Friday, May 14, 2021

Blessed (Again)

Back in the late summer of  2018 I bought a game called Bless. It was an mmorpg from a developer called NeoWiz and it was on sale through Steam at just under a tenner. 

I liked it. I said as much in several posts: "I'm enjoying Bless a lot", I said, and "I'm having fun". Unfortunately, most people didn't share my enthusiasm. Bless wasn't just a commercial failure, although it certainly was that. It closed down barely a year later and by the time the end came it had somehow managed to become one of those games that everyone knows is terrible, even if they've never played it. Even now I still see it cited as an exemplar of the kind of game no-one ought to be making.

Which is a shame because Bless was not terrible. It just wasn't anything special. As I said in one of my First Impressions pieces "If you didn't like previous Korean MMOs you're not going to like this one. If you did, you might well find Bless a little lackluster. It doesn't even pretend to be original and in Early Access it lacks some polish. If you're easily amused, like me, though, it's definitely worth giving Bless a go."

Okay, it's not a ringing endorsement. For me, the problem was the same as it always is: I had a good time making a character, getting to understand the systems, exploring the low and mid level zones and generally kicking the tyres and sniffing the upholstery but there wasn't any good reason to carry on playing once the initial novelty wore off. 

Worse than that, a couple of years later I really couldn't remember anything about Bless at all. I can usually recall enough about any mmorpg I played for more than a couple of sessions to be confident of picking it out of a line-up but when I tried to think of something - anything - I remembered about Bless today, I came up completely blank.

I think three will be more than enough, thanks.

Before I could write this post I had to go back and read all the others I'd written about the game just so I could be sure exactly which game it was I was talking about. Then it did all come back to me, slowly. 

The reason I wanted to give my memory a jump start is I've been playing the final closed beta test for Bless: Unleashed, the alternate universe version of the same game. 

I wasn't planning to. I knew the game existed and I had some inkling it was close to release but I wasn't all that interested. I figured if it was free I'd probably take a look when the time came but that was about as far as was willing to go.

Then I read this news item at MassivelyOP and figured why not?. No registration forms to fill out, no new email address to create, no new IDs or passwords to come up with... it really makes ad hoc betas a lot more attractive. All I had to do was click a button on Steam. I'd have been a fool not to.

It still took a while. It's a hefty download at 26GB although that's only half the size of the old Bless I uninstalled to make space for it. Once it was done I set about making a character. Two hours later I was level five and for about an hour and three-quarters of that was plenty of fun.

Let's get the part I really didn't enjoy out of the way first: the tutorial. It's bloody awful. In a way that's a compliment to the designers because the whole (mercifully short) thing takes place entirely in your character's nightmare.

Horrible boss in horrible zone in horrible tutorial.

The zone is nothing but a maze of harsh, rocky passages. The air is filled with dust under the glare of a brutal sun. Literally everything is some shade of brown or orange, including all the mobs. As you struggle to come to terms with your awful situation, impersonal orders come at you at speed through the UI then fade away before you've had time to read them. 

There's nothing to do but fight and some of the fights are extremely hard for a tutorial, particularly when you consider how very much easier every fight in the game itself is going to be for many levels to come. Add to that the multiple times my character got stuck in a corner and couldn't get out, while a level 40 mob beat on them and you have the picture of how much fun I was having. When was the last time I had to go to YouTube for advice on how to beat a mob in a tutorial, I wonder?

That unpleasant experience was the thankfully skimpy filling in a much more satisfying and acceptable sandwich. My Bless Unleashed experience today began with twenty minutes or so in one of the best character creation systems I've seen. Looking back at my Bless posts from two years back I can see that this is one of the few things the two games have in common.

Back then I said "Bless might have the best character creation system I've seen yet." Bless Unleashed has a set-up that's at least as good. In fact, I think it might be the same, even though Bless and Bless Uleashed are (as is widely accepted, I believe) two entirely different games. They can fight for the credit. I'll just appreciate the results.

You'd think, given how impressed I was last time, I might have remembered it. Very much the opposite, I'm afraid. Looking through my old posts today has been... I want to say "instructive" but I think the word I'm groping for is "disturbing". It's one thing not to remember much about the fine details two years on but while I was busy making myself a new character that would end up looking like the old one's twin, you'd think some dim light would have dawned, .

Notice anything similar about those two? I'm consistent, you have to give me that.

Nope. Not only did I not realize I was effectively recreating the exact same character I played last time, I didn't even remember there'd been a race that looked like this in the first game. Even though I wrote about it. And made comments about how the inclusion of non-human races like this was one of the reasons I decided to buy the game in the first place.

It doesn't excuse my apparent memory wipe but the name of the race has changed. They were the Mascu in the old game. Now the're the Ippen. Does that mean something? 

As for classes, I meant to make a Priest but I hit the wrong button so I got a Crusader. Probably just as well. Melee fighters tend to be optimum for short beta tests. Hitting things with chunks of metal is pretty much the same wherever you go.

