"Nice to meet you. Now let's kill each other!" It's a rather unsettling way to greet someone, but in essence, that's exactly how Blade Symphony's frenzied duels to the death begin. This is murder of the most courteous sort. Bowing is optional, though the vast majority of opponents you cross swords with afford you this sign of respect before they try to slice you in twain in this multiplayer dueling fest. It yields a far more personal kind of combat encounter, which adds an air of excitement and unpredictability to a multiplayer experience that's a bit too frayed at the edges to fully enjoy.
Blade Symphony's take on the fighting genre focuses on skillful swordfights, placing a heavy emphasis on intense one-on-one duels. Multi-round battles play out in a third-person perspective that brings recent melee-centric brawlers like Chivalry and War of the Roses to mind, though the swordplay is far more fluid and elegant in this game's pressure-cooker matches. With a bevy of distinct acrobatic maneuvers and fancy flourishes to accompany their unique fighting styles, the four playable characters are nimble and capable of pulling off some badass attacks. Looking cool while you're whittling down an opponent's life gauge isn't everything though.
When most fighting games of this sort sport dozens of characters, having only four to pick from is painfully limiting. Blade Symphony instead goes in another direction, by offering a large range of swords and outfit customization options to unlock. While the outfit accoutrements are only cosmetic, the swords do add perks and penalties that play into combat. Unlocking these weapons and goodies, however, is a sluggish process of amassing "notes" by winning matches, and you have to rack up a lot of wins to earn enough points to afford even the lowest-tier items. What's vexing is that this process and how it works isn't explained, and the game also fails to mention that you accrue notes only from wins that you get while playing on specially marked servers. It's the first of many seemingly minor but impactful oversights that dull the shine of the game's finer elements. And Blade Symphony does indeed have its high moments.
Beyond looking awesome in action, the showy fighting styles on display are backed up by a combat system that packs a lot of depth into a streamlined control scheme. Three different stances let you deliver heavy, balanced, and light attacks. You can switch between these stances with a quick flick of the mousewheel to vary moves, throw off opponents, and break through their defenses. Each attack you deliver also plays into a combo chain that can be built up to unleash a wide range of unique dizzying assaults depending on the sequences you put in.
It sounds complex, but it's all fairly easy to track in mid-battle thanks to a chart that shows you where you're at in the current combo chain. Wall runs, feints, jump attacks, dodges and sidesteps, grabs, charge attacks, and missile throws all add further color to the fighting mechanics, as does a multitiered parry system that lets you block and push through enemy attacks if your timing and stance selection are right. There's no shortage of variety here when it comes to killer moves, and cutting down a worthy opponent with a gracefully executed maneuver is ultra satisfying. Ugly rag-doll physics, camera-inside-the-body glitches, and other rough patches sometimes break the spell of a match well fought, but they're fleeting issues.
The bulk of Blade Symphony's core fighting mechanics, duel mode stages, and quartet of characters are well designed in general, but this makes the numerous flaws and incomplete areas that pop up all the more glaring. The tutorial itself gets things off to a poor start. While doing a decent job of explaining the basics of combat, it isn't complete. The blasted thing stops midway through the trainings with a note that says more sessions will be added at some point "soon."
In contrast to the tight arena quarters and rigid structure of standard duel matches, Free for All mode is a nice change of pace, but it presents its own problems. You often spawn in the middle of nowhere in these sprawling free-roam stages, and it takes some fumbling around to find pockets of combatants battling it out. The levels themselves are less detailed than the arenas you battle in elsewhere, and everything from stairway running animation glitches to the camera getting caught on the scenery can muddle the fun. Rather than all-out brawl as the title suggests, this mode lets you attack people at random or offer a challenge for a private duel. The former seems frowned upon by the player community, which is accustomed to more civil one-on-one engagements.
One thing I will say about Blade Symphony's player community is that it's a dedicated and intriguing bunch. Given the duel-focused nature of most matches, the human element they add to the equation also goes a long way toward keeping things interesting. People try out all kinds of weird tactics, like standing still until you approach and striking at the last possible second, or running at you without a weapon drawn and dancing around before finally attacking when your guard is down. You never know which opponents you'll face off against and what unusual strategies they'll roll out, which makes for plenty of humorous and interesting fights. Most of the foes I battled were quite cordial and polite too, which is something that can't be said for a lot of multiplayer communities.
Taken as a tightly cropped slice of the action, Blade Symphony's arena duels showcase some stunning character designs, downright poetic combat maneuvers, and exciting combat mechanics. But that's only a small piece of an unfinished and rather sloppy whole. This multiplayer fighter looks, feels, and actually is incomplete in spots, which puts a real damper on the few bright elements that make it almost worth the fuss.