Blade of Darkness Review (PC Version)

by Gwynhala




Rebel Act Studios






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My first impression of Rebel Act Studios’ Blade of Darkness action / role playing game was not good. Playing through the tutorial level, I was bothered by the poor tracking of the 3rd person camera, and by the way my character waddled as he ran. A big fan of the 3rd person view, I missed the much better controls and camera tracking of Heretic II (Raven Software) and Rune (Human Head Studios).


NOTE: The version 1.01 patch released in May, 2001 fixes some of the camera control issues.


Despite such basic control and animation flaws, Blade of Darkness did not disappoint overall. Deeper in the game I found beautiful sound, animation, architecture, and lighting – almost good enough to immerse me and make me forget about the awkward mechanics. Melee combat with this game’s great variety of weapons was entertaining, and it’s the first game that’s actually given me vertigo looking down a virtual chasm.



In Blade of Darkness you begin by choosing a character – a barbarian, a dwarf, an amazon, or a knight. Each of the four character classes begins with a different background storyline, and starts the game playing a unique map. The rest of the maps are the same for all classes, but the story branches and often allows you to select from several maps to play next. There are at least two endings, depending on whether or not you’ve found certain secrets.


Whichever character you pick, you eventually get mixed up in thwarting an evil god’s plan to take over the universe. The storyline isn’t all explained up front; you discover it gradually through secret texts and runes you find in roughly 18 different areas of the game.


I found the secret texts somewhat pretentious and incoherent. They spell out a Zoroastrian creation legend about gods, treachery, war among gods, good and evil, etc. You don’t need to understand or act on this story to play the game, but you do have to find all of the parts of it in order to meet the final boss. So, the storyline is just kind of there, not really adding a lot to the game other than setting the mood, but at least it doesn’t get in the way.


Blade of Darkness successfully combines elements of console RPGs and 3rd person melee combat games. The deathmatch is rudimentary (no arena or team game modes) but fun, and the single-player game is pretty good.

Controls and Combat

The game gives you two basic control modes – normal movement and “locked on” melee movement. Normal movement lets you move and look around freely; use this mode to explore levels and to retreat from enemies. Melee movement, invoked either automatically or by pressing a bound key, locks you onto a specific enemy. In melee mode you can move toward that enemy, or away from that enemy, or circle the enemy using the strafe keys, but you can’t turn away. This “lock on” takes some getting used to – you may want to retreat to a more strategic position, but find yourself charging to your death instead. Other quirks of the controls include the need to “double click” your movement button or key (instead of, for example, pressing SHIFT) to run, and the mouse speed (I couldn’t find any really comfortable setting, but got used to it over time).


The fighting controls are about as complex as those of any arcade-style martial arts game. The attack button plus optional movement keys give you basic attacks. If the first attack hits, pressing the correct extra keys starts a powerful combo attack. Typically 2-3 keys at a time must be pressed, in sequences of 2-3 steps, for a combo. Each attack drains energy from your energy bar, which recharges during defense or rest. If the energy bar reaches zero, you’re momentarily defenseless. You’ll learn quickly to pace and aim your attacks, rather than slashing madly. Each character class can use class-specific weapons, armor, and attacks as well as general-purpose weapons.


In addition to fighting with melee weapons, you can throw things and shoot arrows. You can control the force of the throw, by pressing one key to charge up the throw gradually, and another key to release the throw. To add to the realism, there’s no crosshair for aiming.

Single Player Game

I played through the single-player game of Blade of Darkness as Zoe, the female warrior. My experience was a mix of great fun and real tedium. The single-player game started out slow and kind of boring, but got progressively better. The last three levels were the most enjoyable, a pretty good sign that the creative team didn’t run out of ideas halfway through.


Most of the fun came from the beautiful level and sound design – the levels are huge and fun to explore. Also, there are so many weapons to find and try out, and each has its own special moves and combos. Each time I found a new weapon, I’d go to a safe spot, play with it for a while, and (because you can only carry a few weapons) decide whether to keep it or discard it.


Most of the tedium came from fighting the monsters. When a pair of 35,000 hit point monsters attack, and you have to kill them both to get to the next part of the game, you spend a lot of time running, hiding, circling, dodging, getting in your attacks, and trying to stay alive. It’s not something I enjoy in games, even though lots of games (RPGs in particular) feature this kind of gameplay. At least in Blade of Darkness the tedium is pretty to watch.


I’d rather solve puzzles. Blade of Darkness has puzzles, but most are “where did they hide X” or “how do I get up there” or my all-time pet peeve, platform jumping. Surviving the onslaught of two 35,000 hit point monsters is more challenging than any of the game’s puzzles – a disappointment to me.


The monster AI is typical for this type of game, meaning, pretty dumb. I found no game difficulty setting in the options menus, to make the monsters smarter, so I’m guessing what I saw is as good as it gets. Monsters don’t appear to coordinate their attacks with each other, using only simple strategies like: (1) occasionally surrounding you; (2) drinking potions to replenish health; (3) switching from bow to melee weapon when closing; (4) running away. Enemies often accidentally kill each other while attacking you in close quarters.


