Preview: Bleak Sword DX
When I saw that Devolver was publishing another nostalgic 8-bit inspired game, I must admit it caught my attention. I’ve generally been a huge fan of the games they support such as last year’s Cult of the Lamb, and I’m always a sucker for games with a strong aesthetic choice.
So, of course I had to leap at the opportunity to try the demo for Bleak Sword DX. But, as the ‘DX’ at the end implies, this isn’t a new game but rather a deluxe re-release of a prior game.
If you hadn’t heard of Bleak Sword beforehand, it’s not too surprising. The original was a mobile title, and an iPhone exclusive at that. Bleak Sword DX widens the audience by bringing it to PC and Switch, while also adding in new features and increased difficulty. The PC demo was played for this preview.
Bleak Sword DX is a tale of regicide, dark magic, and curses, where a lone warrior ventures into a cold and unforgiving world in search of three magic stones that will bring light back to the land, and it is certainly an unforgiving world.
The combat will seem familiar to folks who’ve played recent top-down hack-and-slash retro-inspired games. You have a melee slash, dodge roll, a block, and a stamina gauge overseeing all of that. What sets Bleak Sword DX apart is the presentation.
Rather than exploring a vast open world, you’re presented with bite-sized levels where you must slay everything to proceed. Even in the initial chapter I had access to, the game doesn’t pull any punches, and learning what works best for each foe is vital for survival. For some, a simple block and counter will do. Others are far too fast, and require getting a feel for the full range of your attack to ensure a first strike. Still others are too large to block and require dodges. Healing is also few and far between, occasionally a level may reward a healing item but this is far from guaranteed. Damage is retained from level to level, and when you die you’ll lose your earned experience points and any items unless you can manage to beat the stage on your very next try without them.
The arcadey division of levels fits well with the retro aesthetic, and it’s difficult enough that things feel tense (especially if you’ve acquired some equipment you’d rather not lose) while not being so punishing that continuing after death is painful. I’m usually a bit wary when I see a mobile title ported to PC, but this time around the devs have revamped the combat to take advantage of more precise gamepad controls, and enhanced the enemy AI to match your new abilities. The end result is something I wouldn’t have been able to tell was a prior mobile title if I hadn’t done the research.
The last bit of what makes Bleak Sword DX stand out is the aesthetic choice. It’s both retro and modern in a striking and kinda unsettling way. The haunting soundtrack and sound effects are undeniably modern, but the graphics are flat sprites in a 3D world. Usually when I see a faux retro game, the modern parts are subtle, creating an experience like how we remember games from that era through rose tinted glasses.
Here, the trees and grass sway in the wind, the fire gives off ember particle effects and light, and you move smoothly through 3D space. However, all the objects are 8-bit sprites with maybe three colors max, feeling more reminiscent of the very dawn of video games on the likes of the Apple II and Atari. The end result is a combination of familiar elements into a distinct and memorable style.
It’s still far too early to say how the finished game will pan out. For all these words, it took maybe 20 minutes to play the demo from start to finish, but what I’ve seen so far looks quite promising. I look forward to what the finished game holds.
Preview build provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by writer.