"Head outside of a town and itís more of the same, with green plains stretching as far as you can see toward featureless hills broken up only by the occasional tree or stone walkway. Thereís also plenty of mist, and youíll see enemies patrolling. There arenít random battles in Blade Dancer, just scripted events and other confrontations that you can often avoid simply by running from floating enemy icons (sometimes theyíll even run from you if theyíre particularly week)."
I really like what Blade Dancer is trying to do, but itís not successful. At least, itís not on a consistent basis, which many who play it will agree amounts to the same thing. There are definitely some great ideas, but theyíre either marred by questionable execution, or they just never really take off in the first place. The end result, while playable and occasionally fun, is difficult to recommend to anyone but the most ardent of genre fans.
The game opens with promise, as a young hero lands on the shore of a distant land with his companion, a loveable rodent who looks like a mouse but isnít quite. Youíve seen the same sort of creature in Lunar and its clones, so you shouldnít be surprised to see it all over again in Blade Dancer. Nor should you be surprised by later plot developments, which include monsters rampaging through forests that were formerly peaceful, dark towers, an ancient evil that is now awakening from its slumber, and so forth. The heroes and plot are generic and the world is too, but that didnít bother me. What bothered me was the gameplay.
In Blade Dancer, you donít just examine items. You first must press the Ďsquareí button to target the object with which you wish to interact and then you can press ĎXí to do so. This is true whether youíre right next to it on the screen or inches away, and it doesnít seem to have any valuable purpose. I could understand it if you had to choose between targets in an active combat system or something, but you donít. For no reason I can see, the developers just want you to press an extra button. Sometimes this is frustrating, when youíre facing the screen where you know a door is but you canít open it to exit until you rotate the camera around so that you can target it first. Sometimes itís silly, like when you run toward a building, target the door and open it before you even get within range for your character to touch it.
Of course, itís not like thereís ever an Ďopen the doorí animation, anyway. Instead, things fade out to a load screen, which lasts several seconds before you appear in the next room. Sometimes it feels like it was worth it when you wander into a shop and there are barrels and trinkets littering the room, with nice textures and maybe a staircase winding up to rooms above. "Hmm," you tell yourself, "they really wanted to make sure these environments look good." Thatís not always the case, though. Head back outside such buildings and youíll be struck immediately by the contrast. Towns stretch around you, vast arenas that repeat only a texture or two and look barren, except for a few people who stand around. Thereís no sense of a milling crowd or that these places are even real, which is a disappointment when they take so darn to load.
Head outside of a town and itís more of the same, with green plains stretching as far as you can see toward featureless hills broken up only by the occasional tree or stone walkway. Thereís also plenty of mist, and youíll see enemies patrolling. There arenít random battles in Blade Dancer, just scripted events and other confrontations that you can often avoid simply by running from floating enemy icons (sometimes theyíll even run from you if theyíre particularly week). Thatís a nice touch, but load screens between small overworld segments are not. Again, I could understand it if there was a lot of eye candy, but there just isnít.
When you get to battles, that changes at least somewhat. I was mostly happy with enemy encounters because there are good monster animations. When a monster decides itís going to attack with a charged move, you know itíll happen and you can even interrupt it. Text alerts you and besides that, you can see the magic gathering around your enemyís form. Everyone moves fluidly, both your heroes and the monsters they fight.
Not only does everyone move as if alive, but so do the battles. Though there are menus across the screen that might make you think the game is strictly turn-based, itís really not. Meters fill and you canít attack until theyíve done so completely. Each character in your party has the same thing going, and you have to keep on top of things or youíll be sitting around like an idiot when you could be dispatching of your aggressive enemies. There are times when youíll be mashing buttons anxiously, wishing you could attack, but they occur less frequently as the number of party members swells beyond one single participant to a team of four.
Besides promoting prompt action, the battles also force you to manage your skills. When you deal out damage or are struck by an enemy, a meter at the top of the screen fills. As it does, youíll find special attacks available to you for the duration of that battle. One guy might use his powers to heal and another might cast a fire spell that will torch rampaging plant life. I like this because you have to adopt a strategy that will allow you to survive until your true power kicks in. Then after the fight, you donít have to worry about using items to restore your magic meter because outside of fights, you donít have one. However, that thoughtful play mechanic is completely nullified by another fact: your weapons break.
Youíve probably played games like Blade Dancer before, where you pick up a killer sword and you know you can only use it about 50 times before you have to buy or find another one. If so, you already know whether you like that concept or donít. Me, I donít care for it. I donít like going into a fight with a powerful sword and fearing that itíll break and leave me to select a lesser weapon from my inventory (or worse, that Iíll have stupidly forgotten to stock up in the most recent town). This is supposed to be a positive element of the game. Youíre supposed to appreciate that you canít rely on your blades or claws or spears or whatever.
However, there are a few reasons why you wonít. The most obvious is that it takes a lot of money to replace something that has shattered in your hand. Youíll have to fight a ton of monsters (using cheap and weak weapons the whole time) before itíll be feasible to do so. This is intentional. The developers want you to take the alternate route, which unfortunately is every bit as irritating. You see, youíre an alchemist. When you pick up items from battle, you collect them and once you have the appropriate recipes, you can sometimes combine them to craft new items. So when you find that sword in the treasure chest, donít equip it. Instead, run back to town and talk to the appraiser, who will give you the recipe for a fee. Then use alchemy to create all the swords you wantÖ so long as you have all the right parts. Of course, you wonít have those unless you have money to buy them and the patience to run around to a few shops as load screens assault you. Worse, some alchemy attempts fail and you lose one of the items that was tossed into the cauldron. Do you see the problem here?
Iím not done, though. I still havenít addressed the gameís difficulty, which is more extreme than Iím used to from role-playing games. If you want to get through the first dungeon, itíll take you hours of building up your experience by fighting monsters, then repeatedly going back to the previous village to get the recipes for new weapons. Youíll fight tons of monsters and break quite a few blades before you finally grow strong enough to stand a chance against later monsters, at which point you repeat the process all over again.
Certainly, there are some who will relish the challenge. If nothing else, Blade Dancer will last you a long while just because of how relentless it is, because you have to become so completely absorbed in order to succeed. The problem is that doing so isnít particularly fun. Sure, there are those battles where youíre caught up in the moment, struggling to survive but loving every exhilarating moment. After that, though, thereís still the rest of the game to play. Most people will choose to pass.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (August 15, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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