Sunday, June 20, 2021

It Might Not Now But It Will Be Later: Second Impressions: Swords Of Legends Online

The unheralded demo for Swords of Legend Online that Gameforge dropped on the Steam Next Fest this weekend comes to a jarring halt at Level 15. I'd just zoned into my first instanced "dungeon" as per the tutorial instructions and spoken to the NPC I'd been sent to meet there when I dinged and was instantly ported out again.

It was a bit of a surprise to say the least. A window opened, thanking me for trying the game and suggesting if I'd enjoyed my time there I might want to think about pre-ordering. I politely declined and tried to zone back into the instance to finish my quest but the portal remained resolutely closed.

The game hadn't actually kicked me back to character select let alone desktop so I thought I'd be okay to have a wander around, explore a little, maybe see some new places even if I couldn't gain any more experience. 

I went to summon my current mount, a white tiger I'd rescued as a cub and who, I'd been told, was so attached to me he pined when I was away. Well, he's going to have to get used it. A disembodied voice told me the option was unavailable. No more riding the tiger for me.

No more air-surfing on the blade of my sword, either. Oh, did I not mention that? It happens very early on. There's a quest that gives you a sword about eight feet long that acts as a flying mount. 

Mounts are quite a big thing in SOLO as far as I can tell. Lots of things are. I lost count of all the collectibles, upgradeables, progressables, selectables and sundry other character development mechanics. 


Off the top of my head I can remember:

  1. Mounts (Self-explanatory.)
  2. Pets (Not my class pet. Floaty things everyone can have.)
  3. Avatars (Backgrounds for your character icon)
  4. Essences (A big constellation thing. Not sure what it does.)
  5. Achievements (We all know what those are.)
  6. Biographies (I found those in a menu - there was no explanation in the tutorial)

I'm sure there were a few more I've forgotten and I'm also sure there are more that don't turn up in the first fifteen levels. There were quite a few menu options for things I never saw or used, including the entire crafting system, which never even got a mention. 

One thing I can say about SOLO with a fair degree of confidence is that the average player is not going to be short of things to do there. I can't speak to the "content" as in the dungeons, raids and so forth; unsurprisngly you don't get much of a sense of those in the tutorial. but when it comes to working on your character, filling out skill trees and completing collections, SOLO comes out of the blocks at a dead sprint.

I couldn't ride but I could still run. I opened my map to see where there was to go and that voice piped up again, telling me the service wasn't available. Only it was. Whoever had the job of locking the map when the demo ended had been slacking. It still worked.

The map, by the way, is excellent. Maps are a given in mmorpgs these days but they vary hugely in both style and usefulness. Someone ought to write a blog post about it. Only recently I had cause to be scathing about Crowfall's terrible cartography. This, I'm happy to report, is much closer to the other end of the spectrum.


When you hit "M" there's a nice, momentary animation as your character opens a map. It's about a second long so it doesn't wear out its welcome the way, say, Lord of the Rings Online's whistle-for-your-pony gimmick does but it's enough to root your action in the world. The map is attractive to look at, clear to read and you can add your own markers. 

I mention it as just one example of the game's overall attention to detail. SOLO isn't some hastily thrown together cash grab; it's a well-crafted, artfully designed, finished product. Well, it seems to be from the fifteen levels. I suppose I can't say more than that. Given that it's been out for several years in its country of origin, China, however, it seems reasonable to assume there's a whole game on the far side of that level fifteen wall.

The completed demo may have allowed me to open the map but that didn't mean it was going to let me go anywhere or do anything. I could run around the zone I was in but that was all. I tried using my recall skill (the name of which escapes me) but it had been powered down. Questgivers wouldn't talk to me. Portals wouldn't open. I could still kill mobs but since I couldn't gain any more xp and mobs don't drop any loot there didn't seem much point.

One thing I could still do was take screenshots. SOLO has perhaps the best in-game camera set-up I've seen. Black Desert Online's might run it close but I don't remember it having quite as many options. 

If I'd left it to the tutorial I would never have known the game even had a dedicated camera option. The tutorial is relentless and lengthy but it isn't all that comprehensive. Or possibly the demo doesn't even cover the whole of the tutorial. I think it's probably that. I have a suspicion the whole of the first thirty or so levels are pretty much all a kind of tutorial because you don't get to stop calling yourself a Novice or a Beginner until then.


I only discovered the camera because I was going around the UI pressing every last button and taking every last menu option just to see what they did. There are a lot of them, too. The sixth of seven icons at the bottom of the minimap is a picture of a camera and that's where you open the extensive suite of filters, focuses, frames and speeds.

I spent a while fiddling about with those, taking test shots and posing. The results were wildly variable. It's a complex range of variables that would take some practice to learn but it would be well worth the time. From the look of it, it's also yet another of the character (or account) development features; a lot of the options were greyed out, suggesting they can be acquired as you progress.

A versatile camera is only an asset if you have something worth photographing. That's not going to be a problem in SOLO. The game is gorgeous. I'm not convinced it's any more gorgeous than quite a few other mmorpgs but I'll admit I may be slightly biased against it because the particular aesthetic it relies on isn't one of my personal favorites. Even so, I found myself stopping over and over again to take a selfie against the beautiful backdrops.

The whole world looked a lot better when I'd worked out how to switch off overhead names. In common with most mmorpgs almost everything is on by default when you first log in and in combination with the many pop-up tips and warnings that come with all tutorials it makes for an incoherent, overwhelming and arguably even an unpleasant visual introduction. 


I've seen this over and over again in similar situations. I have to assume that either other people really do play with all this crap on all the time and don't even notice what it looks like any more or that developers have found new players are so innately helpless they have to have every conceivable prompt pushed right in their faces or they'll just curl up in a corner and cry.

What with the visual and the aural clutter, I think it says quite a lot for the game that I wasn't put off and that I did carry on playing after the initial assault. Compared to a few mmorpgs I've demoed or trialed recently - Crowfall, Bless Unleashed, Elteria Adventures and PSO2:NG - I think SOLO is the most offputting in this respect. It's largely the fault of the clashing voiceovers and incomplete translations. That's the one real weak point I saw in the whole seven and a half hours I played. If they get that sorted out for launch then I think the game - or at least the new player experience - should be in a very good place.

How robust the gameplay will be beyond the tutorial and the NPE is a lot harder to say. I haven't even been following the game until recently and I have no clear idea of what it's intended to be at higher levels. Is it one of those games that starts out with a linear quest-driven narrative before switching into mandatory open-world PvP? Does it have an endgame focused on raiding? Is there housing and crafting worth the name?


If I'm going to plunk down £36 in a few weeks I guess I'd better find out. I certainly didn't get any clues from the demo. What I did get was a clear indication that this is a game with a linear narrative on which a lot of resources have been expended. The sheer amount of dialog and description is almost too much to take in at times.

It also takes up a lot of playtime. When I wanted a picture of the map for this post I quickly made a new character and ran her through the opening stages to get her into the first open zone. I skipped all of the cut scenes and clicked through all the dialog without reading any of it. By the time I got to where I needed to be the character was level three. It took me maybe ten or fifteen minutes. When I played my first character I watched and read and listened to everything and getting to the same point took me closer to a couple of hours.

For that kind of commitment either the story, the writing or the acting needs to be pretty good. As is often the case with translated imports I get the sense that in the original it quite likely might be. It is based on a very successful TV series, after all (which was based on the original single-player video game 古劍奇譚 琴心劍魄今何在, which Google Translate weirdly renders as "Gu Jian Qi Tan, where is the heart of the piano and the soul of the sword?" but Wikipedia translates as "The tale of ancient swords: the story of a guqin and an ancient sword".)


In this version, however, as I said yesterday, none of those elements really merits the attention they demand. I'd be very surprised if many people end up playing SOLO for the story. That said, it isn't all bad. There were quests and conversations I enjoyed, particularly the section where my character died and had to find her way back from the afterlife. Or something. I think that's what was going on. I know there were a lot of red flowers and some greedy ghosts and I could see through her head. And I took a lot of great photos.

I don't know about you but I really don't play mmorpgs for the story. I like to feel there's some good, solid lore for a foundation and some sort of over-arcing concept for a framework but other than that I just want to get on with killing my ten foozles and handing in my foozle fangs for coin. It's not really the quality of SOLO's story I might have problems with - it's the quantity.

Before I wrap this up I probably ought to say a word or two about gear. I've complimented the number and diversity of character development paths but other than raw levels, mmorpg vertical progression stands or falls on the way it hands out gear. Once again, it's dangerous to extrapolate a whole game from the tutorial but here's what I saw.

My gear came from three sources: quests, NPC vendors and boss chests in instances. Oh, and I think there was one log-in freebie at the start. 

The quest gear was absolutely typical for low levels. Basic items were replaced by slightly less basic items at a steady pace. All I had to do was follow the linear questline, something the game really gave me no other option but to do. The items that displayed all looked good within the aesthetic. No clown costumes here.


Since the fights weren't giving me any problems I never went looking for gear but I happened to notice some vendors in one village so I took a look at what they were selling out of curiosity. I was surprised to find they had full sets of visible armor with very much better stats than mine and that it was going for prices I could afford from just the money I'd picked up while questing.

I replaced my weapon and a couple of pieces of armor that way and I would have bought more as soon as I'd made a bit more coin only I happened to end up doing the wrong instance twice over, trying to find the right one for the questline. In doing that I killed six instance bosses and they all dropped chests and all the chests had armor for my class and every piece was a huge upgrade even to the shop-bought pieces that had been a huge upgrade to the quest stuff.

The upshot of all that is that I don't really know what's happening with gear. Regular mobs drop nothing at all so my favorite upgrade path, randomly killing mobs in the hope they're wearing a pair of pants that fit me, isn't available. I did get a stack of mats to upgrade weapons so I know that's another option. I didn't see anything similar for armor but I'd bet there's something.

The bane of imported mmorpgs for many people are the merciless grinds for mats to upgrade gear. The sheer offputting nature of the gameplay required to feed the endless synthesis or transmutation is designed to drive people into the cash shop to pay for ways to make it go faster. I'm hoping that, as a Buy-to-Play title, SOLO will avoid the worst excesses of that cynical methodology. I imagine there will be some level of grind involved, though. There almost always is.


It doesn't much bother me one way or the other. I rarely stick around long enough for it to affect me and even if I do I rarely reach the levels where it makes much difference. It certainly wouldn't put me off playing if it turned out to be the case here. If you're the kind of player for whom that sort of thing matters it would probably be wise to do a bit of research before jumping in.

Nothing I've seen so far would put me off buying this game. More positively, I've seen enough to be reasonably sure I'll get my £36 worth if I do decide to buy. The only thing making me think twice is whether I'd find the time to play right now. 

If we were in an mmorpg lull I'd have pre-ordered yesterday but we're not. Very much the opposite. Let alone the titles coming later this summer, I already have a perfectly acceptable new mmorpg right in front of me in the form of PSO2:NG. It seems somehow reckless to pay for something I may not even get around to playing for a few months.

But... and it is, as the joke goes, a big but... 

It's so good to play a new, AAA mmorpg with the controls I prefer. Honestly, I like the aesthetics and the settings of both Bless Unleashed and New World quite a lot more than I like SOLO's but neither of them is tab target and tab target is what I like. 

I'm going to think on it some more. Chances are I won't buy Swords of Legend Online right away but chances also are I will buy it, sometime. For now, I might just keep it in my pocket for when I need it. That feels about right.

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