Review: Bleak Sword DX
Earlier this year I was pleased to preview Bleak Sword DX. Now it’s out, I finally got a chance to sit down with the finished game. With a striking aesthetic and dark fantasy vibe, it left a strong impression back then, and I was super eager to see where it went from there. Let’s see how it holds up now.
Bleak Sword DX is a remastered and enhanced version of Bleak Sword for iOS, developed by More8Bit and published by Devolver Digital. It released on June 8, 2023 for PC and Switch. The PC version was played for this review.
A Tale as Old as Time
After praising the game so much in the preview, it feels like a shame to lead off with this, but here goes. The writing here is probably one of the worst I’ve seen from a game of this size; there’s just no other way to put it.
It starts out fairly generic. A benevolent king is overthrown by a prince who’s been corrupted by an evil sword. A young warrior has had visions of three crystals that can destroy the sword and sets out to collect them. Not a bad start necessarily, but far from groundbreaking.
From there the story is told three cutscenes per chapter – once at the start, once before a boss, and once after. Yet for all these scenes they do little to push the plot forward outside of “Oh hey this boss had a crystal.” There’s rarely any dialogue or narration, preferring just to show our hero looking determined for the most part. Things do pick up a little on your way to the final crystal and your showdown with the prince, but not by much.
Then, we hit a point where the story could have ended. It would have been a rather basic ending, but it could have ended there and been perfectly fine. Instead the decision was made to have an extra detail pop out of nowhere and demand three more chapters, culminating in an unsatisfying ending where nothing is resolved.
It feels like this game was written chapter by chapter, without the ability to go back and edit earlier ones. A bit more foreshadowing, a bit more explanation of where we’re going and why, actually resolving things instead of stringing us along, there are so many things that could have been done to salvage this. Instead, the developers seemed to try and limit the wordcount at all costs.
Same as it Ever Was
Bleak Sword DX controls in a way that will be familiar to folks who play retro-style hack and slash games. You’ve got a basic sword slash, dodge roll, block (with a follow-up counter), and a charge attack. A stamina gauge governs all of these. Timely blocks are the key to victory, as not only are counter-attacks powerful, but a successful block recovers all stamina.
It’s not bad per se – a lot of great games run with similar – but it is a bit bare bones. Unlike most of those however, this is a longer title where that’s your kit for the entire game. Level-ups are just stats, and story progress doesn’t give new abilities either (save for one chapter where you ride a horse, but it’s the shortest chapter). Most fights boil down to blocking and countering, except for when something is unblockable, in which case you dodge and strike back.
In addition to the simplistic combat is the level design. Each level is just a square arena where enemies pour in until you’re done. There’s usually some obstacles like pillars or cliff walls, or hazards like water or powerful wind, but it’s not like there’s anything to explore and the layout rarely changed how I approached combat.
The other main note is the difficulty, especially if you’ve been losing XP to dying. Now, I’m no stranger to difficult games, but combined with the rather basic moveset, it’s less difficult and more punishing. Death can come in just a few hits, especially on bosses, but it’s not like I’m approaching a difficult fight any differently on subsequent tries. It’s not like I even can. When I would finally succeed, it was either due to going back and grinding levels, or luck.
The end result is a lengthy title that felt a bit like playing the same stage over and over again. Especially when failing one too many dodges meant having to literally replay stages over and over again. Character development is merely catching up to the enemy stats, and there’s little in the way of true variety. The rare occasion where things truly forced me to change up my tactics were a breath of fresh air, but they were sadly few and far between.
Light in the Darkness
The one area where I absolutely still feel the same hype I did when I first tried the demo is with the presentation. The graphics have this diorama style of 2D sprites within a 3D environment with lighting and particle effects. It’s at once beautiful and unsettling, and it fits oddly well with the dark fantasy vibe.
The music is likewise moody and atmospheric, with an emphasis on strings to evoke a melancholy and old-timey feel before bringing out the drums for the more tense fights. Even at its worst the presentation is nothing to complain about, and at its best is when the game truly feels enjoyable.
More Stone than Crystal
I wanted to like this game so badly. I’ve been a fan of Devolver-published games for a while, and I came away from the preview with high hopes. Unfortunately those expectations did not match my experience playing through Bleak Sword DX for real. For all the intensity the difficulty brought, I nevertheless found myself bored at basically repeating the same thing over and over, and found the story to be an active detriment.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good here, however. It’s a solid foundation, but where other games would strive to build something on that foundation, Bleak Sword DX unfortunately just leaves it as a slab of concrete.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer.