Ever fancied going toe-to-toe with your best mate in a duel that requires precise timing, a keen eye for reading your opponent's strategy, and a hell of a lot of sword swishing? Blade Symphony forges elements from hack n' slash and beat 'em ups into a promising game with an edge of sharp originality. Choose from three fighters and a selection of blades (and cardboard tubes) and delve into this third-person online dueller, available now through Steam's Early Access.
The majority of gameplay takes place in duel servers, where you can engage in 1v1, 2v2 or, if you're feeling cocky, 2v1 duels, though 1v1 is certainly the focus. As stated, the game is third-person - the camera follows your mouse, aligned with the aim of your blade. You click to attack and move through 3D environments with the WASD keys, meaning the game feels more like a hack n' slash than a traditional brawler. Think Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Rather than a crosshair, the trajectory of your next attack is projected before you in blue lines, giving some sense of planning and the chance to intentionally exploit the holes in your enemy's defence. The game mechanics are fairly concise - apart from a few gimmicks such as throwing stars and wall-running, there's one button to attack and only the ability to dash or jump to aid your movement. Attacks can also be charged for extra damage, leaving you vulnerable in the meantime.
The three fighters available to you are the Judgement, Phalanx and Ryoka. The Judgement, an armoured-samurai looking fighter, specialises in the heavy stance and is able to take and deal damage in equal large amounts; the Phalanx takes on the appearance of a sci-fi fencer with a fighting style to match, using long-reaching forward-attack combos to keep the enemy at bay; the Ryoka, described in the trailer as a 'Yakuza break-dancer', uses quick, long and unpredictable combos at short range. And yes, he break-dances, making him my favourite. Think Mugen from Samurai Champloo.
There's a large selection of swords to be unlocked using 'Notes' - gained by participating in online duels. But for the sake of balance, all unlocks are cosmetic only and each player starts with one of each sword type: the Katana, which deals the best side-attack damage; the Jian, which is quick and can exploit gaps in the opponent's attack that other swords can't; the Scimitar, which deals less damage but has the most multi-hits, making it a good choice for the long combos of the Ryoka; and the Foil, which delivers no multi-hits but has the most thrusting damage and can recover from parries the fastest.
Blade Symphony encourages thoughtful combat; your enemy's attack range, their speed, their current battle stance and the type of sword they're using are all things to be taken into account if you want to best them. Battles are often varied, as it's impossible to predict your opponent's strategy before you've felt them out a little. You have to fight on your toes, and a stubbornness to change your own style will only see you frustrated. Frequently did I find myself on a winning streak using a certain style - for instance, as the Ryoka using a Katana, fighting in the fast stance while blitzing side-attacks - only to see that run come to an utterly crushing and disappointing end against better fighters.
Yes, you have to fight on your toes. But more importantly, you have to keep your opponent on theirs. You can't change your fighter or their blade during a duel, so the best way of mixing it up against a winning opponent is by switching your stance. There are three: fast, balanced, and heavy. Each have their own combo and you can move through them by simply scrolling with your mouse, mixing up play in an instant; take things a step further, and try switching mid-combo.
You may find yourself in a scenario where you need to take on an enemy as the Ryoka in the balanced stance, but know that on your third hit you'll launch them into the air when it's more advantageous to keep them on the ground. Switching to fast stance after two hits in balanced will bypass the launch attack and instead let you hit them three or four more times with a longer combo. Many players like to fight by charging up vicious heavy attacks with the Judgement, but are easily dealt with by staying out their way until they've struck and then dashing in while they recover. I sometimes came across a more accomplished dueller who would bait me into dashing at them while moving into fast stance and exploiting my attack. It's this potential for thoughtful combat that makes Blade Symphony a rare breed - it's a fighter of strategy and patience.
There's the unusual addition of a free-for-all sandbox mode, a feature that might easily become redundant in a game with so much focus on 1v1 duels, yet it was here that I most encountered the highlight of my experience with Blade Symphony. The online community, although small due to the game still being in beta, is astonishingly friendly. Everyone gives a little bow before they fight and takes the time to type 'gf' into the chat box whether they win or lose. In free-for-alls, I took place in games of hide and seek, races and ten-player tournaments, all arranged by the players themselves, none of them interrupted by trolls. It seems minor, but for a game in which multiplayer interaction is so important, a decent online community is a valuable asset.
All in all, Blade Symphony is shaping up very nicely indeed. It suffers from a few choppy animations that will hopefully be smoothed out by the time the full game reaches us, and could perhaps do with more content - another fighter or two, maybe some more sword types (I've heard they plan to include a Longsword in a patch soon). But it definitely has my attention, as I'm sure it will for all who play the beta.