I like swords. I suppose I can’t help it. I was raised with Final Fantasy and other JRPGs like Suidoden where swords weren’t only awesome– but they were a key to victory of sorts. Required. Just like cool victory poses! Which, of course, also included swords.
Swordsman Online is Perfect World’s latest free-to-play addition to the martial arts/wuxia MMORPG scene. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Perfect World comes out with a lot of martial arts MMORPGs, and well, most of them kind of suck and have cash shops that swerve farther towards pay-to-win than I’m comfortable being anywhere near.
But there was something about this one that drew me in. Swords maybe. And a colorful art style that immediately seemed to grab my attention. So, what about Swordsman Online? Does it join the legion of “crappy Perfect World games (but with lots of swords!)” or does it rise above the F2P rabble? Let’s break it down.
Note: Reviewing an MMORPG is still a daunting task, but my earlier format from my FFXIV:ARR review seemed fairly decent. Scores are based off 10 points. The categories for this review are slightly different due to the fact that Swordsman Online is still in beta. That also means, of course, that some of my scores may change once the full game’s released.
The Leveling Journey
Like many of Perfect World’s MMORPGs, leveling is very straightforward and simplified– especially during the early levels. The story in Swordsman Online is fairly interesting and I found myself more attracted to it than I initially predicted. This might be because the game’s based off a novel written by one of the most popular Chinese novelists– Louis Cha. The novel in question, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, is based heavily off Chinese history and mythology. The English translation is a little clunky in parts (especially when it comes to word choice), but it’s somewhat better than a lot of locally-translated Eastern MMOs.
There are quite a few cutscenes (voiced in Mandarin and subtitled) which add to the story. The story’s filled with nuances of classic, overblown martial arts action and slapstick-like comedy, which I rather enjoyed. Between those nuances and the colorful cutscenes I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of my favorite anime shows. No, Swordsman Online isn’t on the same level as Naruto, One Piece, or Rurouni Kenshin, but the flavor of the story definitely feels familiar and I have to give Perfect World a nod here.
I will say, however, that the first 25 levels or so drag considerably in comparison to the leveling experience once you get around level 30. This is largely due to how simple combat is until around level 25. Enemies die ridiculously fast. Quests are extremely simple. Around level 25 combat starts to become a little more interesting due to additional style unlocks and questing areas that offer more than a single on-rails quest.
The good news? The first 25 levels are over quick. There are also some neat perks for leveling including auto-pathing and double EXP rewards. Don’t feel like figuring out where the dang quest NPC is? Click on the NPC’s name on the quest tracker and you’ll run right to him (even mounting when appropriate!). It’s great for lazy leveling and AFK breaks. You’re also able to leave your character farming mobs while offline using a feature called self-cultivation. There are 89 levels total in the game, and similar to most Eastern MMOs, the last chunk of levels does require a fair bit of grinding.
Score – Leveling: 6
Endgame Options/Alternatives to Leveling
One of the game’s most prominent features outside of the leveling process is its PvP features. Between levels 30-40 is when you’ll start to see world PvP (players below level 30 are protected from PvP actions). Yes, every server in Swordsman Online is open for world PvP. Surprisingly, I saw very little ganking during my time in beta, but it will be more readily found in the live version of the game I imagine.
PvP is a large part of Swordsman Online for better or for worse, but the game’s combat mechanics lend itself to PvP quite well. A martial arts MMORPG that’s centered on action-based PvP combat makes a lot of sense. I have to give Perfect World props for being willing to leave that part as-is for the Western audience. Sometimes niche is okay.
There are multiple PvP battlegrounds and arena modes, some of which offer players the option to have their stats normalized. This encourages PvP that’s a little more skill-based. Unfortunately, since this is Perfect World we’re talking about, I wouldn’t recommend leaping into PvP expecting that every world PvP match will be fair as a result. The cash shop gear isn’t as ridiculous as many of their other titles, but players can pick up some gem packs that can make a huge difference in world PvP later in the game.
Besides PvP, Swordsman Online also has a robust guild feature that separates players into two factions offering unique challenges and instanced combat. Instanced combat including dungeons and solo-style instances are available both for endgame players and leveling players. The solo instances are actually a great way to pick up new gear while leveling and they’re quick to complete. Without a strict class/trinity system in place, it’s fairly easy to group up with other players.
It’s difficult to judge endgame while beta’s still ongoing, but for now I would imagine that there will be nothing truly world shattering here. Players will have PvP options, dungeon options, crafting, and well, that’s probably about it. Fairly standard? Yep. Terrible? Not necessarily.
