Okay, I’m going to write this review twice. Once using only my memory, and then once immediately after going and replaying this classic game right now, as a highly scientific test of how rosily-tinted my memory glasses may be.
I bought this game back in 2001, when it first came out in the UK. HMV had just got it in, I looked at it for about thirty seconds and then started frothing at the mouth. Is it an abysmal pun to say that it was cutting edge? How about if I say it was a cutting edge game about cutting edges, happy now? The shiniest of graphics, each bloody pixel rendered with the sharpest shadows. A powerful physics engine, back in the days when such things were far from standard. Superb AI, exulted the box blurb. I read all this after I’d paid for it, of course, I was sold when I saw the picture of the big dude with a sword on the front cover. I forked out a sum for it that at the time was costly, and now might buy you, say, three TF2 hats, and ran home cackling to myself, holding the box over my head like an exuberant gremlin. Games still came in boxes back then. It was a simpler time.
Oh the joy of anticipation. Fantasy slashing, free-form combat, an epic world lit with ominous shadows – this would be my game of the year.
It was my first real experience of failing to read the minimum requirements properly, I suppose. Once installed, I got it to run on a setting where I could see the bottom third of the opening menu. ‘Credits’, I recall it said, and ‘Exit’. Never a quick quitter, I found I at least enjoyed the credits. Much internal tinkering later, I could at least see the game. I could even play it, although it worked a bit less like the advertised fluid hack’n’slasher and a bit more like reading a graphic novel slowly. At one panel per minute. I’d played text adventures that responded faster to the controls.
And yet I loved it.
Not all of it, in all honesty – in that first horribly lagged playthrough, I never really got past the second level, and that was because my poor old computer couldn’t actually save a game. And it never had an easy learning curve, this game. In the first moments of playing as Tukaram the Not-Conan-Honest-Guv, when you walk along a stunning canyon whose floor is rippling, reflective water, I was gazing up at forbidding rock walls and abandoned fortifications of your ancient tribal burial ground. It looked awesome, even though my computer wasn’t running it properly. The settings were beautiful – empty and desolate, yet full of the compulsive need to explore like any good ruin.
It’s a testament to my willingness to repetitively strain myself until a task is done that I even got to level two on that first broken playthrough. But it made me go out and upgrade until the lags and stuttering was no longer a problem. That I followed that upgrade path like so many PC gamers could be partly blamed on this game. But once I’d ironed out the problems, I realised that the fact I was dying about four or five times as often as any of my foes couldn’t be blamed on my computer being really slow. I was just no good at this game. The first foe, a scrawny goblin with a club, would still dash my brains out four times out of five. The fifth time, I’d kill it, but be so badly wounded that his mate on the other side of the bridge would finish me off with barely a second glance.
But I persevered. Perseverance – Blade of Darkness, another unforgivable pun. I loved the bare, haunted look of that first canyon so much, I wanted to get good enough to see the next part of it. I didn’t, not then. I got about three levels in and fell off the sheer face of the difficulty curb, riddled with arrows in a troll-filled fort. About two years later, after another upgrade cycle, I came back. This time, through some stubborn magic, I’d improved, and things really got going.
So the game’s a fantasy slasher, in the mould of the later Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. And like that game, there wasn’t much in a similar vein on the PC at the time. It combines a sort of Street Fighter 2 approach to combat with a surprisingly open RPG-style set of arenas. It’s nothing big in plot terms, drawing on what I believe is Zoroastrianism (well, okay, points for originality I suppose) – a terrible evil called the Chaos Child from beyond the dawn of time is going to eat everyone’s heads unless you can find the titular sword, turn it on and poke it up inside said bad guy. Only you can do that because, oh, look, just get on with it. But for me, that’s a perfectly functional excuse to go out a-slaying of an evening, I don’t need Tolstoy here.
You have a choice of four heroes, each a comfortable fantasy stereotype (Knight in Armour, Lantern-Jawed Barbarian, Stumpy Axe Dwarf and Woman in Furry Bikini) with their own unique starting level. Each has a different fighting style, although really they’re all pretty much the same, but they each focus on a different weapon. Zoe, the amazon/token nod to the opposite sex in the game likes pole-arms and spears, for example. She can use anything else, just not very well. As each weapon has a number of special moves that only a skilled user can trigger, using the ancient martial art of sequential button mashing, it’s well worth sticking to the ones you’re best with. Time a move right and you slither through your enemies in a gory blur of steel. Time them wrong, and you get to watch your own leg bounce away down the lonely mountainside. Over time, you level up, unlocking newer and flashier moves with increasingly ludicrous weapons.
The fights are great. As they should be, given that’s the game’s big sales point. You aren’t that much tougher than your foes, most of the time. Some of them have health potions, and if you ever want to own more than one of these at a time, you’re going to have to get good enough to slaughter the baddies before they can use the potions themselves. They do, and very sensibly too. Wounded members of a group of foes drop back and let their mates take the front line. When you’re outnumbered, foes with brains try to flank you, the man in the front playing defence whilst his mates slash your sides. Foes without brains can be tricked into clubbing each other if you’re nimble. Furniture becomes weaponry. You can fling swords and axes at foes, lure them into traps, chop their arms off so they drop their gear, set fire to the furniture. It was a robust and well-realised fighting game, where thinking always paid off. I always thought Street Fighter and its ilk would be loads better with properly dynamic arenas to run about in, tables to leap on to, rapiers to grab off the wall and slash candles with. This is that game, although it’s more hack and slash than buckle and swash. Leap on the tables here and they probably snap, and then someone will hit you with a cudgel the same size as a grandfather clock.