After the joys of character creation and the horrors of the tutorial it was on to the starting island for an unexpected pleasure and a nasty surprise. Pleasure came with the bustling, cheerful coastal town I found myself exploring. Streets and squares filled with both character and characters, something new and unusual around every corner. It was festival day, there were market stalls everywhere, a stage had been set up in the main square, there was a circus in town...

Yes, I have to stand on a box for group shots. Wanna make something of it?

I have been to a few Mediterranean towns on festival day and - other than the talking cats and griffons - this felt remarkably familiar. I was trying find out how to switch off the UI for screenshots when I came across the option to play without a HUD. I spent a happy fifteen minutes just wandering the streets, taking snapshots and soaking in the atmosphere. It was relaxing and absorbing and I loved it.

Eventually, I thought I'd better get back to what I was supposed to be doing, namely playing a game, so I switched the HUD back on and looked for my first quest. After that, if anything, it became even more relaxing and more absorbing.

The quests were all non-combat. They made sense. They matched the ambience and fitted in with the activities I could see going on all around. The characters I spoke to were friendly and pleasant with a strong sense of camaraderie. The dialog was well-written, well-translated and often amusing. I pottered around happily, helping everyone get ready for the festivities until I happened to overhear something ominous.

Well, I thought it was ominous. My character was too naive to notice. Or possibly too dim. The whole thing was perfectly set up. I knew what was coming but my character didn't. Excellent drama. 

Why is this not a playable race?

What was coming, of course, was mayhem, bloodshed and tragedy. It's a very, very popular prelude in mmorpgs. The most effective, even traumatic, version I know is the Searing in Guild Wars. I can still remember the shock of that from more than fifteen years ago. 

Bless Unleashed has an opening that reminds me of that but it reminds me even more of the prologue to Blade and Soul. Only BU's is better. Less melodramatic, more clinical. Chilling, actually. The cut scenes aren't anything special but the narrative is rock solid and the climax is unexpected and genuinely dramatic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the big denoument but I was very glad I'd spent that time wandering around taking screenshots before it all kicked off. I'd have hated to leave without a few pictures to remember it all by. Like pre-Searing Ascalon, you do kind of wish the whole game could go on that way.

As is traditional, the game then restarts for the third time, finally pitching you into a part of the world where you'll get to stay for a while. And guess what? You wake up on a farm. You got hurt in the rescue, you've been unconscious for a while... yep, you know the drill.

The farmer's not all he seems, that's all I'm saying.

From there I just followed the main questline. It was well-written, made sense, generally followed a logical progression and had the right hooks to make me want to know what was going to happen next. Absolutely nothing felt in any way original but originality's not what I play mmorpgs for. I just want to be entertained while clicking buttons and that's what I got.

Except for the UI. That wasn't so great. It's not awful, not at all, but it has "Console Port" written all over it. Intuitive it is not. I changed a few things where I could but the keys aren't configurable so I'm stuck with peculiar choices like Ctrl for jump and Tab to switch between banks of hotkeys.

The one really unpleasant thing was the way the camera lurched. I'm not generally prone to motion sickness in games but this was making me queasy. Luckily it turned out to be nothing more than the default mouse setting being way too sensitive. Once I pegged that back everything felt fine.

After two hours of questing I'd dinged level five. I didn't really want to stop but I was starting to feel hungry so I parked my character in a refugee camp and logged out. A few hours later, having written this post, I'm feeling quite keen to get back and do some more. The plot was getting interesting and I'd just learned how to craft.

If I was carrying a crate of fish I'm not sure I'd carry it quite like that.

All of this is beginning to sound remarkably similar to what I wrote about Bless two years ago. I was very keen on that for a while. Then I stopped playing quite suddenly, which is, of course, my pattern.

Having read through those posts a good deal more has come back to me, including some things that happened after I wrote them. I remember now why I stopped playing: it got to be quite hard work, I kept dying and it wasn't so much fun any more. 

I hope the same doesn't apply to Bless Unleashed. Character creation and setting aside, it does seem to be a completely different game; different maps, different storyline, different combat, different systems. Whether it's a better game after the first dozen levels is something I'm not going to know until I get there. 

This, the final closed beta, lasts another three days. Plenty of time to find out but I haven't decided yet if I want to put in the hours. Maybe I'll wait until whatever passes for launch. Then I guess I will be playing it, at least for a while. It's going to be free to play and it's going to be on Steam. I can see no reason why I wouldn't. 

For how long, though? That's the real question. And I bet we all know the answer.


  1. To add to the recursive memories, reading your blog post reminded me that I played this version of the game in closed beta and had the exact same experience.

    I went into it only knowing its reputation as a 'bad game' and came away having enjoyed myself, if not exactly blown away.

    I passed on the open beta because I don't think anything meaningful changed from what I played. Just balance adjustments that wouldn't have meant anything to me anyways.

    I think I will give the game a spin when it launches properly.

    1. I think we tend to expect far too much of games. No-one really expects every movie to be Citizen Kane or every album to be Blonde on Blonde (replace with relevant cultural shibboleths to taste). Why we think every new mmorpg has to be worth dropping everything else to play for years beats me. It's more than enough for a game to be serviceable and entertaining and from the little I've seen so far Bless Unleashed easily reaches that bar.


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