force of nature. At best, you’re a capable fighter. At worst, you’re merely a man (or woman) who’s vulnerable to traps, monsters and the bloody bite of sharpened steel.

It’s to the game’s credit that it makes this experience a fun one. While the control scheme definitely takes a bit of getting used to and I never stopped wishing for dedicated strafing buttons (you have to lock on to an enemy to sidestep), it manages to strike a really fine balance between making you feel like you stand a chance while still driving home the fact that you’re completely and utterly out of your depth. It does this by giving practically every enemy in the game, a base level of lethality. There are opponents that you’ll be able to swat down with a single blow. Make a wrong move or let that same enemy get the jump on you, however, and you’ll find that even the weakest Orc is more than capable of eating away a valuable chunk of your health.

Health that you’re going to need because, for every piece of cannon (sword?) fodder that you face, there’s something far deadlier waiting around the next corner to give you a proper fight. The game’s more substantial enemies will often force you into tense bouts where you’ll have to dodge, block and actually pay attention to what you’re doing beyond just hammering the left mouse key until they die. These fights were definitely the game’s highlight for me. There isn’t anything quite like that sense of dreadful anticipation when you turn a corner and stumble onto a foe that you know can take you down. Blade of Darkness delivers those sorts of fights in spades.

It likewise does a great job of giving you the tools you need to deal with them. In the hours I spent working my way through the game, I never found myself succumbing to the frustration that comes when a game tries to be harder by being unfair. Much to the contrary, I was impressed by all the ways Blade of Darkness works to give the player options to help them overcome. When the game begins, for instance, you’re given a choice between four protagonists: an aging knight, a barbarian, a dwarf and an Amazonian warrior. Each of the four comes with its own set of stats and a weapon specialty that offers a variety of different fighting styles for the player to pursue. An aggressive, on-the-move player might be better suited to the more mobile technique of the Barbarian. Defensive players (like myself), meanwhile, might have a better time with the Dwarf or the Knight who specialize in the good old sword and board.

Adding to these options is a vast catalog of weapons, each with its own unique stats and move set that allows you to perform different attacks tied to the movement keys. Now, of course, at the end of the day of you’re probably going to just go with the weapon that’s the strongest. Odin knows that I did. Even so, it was sometime nice to have options and, moreover, the variety offered by the game’s arsenal creates opportunities for experimentation that can sometimes mean the difference between victory and defeat.

In one early boss fight, for example, my foe had a thick shield that was deflecting all of my blows, giving him all the time he needed to chop me into little bits with his big honking sword. Dying repeatedly and not sure what to do, I tried switching between weapons, finally settling on the mace I’d ignored earlier because it dropped my defense 35 points. The upside to that was that it doled out a ton of damage in exchange, which I was able to use to shatter the baddie’s shield and get inside his defenses. It was a satisfying win that I owe entirely to the fact that I was forced to do just one thing and one thing only.

Coming down to the long and short, Blade of Darkness is a bloody, brutal and absolutely entertaining action game. I had never heard of it before stumbling onto it in GOG’s catalog, but, now that I’ve spent time with it, I can safely say that’s it one of the most solid action titles I’ve played in a long time. It’s easily a good as other games in the same vein, and it’s honestly a bit of a steal for just $5.99. If you like games with a focus on hacking evil monsters apart with medieval weaponry, buy Blade of Darkness. It won’t disappoint.

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