Another damsel in distress, another wicked warlock bent on world conquest, and another hapless hero with nothing but the sword in his hand and the shirt on his back - you've heard it before. But Die by the Sword, a 3D third-person action game, goes well beyond its almost admirably typical premise to deliver a visually stunning, terribly challenging, and often awe-inspiring dungeon hack, though one not without its fair share of shortcomings.
Die by the Sword threatens to introduce a revolutionary new play mechanic. Its technology is such that you are granted complete control over the hero's sword arm. Using a mouse or numeric keypad, you can order Enric to swipe his sword from point to point in any direction, and his momentum will determine how much damage he inflicts. At first glance you might guess that this system allows for a near-infinite variety of attacks, just like the box says. On closer inspection, though, you realize that there is in fact a proper way to do things. More often than not, you'll be swinging right to left and stepping into the swing in order to add more bite. This effective attack looks basic enough when performed onscreen, but demands you quickly push as many as four buttons in sequence on the keypad. Going for fancier attacks just doesn't pay off, though once in a while you might get lucky. So in the end, Die by the Sword's intriguing control method just makes it a pain to accomplish what a competent swordsman like Enric should be able to do with little effort. While a simplified arcade mode exists, allowing you to perform most types of moves at the touch of a button, it's disappointing to use knowing that a less restrictive, if more convoluted, control scheme is available.
Aside from swinging your sword around, you can perform various functions typical of this type of game including sidestepping, jumping, crouching, and climbing. Unlike the fighting mechanics, moving Enric around is relatively straightforward and effective. Of course, frolicking around won't save you from a couple of angry man-sized mantises; you'll spend most of your time with Die by the Sword trying to fight against decidedly unfair odds, and most of that time will be spent dying and starting from the previous autosave. Though Die by the Sword promises supreme precision control over your various fighting moves, in practice your best bet is to run like a chicken and try to go for cheap shots when the enemy isn't looking. Defending with your shield is almost impossible, and even if you master the control, you'll still die half the time just because the enemy hops up and kind of runs into you with his ax, knocks you down, and then kills you dead as you clamber to your feet. In other words, hit detection and damage infliction often feel just plain wrong or unfair, if not simply inconsistent. Meanwhile, a recklessly panning and sweeping camera angle won't make your life any easier, though you can toggle through a few different perspectives to best suit the situation.
With three fighters onscreen and one wacky camera, you'd best be armed with a state-of-the-art PC with a wicked-fast 3D accelerator if you hope to squeeze a decent frame rate out of this game. Even the minimum detail setting will force a lower-end Pentium to its proverbial knees. With enough horses under the hood, though, Die by the Sword is graphically amazing. You'll fight your way through a number of fantastic yet hauntingly realistic settings including a massive set of gears, a subterranean Dwarven steelworks, an ancient temple teeming with traps, and an ominous swamp. Along the way you'll have to fend off scores of monsters including boarlike Orcs, doglike Kobolds, froglike Trogs, and more. None of these enemies is terribly original, but they look real enough in Die by the Sword to be interesting, if not fearsome. The boorish chain mail-clad hero Enric and all his foes are fully three-dimensional and look great as they run about trying to slice one another's heads off. Each successful strike registers visible damage to the target, such that once any given monster is near death, it's going to be in really bad shape and likely head to toe in cuts and bruises - that is, provided its head and toes are still attached. In Die by the Sword, if you repeatedly strike at any appendage, it's liable to be chopped clean off. Better still, once the poor thing is resting in pieces, you can continue to hack away at its remains for as long as you damn well please.
To no great surprise, Enric is chock-full of clever and not-so-clever one-liners that he'll spout repeatedly over the course of the game. Die by the Sword doesn't offer much in the way of a soundtrack since throughout most of the game you'll be focussing on the clangs and clamor of battle. What music exists is of an impressive, if not entirely memorable, orchestral variety that's well suited to the game's theme. Meanwhile, said clangs and clamor are loud and appropriate, though at times repetitive to an aggravating extent. For instance, the Kobold language appears to be composed of but one squealing syllable.
An excellent tutorial complete with slick voice-over will teach you much of what you'll need to know in order to survive the quest mode. The quest itself, certainly the highlight of Die by the Sword, details Enric's blood-soaked, age-old journey to save the girl. It spans over half a dozen fairly long, nonlinear levels, each packed with dangers and secrets, yet each rather different from the next. Some parts of these levels are straightforward and enjoyable enough, while some are astonishingly difficult and frustrating, forcing you to retry again and again until you succeed at the impossible. Still other sequences are wonderfully well-designed. You might happen across a room containing Orcs playing tetherball with a Kobold strung up by his legs. You might don an Orc Shaman's mask to find your enemies kneeling before you in reverence. Or you might navigate past a perilous set of pendulums, then notice you can jump across their tops on the way back. Die by the Sword's arena and tournament gameplay modes let up to four people choose from the various characters in the game and have at it in a free-for-all over a network. You can also create custom special moves available at the touch of a button by means of the included move editor, though its complexity makes it something of a chore to use.
In the end, Die by the Sword is a solid action game with enough thrills and challenges to satisfy you even if you think you've seen it all. Though the ambitious control scheme is hardly perfect, it does offer you a sense of freedom not afforded by most games of this sort. And the quest, for all its frustrating moments, packs more than a few situations that make it worth the price of admission. If the 3D action-adventure game is your thing, you're looking to give your new machine a workout, and you're up for an especially difficult fight, then you'll want to look out for this one.