With a touted playerbase of over 80 million in China, it should be safe to assume that Swordsman Online is Perfect World’s flagship title this year. Based on Louis Cha’s The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, the game certainly has a strong IP to rely on – think of Cha as China’s Tolkien, except he’s still alive.
Swordsman Online is pretty faithful to the IP. You get to meet giant condors and fall into mysterious caves that somehow hide all the best sword techniques and a bunch of other interesting nods to the story. This works both for and against the game. On one hand, it’s a very rich story with lots of background behind the different factions and fighting styles. On the other, it means the main character is Linhu Tsong. Don’t expect much character development for your PC.
Visually the game is a treat. Colors are vivid, period Chinese architecture and costumes abound – probably shinier than historically accurate, but that just contributes to the stylized art direction. It makes for some picturesque scenes.
Swordsman has the full suite of modern game effects too – fancy lighting and textures, flowing hair and… jiggle physics. The basics might not be as complete though. While player characters are very detailed, NPCs suffer from a lack of variety, and many times you’ll find yourself fighting an army of clones. Animations are also not too smooth, with some whip attacks looking unusually stiff for example. Of course, the over-the-top visual effects might help in distracting the eye from that.
On to the game itself, it’s Perfect World, and has just about all the hallmarks of a Perfect World game:
- Themepark-ish, autopathed quests? Check.
- Very fast low levels? Check
- Lots of weak mobs to kill? Check.
- Over the top AoEs? Check.
- Even more over the top super moves? Check.
- Awkward localization? Weeeell it’s getting better. There’s no major spelling or grammatical errors, but the game’s choice of words don’t quite seem to fit sometimes, like what’s a “Preping Disciple”? Also, why is my companion called “Youngster” instead of something more thematically appropriate for the setting like “Pupil” or “Student”, or if they really want to convey youth, “Youth”?
There are a few standout features though. For one, players get to choose from three control schemes. Classic, Traditional 3D, and Action. Traditional 3D would be the average Tab-target system, while Action creates a reticle on the screen so that you auto-target whatever is closest to it. Classic seems to be War of the Immortals-style click to move. It’s an interesting way of catering to different preferences, but it also means some aspects of the game may not feel right for a control scheme.
Taking Action mode for example, it’s designed for minimal use of the mouse cursor, since the mouse is supposed to move the camera in Action mode, like a Third-Person Shooter. However, with some quest objects perched on walls and autopathing requiring a click in the quest window, it becomes necessary to switch between cursor and target mode a lot, and this happens because the game was designed from the ground up for mouse usage. That said, it’s arguably novel enough that they’re offering an Action mode in the first place.
Another interesting feature is the ability to customize your fighting style. Characters learn three fighting styles unique to their class. One upon advancing to a class, another at level 20 and a third at level 40. However, each style is limited to six to ten abilities, depending on level – one basic attack and five to nine Chi-consuming abilities with cooldowns. The biggest thing though, is that apart from the vanilla styles, you get to mix and match your own palette of abilities.
Of course, this isn’t a unique feature – games like The Secret World and Guild Wars have the same concept of “many abilities, limited active palette”. However, they number in the minority and they’re even rarer when talking about Asian games with (pseudo) action combat. Perhaps this is due to Perfect World’s unique status as a highly integrated publisher with MMO development studios on both sides of the Pacific. Neverwinter went to China within a year, and now, the 2013 Swordsman has reached Western markets in a year too. In the meantime, other studios are still plodding along with localizing their flagship titles.
The skill palettes lend themselves well to strategic gameplay – it gets very rewarding to plan out a set of skills that work well for a given purpose, whether open world AoE farming, PvP ganking – yes, there is open world PvP, or a combination of AoE, healing and safe single target attacks for instances. However, at a tactical level, the controls may not be very responsive at times. Rubberbanding sometimes happens, cooldowns can be long and there’s no skill chaining system so there’s not much in the way of maintaining momentum outside of short attack strings.
While open world questing is easy, or even a mindless grind, instances provide a bit more challenge. Taking the second dungeon for instance, enemies use a variety of tactics, including throwing delayed explosion bombs and using telegraphed forward charge attacks. That’s where customizing a good palette for the instance comes in.
The game picks up after level 32. That’s after the second fighting style unlock at level 20, and the second level of dungeons become available. Level 32 to 35 is a fairly good indicator of whether to stick with the rest of the game.
In all, Swordsman Online is no AAA title, but it has enough merits to stand on its own in the West as a niche game. Fans of wuxia, hack n’ slash and open world PvP should feel right at home with Swordsman, and it certainly tries to cater to as many preferences as possible with selectable control schemes and fighting style customization. The game also doesn’t look half bad, but some areas need polish, especially with awkward translations, stiff looking animations and some rubberbanding issues.