Popularized by Diablo, action role-playing games used to be extremely common on the PC, but their popularity seems to have waned greatly in the past couple of years. Aside from the notable Dungeon Siege, action RPGs have been few and far between lately. Whiptail Interactive and developer Pixel Studio hope to fill the void with Blade and Sword, an upcoming game that clearly draws inspiration from Diablo II but also has some unique aspects of its own.
First of all, the game's setting is based heavily on ancient China and Chinese lore, though this isn't all that surprising considering that Pixel Studio is based in Beijing. You'll travel through a variety of environments, including forests, caves, swamps, ruined villages, and palaces. Blade and Sword's Asian themes are clearly reflected in the game's characters and architecture.
At the outset of the game, you'll choose one of three different characters, each representing a standard action RPG archetype. One is a lithe female assassin, armed with a pair of daggers. She's speedy, but she doesn't pack a lot of power. There's also a regular-sized male swordsman, predictably average in all his abilities. Rounding out the trio is a burly warrior, armed with a gigantic falchion. As you'd expect, he doesn't move about all that quickly, but he hits hard and can take punishment.
Each of the game's characters has basic attack and kick moves, but they can also learn special attacks from four different types of martial arts. There are three different special abilities within each of these arts, as well as a super attack, making for a total of 36 special attacks and 12 super attacks in the game. As your character levels up, you'll receive points that you can spend on the various special abilities, which vary from character to character. The female, for example, can learn a kick that lets her jump a good distance horizontally, knocking down all the enemies in her path. The burly warrior can learn an attack that lets him skewer a monster and lift it into the air with his sword. Like in Diablo II, you can choose to spend upgrade points on improving abilities you've already learned in order to make them more powerful, or you can spend them on new abilities to give your character more versatility.
At its core, the gameplay seems similar to most action RPGs. You click the left mouse button to attack, and you'll need to manage potions that replenish your health and your chi, which is used to power your special attacks and abilities. The right mouse button can be used to toss special throwing weapons such as knives or rocks, and it can also be mapped to your special abilities. Since the focus of Blade and Sword is meant to be kung fu, the attacks you do will naturally string together into combos. Mix in some kicks with your regular attacks, and you can lengthen your combos and get in more hits before your enemies are knocked to the ground. As you attack into crowds, each attack will automatically strike every enemy in an arc in front of you, allowing you to take on crowds with ease.
What really promises to set Blade and Sword apart is its customizable combo system. You can quickly create up to five different combos using its simple interface. For example, we created a nine-hit combo with the female assassin, by programming in three regular attacks, two kicks, another regular attack, a special kick attack that pushes enemies back, a projectile special, and finally the lunging jump kick that knocks all enemies down. The combos can be mapped to the right mouse button, so executing this complicated series of moves is a simple matter of right-clicking several times in succession. You'll be able to quickly switch out the function of the right mouse button using keyboard shortcuts, so you'll have easy access to your five programmable combos or any of your individual special attacks.
On the technical side, Blade and Sword is still a 2D game, with resolution locked at 800x600. The environments in the game seem to offer a decent amount of detail, but obviously 3D graphics enthusiasts won't be giving their systems much of a workout with this game. The good news is that Blade and Sword will run on very low-end machines. The minimum system specification calls for a Pentium II 266MHz with 128MB of memory.
Action RPGs have been mired in a drought for a while now, but a new choice is just on the horizon. The game will ship with 40 levels split up over three separate chapters. You'll also be able to play cooperative multiplayer over LAN and the Internet. Those who are interested in a hack-and-slash with a different theme from the usual classic fantasy games may wish to keep an eye on Blade and Sword, which will ship in November.