Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Choices We Make

I'm playing Blade & Soul again. I didn't go back for the free Level 60 boost. That was mere serendipity. It happened much more randomly than that.

I was looking for screenshots to illustrate one of my recent non-game-specific posts and I chanced on a folder of shots from B&S. I opened it to see if anything in there might work. I'd forgotten just how good-looking a game Blade & Soul can be.

I'd also forgotten just how much I like my character there. I only have one, a Lyn Summoner, because of course it's a Lyn Summoner. I'm nothing if not predictable. 

The races in B&S are not particularly inspiring. There are only four. A big human, the Gon, a regular
human, the Jin, a race that probably kind of stands in as the elf race, the Yun, who can only be female, and the Lyn. The Lyn is the only obviously non-human race and also the smallest. Two boxes ticked already. They also have huge, fox-like tails and ears, so you can see where this is going.

Classes come with a lot more variety. There are thirteen, although some of them (all of them?) break down into specialist sub-classes at higher levels. They come handily graded for difficulty, both on the website and at character creation. It's a five star grading system and Summoner, the pet class, is rated 2* for Easy. 

The pet you get is a cat. There are five cat personalities to choose from, something that happens in game as part of an introductory quest. You can dress your cat in various costumes and change their appearance by visiting a Groomer. 

Seriously, was there ever a chance I'd play anything else?

And I did play her, too. I didn't just futz around in character creation and do the tutorial then walk away. When I logged back in a few days ago, after a five gigabyte patch and some searching through notes for login details (it had been a while) I found I'd left off last time at Level 34. As of this writing I'm Level 37.

Blade & Soul occupies an odd position in the current hierarchy of mmorpgs I hear about. It hardly gets a mention anywhere. What's more, it never did get much attention even when it was new. If anyone else in this part of the blogosphere plays it or has played I couldn't tell you who that might be. 

It's strange. B&S is a bona fide AAA game from a well-known publisher, NCSoft. The same publisher, in fact, as Guild Wars 2 and Aion, both of which get far more press here. Also, it was already a familiar franchise from a Japanese TV show even before the mmorpg arrived.

It's not what you think!

The game has been around for five years now. It gets regular content updates and by most accounts has been commercially successful. A mobile version of the same game, called Blade & Soul Revolution, was released in 2020 and a Blade & Soul 2 is in development with a launch date possibly as soon as this year.

It's fully voiced and translated in good, clear English and it also benefits from a hybrid combat system, meaning it can be played comfortably in either action or classic tab target and hot key mode, making it available to the widest of audiences. There seems no obvious reason it shouldn't be as well-known or as widely reported as, say, Black Desert Online, ArcheAge or it's own stable-mate, Aion, but it just isn't.

I like it, anyway. I keep dipping back into it and I always have a good time when I do. In typically inconsistent fashion, given my recent pontification on the inadvisablity of grafting linear storylines onto open-world mmorpgs, almost all of my time there has been spent slavishly following the main questline. I'm on chapter forty-something now.

It's quite hard to follow a story when you leave gaps of many months between visits but it's the usual tale of possession, displacement, fate and destiny. I kind of know who some of the main characters are, or at least they come back to me when I play ecah time. They all have Anglicized Korean names that don't easily stick in my memory but they also have very distinctive visual signifiers that do, so I can just about keep my scorecard marked.

Charlie's Angels - the re-re-reboot.


That's a polite way of saying the game is highly sexualized, by the way, or at least the female characters are. It would be tough not to remember some of these women. I'd have a lot more difficulty with the look of the thing if it wasn't so outrageously, ludicrously, cartoonishly over the top. It's like Russ Meyer made an mmo.

I guess you could also make a case for the powerfulness of the women involved. I mean, I don't think I'd want to stand behind it but it's possible, at least. There are a lot of female leads and they are all badass. They definitely don't need any males to come along and save them, although they quite often turn up and save each other. Or the opposite.

I thought the character I'd been chasing for thirty levels, an arrogant pretty boy, was the main villain until my character and her three female allies roundly thrashed him last night. Then his boss turned up to gave him a highly negative performance review. She's a very scary woman. 

She also casually murdered the other greasy, odious, devious, cheating male who'd been making life difficult for my Summoner for many levels, something I chose to interpret as some kind of broad gesture of solidarity. She's probably just a sociopath but I like to try and see the good in everyone.

Well, my character does. Thankfully, she's positively demure, at least by comparison to everyone else. And she looks great. The attention to detail is fabulous. She's one of my favorite characters in any game as far as looks go although I wouldn't say she's developed much of a personality as yet.

She does get dialog but it's very easy not to notice. The player character isn't one of those silent protagonists some people love and others complain about. There's just no voice acting for the PC and their text dialog appears off to the right, whereas all the rest of the conversation takes place center-screen and in voiceover. Sometimes I don't even notice she's spoken at all.

Of course, the real reason she hasn't made her character known to me is precisely because I've been nailed to the storyline from day one. She won't become a character in her own right without agency and that's something a pre-written storyline never offers, particularly when it doesn't include what we like to call "meaningful choices".

And yet I am sufficiently attached and invested not to want to use that Level 60 boost on her. She's made it to the high 30s on her own and I'm confident she can go all the way. Might take a while but she'll get there. 

Which leaves the question of who I should use it on. As a free player I have three character slots and two of them are still empty. I read through all the classes and races last night but I'm still not sure which way to jump. 

I'm currently favoring the Gunslinger, a ranged class rated Easy. Blade & Soul is almost certainly never going to be a game I play fervently, frequently and seriously. It's going to be one of the extensive roster of mmorpgs I keep coming back to, chipping away at, drifting away from. It makes no sense to play anything that's going to require more than the minimum effort if I'm going to have to keep re-learning everything every time I return.

I know you have a thing for wool but try to keep in check just this once.


That's how it's going to be, and yet I also know Blade & Soul is a game I could be playing more. It has the potential to be a focus game. Quite a few mmorpgs do. 

Why we end up playing one rather than another is a question I'd like to have answered but I suspect the motivations, if revealed, might not be all that flattering to my ego. I have a feeling that, collectively, we end up playing mostly the games we see and hear about other people playing. We are, after all, social animals, much though many of us like to deny it.

Add Blade & Soul to the big summer of mmorpgs, then. A free Level 60 and an upcoming major graphical revamp definitely count as a significant promotional move. I can't help wishing these companies would co-ordinate their schedules a bit more sensitively. It might be to their benefit as well as ours.

Much as I'd like to press on and take my Summoner all the way to sixty this summer, I imagine in a week or so there'll be virtual dust on my B&S desktop icon. The New World beta begins next week and Bless Unleashed arrives not too long after. This is Blade & Soul's moment but it won't last.

I guess I'd better get on with it, then. Choose who to use that Level 60 boost on before it goes back into the cupboard for next time. Whenever that might be.

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