To get experience, go up levels, and move between maps, you have to kill – a lot. You start out a Level 1, and progress up to a level 21 killing machine by the end of the game. Each level increases your attack strength and hit points and energy bar. Since your energy bar determines whether you have enough energy to perform certain attacks, going up levels also means being able to learn new and more powerful attacks.


More than once, when falling off of a cliff in-game, I had the same physical reaction I’d have when falling off a real cliff – cool free-fall at first, then that gut-wrenching sensation that you’re too high up and it’s going to hurt a lot when you hit bottom. I think this is a credit to the engine’s physics and lighting capabilities, that makes a big positive “immersion factor” difference in-game.


Playing as the female character, I noticed some gender inconsistencies in the scripted cinematics and text messages (mostly narrators referring to Zoe as “he” or “him”).


One novel thing about the single-player game, is that it assigns you a rating with several steps between “heroic” and “lame” based on how many times you save during the game. Less saves, more heroic. More saves, more lame.


There’s no general internet server browser in Blade of Darkness, but the game is able to find LAN servers and accept manually entered server IP addresses. At this writing the game isn’t supported by GameSpy 3D™ or GameSpy Arcade™, two popular game server browsers. This makes it relatively difficult to find and set up deathmatch games unless all players are on the same LAN.


Due to the proprietary engine used in Blade of Darkness (which has many great features), there’s no traditional console for changing maps or server options on the fly, like you’d find in games based on Quake™ or Unreal™ technology.


Five small 1-on-1 deathmatch maps are provided. You set up the map list during server configuration, by selecting each map’s icon and pressing ENTER to either add or remove a border around it. Maps without a border on their icon are left out of the rotation.


In deathmatch you can select a level between 1 and 4, and a character class. This determines what weapons you get and what attacks you know. You’re a relatively low-level character and this somewhat limits your combat options. You get a basic attack that can be combined with directional keys, and a special attack and a combo that are the same for each of your weapons.


There’s plenty of blood and gore, including decapitations and severed limbs to pick up and use as weapons. There’s even slow motion multiple dismemberment of the loser of a battle, with limbs and heads flying through the air and realistic blood pools. A gore adjustment option is available to calm the squeamish.


LordRinvaran and I enjoyed playing Blade of Darkness deathmatch on our LAN. It was especially fun to have two different character classes face off, to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, and to watch the various combo moves and try to counter them.


The map graphics in Blade of Darkness range from average to exceptional.


The lighting effects from the proprietary engine are stunning: torchlight casts flickering shadows, water reflections undulate realistically, and the engine creates convincing indoor and outdoor ambience. The game looks great in 16-bit or 32-bit color.


The 3D character and creature models, and their skins, are attractive, some even very good, but not exceptional. Sometimes the poly count seems a little too low, for example – doubtless a necessary performance trade-off, but it detracts from the graphical impression of the game.


Blade of Darkness uses motion-captured animations (meaning a genuine human being or animal did the original movement, and a computer recorded it and applied it to the game’s models), with mixed results. Many of the player and creature combination moves during combat are both graceful and lifelike, while some of the common animations like walking, running, and climbing look awkward and contrived.


Weapon visual effects (like weapon trails showing the path of an attack, weapon strike effects like sparks, and the lighting effects on magical weapons) are nicely done.


Blade of Darkness has decent sound with some real high points. One high point comes later in the game, when you enter a cathedral with beautiful choral ambient sounds. Most levels have moody, well-produced ambient sound and / or music.


The character sound effects are weaker – you get the feeling you’re hearing a few sounds over and over again as you or creatures attack and interact with the environment. Same grunt every time you climb, same yell every time you attack in a certain way.


Some of the sound (and related visual) effects overstay their welcome in other ways. For example, when Zoe dies in a pool of lava, she seems to scream and writhe in pain forever. You might find yourself saying, “OK, I get the point, she died in the lava…lets get on with it.”


The object sound effects are great. One example: Blade of Darkness has one of the best arrow-strike sound effects I’ve heard in any game – really solid and realistic. Falling rocks, rolling boulders, and clanking metal are all believable.


For $30 you get a fun game, lots of weapons to play with, and lots of big monsters to kill. You also get some real sensory delights in the audio and graphics and physics of the game engine (I’m looking forward to other games on this engine so I can get a more complete opinion of its capabilities). All of this should appeal to fans of hack-and-slash RPGs.


If you don’t like to beat on impossibly powerful creatures for long periods of time, or want really challenging puzzles to complement the slaughter, or play a game mostly for its engrossing story line, or hate 3rd person perspective, you probably won’t enjoy Blade of Darkness.


-    Beautiful lighting and particle effects

-    Rich ambient sounds and music

-    Lots of interesting weapons, each with unique attacks

-    Dramatic gore and violence for those that like it


-    Limited deathmatch capability and game configuration options

-    Non-intuitive combat and control system (especially the “lock on” feature)

-    Character animations and sounds not on par with rest of game


An entertaining game built on a promising new engine.
















This review originally ran on 6/12/2001. The site is now offline.