Score – Endgame/Other Options: 4
Swordsman Online is one of the better Perfect World games I’ve seen aesthetically. It’s bright and colorful– very anime-esque. The combat animations are fairly over the top, but again– that’s the anime style coming out to play. If you’re into that sort of style it’s quite lovely.
The music’s somewhat limited, but gorgeous if you’re a fan of classical Eastern/Chinese music (yeah, I admit I totally am). The variety between the environments is somewhat lacking, but some environments still manage to shine above others.
I do have one small gripe with the sounds in the game. What’s with the World of Warcraft noises? Seriously. I can’t be the one person who noticed that monkeys in Swordsman Online sound like WoW‘s kobolds. I suppose it’s possible I’ve just been playing WoW for too many years and the sounds are just similar. But… I’m pretty sure I heard the male draenei death noise at some point. I suddenly wondered if my paladin was massacred by monkey-looking enemies. It was odd.
Score – Aesthetics: 7
I’ll briefly talk about the combat in Swordsman Online in this section. There are three control modes that blend mouse/keyboard movements and controls. You can flip between them at any time. I found the action-based setting to be the most enjoyable overall, but questing while using this setting was a little frustrating due to the need to constantly hit CTRL to use the mouse to target NPCs and quest objectives. With a little tweaking I imagine a better combination could easily be found, but without that adjustment period the controls can seen quite clunky.
Combat itself is quite fun and action-based. It’s sort of similar to WildStar where most abilities are aim-based. Some even require skillshots. You’re able to double jump and even triple jump in most areas (which is insanely fun). You can also dash, sprint, and dodge. As part of some areas of the game you’re also allowed to jump between building rooftops and whatnot in much-appreciated wuxia fashion. These instances in the game don’t appear nearly as often as they should (other instances of fun wuxia movement are left to cutscenes sadly), but they’re still appreciated.
Your average battle won’t be nearly as chaotic as a random fight in WildStar, but double jumping to avoid nasty AoE attacks and dodging to avoid launching sword attacks is still very much a part of Swordsman Online‘s combat system. Combat isn’t quite as fluid as I would have hoped given the action-oriented system. It’s extremely easy to get tangled up in the hit boxes of enemies unless you’re careful. Still, the system’s fun– especially for a completely free-to-play game.
There are 10 schools of martial arts in the game that you’re able to choose between once you reach a certain level. This is the game’s class system of sorts. It’s a fairly involved system where each school uses a particular type of weapon, multiple styles, and various strengths/weaknesses in regards to going up against other schools. The system seems fairly rock/paper/scissors at first glance, but given the fact that you can actually blend together various styles within schools, there are definitely some interesting options here for PvP.
Some schools are tankier/more support-y than others, but there’s no real trinity system in place. Also, despite the fact that Swordsman Online is obviously about swords, there are a few ranged schools. You can also get pretty detailed with setting up customized combos and ability setups which is nice to see in a Perfect World game. Similar to WildStar and Guild Wars 2, Swordsman Online gives players a lot of abilities to choose between, but only a limited amount of ability slots. It all boils down to choice, my friends.
The cash shop– as mentioned above– isn’t perfect, but it could be worse in all likelihood. I’d say the same about the crafting system and upgrading systems. They’re not spectacular, but they’re fairly standard for a Perfect World game. Oh, and there’s also a combat-based pet system, of course, since most Eastern MMORPGs seem to also have one. You can run around with little followers (called “Younglings”) who will randomly whack at whatever you whack. And yep, that’s all they do.
Score – World/System Depth: 6
Final Verdict: 5.75/10
It’s a bit early to judge how popular Swordsman Online will be, but it’s pretty safe to say that the game will be extremely niche, not hugely popular (in comparison to AAA titles at least), and mostly populated with fans of martial arts/wuxia MMOs and fans of action-based PvP gameplay. Not there’s anything wrong in a niche, martial arts/wuxia MMORPG, mind you. Quite the contrary. The game’s developers know their audience and that should be applauded.
Despite its flaws, Swordsman Online has potential. For a very niche game, there’s a surprising amount of class/school depth, enjoyable combat, and a story that’s full of over-the-top fun. It’s kind of like one of those fun anime shows that doesn’t make your Top 10 list, but is still worth an afternoon romp. You can find out more about Swordsman Online here. It’s currently in open beta with a launch date of July 29th.
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