But everything I hated about Street Fighter, which back then was a combination of the static staging and never being able to beat M. Bison, was absent from this. You could roam around the levels for quite a while, exploring niches and falling off things, before you found the path through to the end. And they’re very varied and well designed – a seething temple built on a lava field, a frozen fortress of ice, a haunted church, a desert oasis – maybe not the most staggeringly original, but wonderfully realised, filled with well-hidden siderooms and gorgeous set piece combats.
The graphics and gore were really everything the box promised. I don’t think there are many games today in which you can indeed slash a leg off your foe, then beat his mates up with it. Although doing so requires a lot of patience. Severed legs don’t compare well in DPS terms to a six-foot long barbed pole-axe, statistical analysis convincingly proves. The soundtrack is great, here’s my favourite clip: -
There are several thousand individual sound files, one for everything – sword on sword, sword on wood, sword on stone, sword in skull and so on. This excellent attention to detail along with the use of shadow makes for some really dauntingly atmospheric moments, limping down spiral staircases with your hero already gashed and battered, knowing that some slavering horror is heavy breathing a few corners away and already chewing the skull of the last bloke to call (which was probably you, a few saves ago). The puzzles were nicely presented, the traps were appallingly lethal but very entertaining, and there’s a reasonable mix of well animated opponents to be murdered by.
Those puzzles are particularly worthy of note. Most are really just key card fetching a la Doom. But that’s just the obvious ones. It’s not until late in the game that you discover that there was a whole set mystic runes that you were supposed to be collecting in order to use the magic powers of the titular sword. Beating the game without it is almost impossible. Nobody has explained this to you, at any stage. You can sort of work it out if you stumble into a hidden chamber on the fifth level, but even that doesn’t exactly spell it out for you. It’s like those ARG things, where the coded messages are hidden in the coded messages that you don’t even know you’ve already missed out on. When you discover them, though, the full extent of the challenge this game is presenting you with becomes apparent. It’s a challenge that can mean ‘go back and redo all the previous levels only with extra bad guys spawning every few seconds’. Not the kind of challenge that floats everyone’s boat, obviously. It sank mine, and for a third time, the game languished at the back of a cupboard for another year until I came back, ever the glutton for punishment.
But I still came back. The game is great for that. It hooks you, reels you in, beats you senseless, makes you eat the lumps of cheese you found in a mouldering barrel at the bottom of a well just to survive the next fight and then eventually, if you’ve put up with it long enough, leaves you in pitch darkness trying to fight a thirty foot tall demon whose shoulder joint is articulated with the skulls of fallen enemies. That’s not even the hardest fight in the game, not by a long straw. A vampire? With a shield? A shield that reflects my blows back against me? Why, Severance, why? What did I ever do to you?
And yet it’s one of the few games I’ve ever played that presents you with a real challenge, rather than just the illusion of one. Nobody holds your hand through any of this, except maybe the tutorial. Eventually beating it gave me a lasting sense of achievement. The only other thing I have to compare to that sense is knowing I was one of a select few who watched every single episode of ‘Cities of Gold’ when it was first shown on UK television back in the 80s. It’s not an achievement one can put on any mantlepiece other than a mental one, but it’s one of the crowns of mine.
No, sorry, everything I’ve said pretty much still holds water. Okay, the graphics aren’t as amazing as I remembered. Lots of sharp corners and unnaturally angular trees. And somehow my skill levels must have increased again, because I romp through most fights now. But there’s still a wonderful joy in the savage meanness of the game, like when the first thing that happens on a level is a huge boulder running you over and somehow cutting all your limbs off at once, or when the boss orc guy sends waves of minions at you before he can be bothered to unleash the Minotaur. And it does still look and sound pretty decent, almost on a par with something like Mount and Blade, for example. More square edges, but still, that’s good going for a ten-year-old game.
It’s not flawless. All the voice-overs are done by one rather anaemic-sounding actor. The repetitive barks of both you and your antagonists can be pretty irritating. Cut all the limbs of a zombie fast enough, and he hangs in mid-air as he dies. Not sure if that last one really is a flaw, though, or just a challenge to see how many times you can do it. I heard somewhere it was rushed out at the last minute, and I think that does show. Joyously violent as the combat can be, your characters tend to look like they’re waddling as they walk, and the controls are still a bit stiff, a touch less responsive than you’d like. But that’s nitpicking.
In conclusion, then, I have an excellent memory, and I was right, this is a good game. Find it, if you still can (it might require a bit of hunting about, rather like the game itself makes you do) and have a go. There’s even an online mode for arena battles, and a small modding community for new maps. Many other ten year old games that can still say that?