Appearances aren't everything, so people say, but in a visually-oriented medium like video gaming they sure can help. Blade and Soul continues to impress me considerably more than I expected and much of that comes down to what I get to look at while I play.
I'd be hard-put to think of another MMORPG I've played that creates such a powerful feeling of open space. The views in B&S are huge. Every time I come to a new area I have to stop to take it all in. The sky seem vast, the mountains loom, the paths wind away into the distance between towering trees. I find myself pulling the camera back to look up. And up. And up.
There's some very solid set design going on here, too. Every small settlement and village, and there are plenty of them, seems unusually convincing. The buildings are placed in a way that feels natural, organic. So often in MMOs buildings appear to have been plonked down without any regard to how or why they might have been built where they stand. Not so here.
Another common immersion-breaker in MMORPGs comes from misalignment of expectation when it comes to size. Rift was probably the worst I've ever seen in this regard. You could comfortably throw a stone from one side of a "city" there to the other. In Blade and Soul thus far I haven't found a place yet that's been described as anything larger than a village.
It sounds trivial but I find it matters. Being sent from one quest hub to the next is not a mechanic I particularly appreciate, but here it's done as well as I've seen for a while and a good part of that relies on the language: it really helps immersion when the description the NPC gives me matches what I see when I get there.
It also matters that the NPCs who send me are so visually striking. They don't all look the same and neither do they look bland or generic. They may be nowhere even close to the genre-defying excellence of characters in The Secret World but they are at least quirky and strange enough to stand out.
Their animations are atypical, too. As I read the dialog (quickly, so I don't have to listen to the less-than convincing voice-work) I'm frequently distracted by the figure of the person in front of me preening and primping, examining her nails or rocking from side to side. It creates an odd, not entirely comfortable atmosphere. Sometimes I just want to get my quest and get away before things spiral out of control.
One thing it's impossible not to be aware of while playing Blade and Soul is that you're playing a game that has been translated from another language. That's not because of any failings in the translation itself. The writing in English is uniformly good; idiomatically sound, grammatically correct, tonally accurate. Often it's genuinely funny, too. The use of sarcasm is particularly well done.
No, it's not the translation of the original language that lets you know someone else across the world is probably getting more out of this than you are. It's literally the language itself. There it is, in front of you, on the screen in unreadable characters; on letters, signs, posters, writing on the wall.
In a way it's a strength. After all, we get along well enough with mysterious hieroglyphics in other imaginary worlds: Asuran and New Krytan in Tyria, for example. People translate those (or, more accurately, transliterate, since they are effectively ciphers not languages). I could, if I was really that bothered, find translations for these, too. I'm not that bothered. I just let them drip ambience.
If the NPCs have charm and personality then so does my familiar. In spades. I am very happy to have chosen the Summoner as my class (not least because the linear nature of the progression so far suggests Blade and Soul may not be a great game for leveling a lot of characters in quick succession). The cat that started out creepy is close to becoming cute. Familiarity breeds content.
Not to say he couldn't be cuter. In the crafting village, the first major service hub I've happened upon, I came across a Groomer. For a very substantial fee (which I don't see myself having for a long time - money is tight in this game at low levels it seems) my familiar can be morphed and molded quite literally out of all recognition. I don't know, though. I'm kinda used to him how he is.
I especially like the way he looks so tentative, nervous and confused every time we stop for a minute. I have so many screenshots of my character, standing, looking overwhelmed or amazed at some new vista that's just opened up ahead of her, while the cat faces the wrong way, looking nervous. Or, better yet, both of them with their backs to the camera managing to express awestruck wonder through pure body language.
The interiors are as tastefully dressed and effectively understated as the exteriors. Nothing I've seen so far has been overdone. It's not minimalist but it shows good judgment and restraint. Dungeons are uncluttered yet interesting, convincing enough as lairs or mines or caves or tombs. Houses are appropriately furnished, functional. If there's a fault it's that everything is very, very tidy, neat and clean. There are worse faults to have.
Lens flare, for example. Actually I love me some lens flare. It's a lapse of taste, I know, but I'm easily impressed that way. When i came over the hill into this after-the-bomb evening glare I actually said "Wow!". Out loud.
Foliage is another weakness of mine. I do like to see undergrowth in a forest, flowers in a field. Blade and Soul serves me very well in that regard. Sometimes I can scarcely see my cat for the long grass. I think he likes it that way. He seems quite shy for a magical martial arts moggy.
There's much more along these lines. The swimming animation is good enough that I've been swimming back and forth across lakes just to watch it. I particularly like the way the lower half of my character fractures and scatters when she stands waist deep in water. The cat's not so happy about that. Waist deep for her is up to the chin for him and cats and water don't play well together to begin with...
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all about Blade and Soul's graphics is how smoothly and effortlessly they display on my aging, low-spec system. I let the game choose the settings and it appears to have turned them all up to maximum. Everything looks great and there's been no hint of hitching, stuttering or any other issue so far.
All in all I'm enjoying the game a great deal more than I expected and that is in large part due to what I'm seeing as I play. The gameplay is nothing to get excited about and neither is the storyline but so long as I can find new scenery to admire I think this one will run.