Sunday, October 7, 2018

Unfathomed Origins

From Software's collection of action RPGs has become very influential over the years.  So much so, a lot of people having been looking back in an attempt to discover the origins of the Souls series.  The most common reference I hear is the King's Field franchise which was also made by From Software, and directly preceded Demon's Souls.  There are definitely some similarities, particularly with regards to a dark, foreboding atmosphere and stamina-based melee combat.  However, there is a Souls-like game that came out shortly after the initial King's Field trilogy and yet predates Demon's Souls by about eight years - Severance: Blade of Darkness.

Developed by Rebel Act Studios and published by Codemasters, Blade of Darkness (as it was initially called), is a third-person action adventure game with light RPG elements.  The setting is fantasy, and offers players the initial choice of selecting one of four starting characters; a dwarf, a barbarian, a knight or a bounty hunter (who also happens to be the only female in the entire game!).  Once the intro cutscene has concluded it becomes the standard walk, run, and jump tank controls with attacks being the only thing that consumes stamina.  Blocking hits reduces the durability of shields until they eventually break (the better the shield, the more punishment it can take).  It's also possible to throw weapons.  Locking onto enemies works identical to the Souls series.  Getting hit reduces HP and leaves visible wound textures on character models.  Health can be recovered by consuming food or red potions found throughout the game.  It also clears up those unsightly wound textures.

As for environments, there are four unique starting zones (one for each of the four starting characters) after which the player has a branching collection of twelve more stages along with a final extra boss rematch area.  Generally speaking, the stages are varied though not to such exotic degrees as in Souls games.  The enemy types that inhabit these locations are recycled heavily and tend to be humanoid in shape, but do have some variations in terms of tactics.  Weapons, both melee and ranged, can be scavenged off slain foes or discovered easily with a bit of exploration.  Each type of sword, axe, club etc., has a unique attack that does a huge amount of bonus damage.  There are also some character specific attack animations that unlock as the player character levels up.  Experience is gained by defeating enemies and once a specific threshold is reached the next level is gained automatically, increasing max HP and the only other two character stats in the game (DEF and POW).  Any previously lost health is also brought back up to full.

Graphically, the game looks pretty dated by modern standards.  In all fairness though the lighting engine and gruesome death animations were quite impressive for the time.  The big problem Blade of Darkness has is its unresponsive controls.  Inputs register a bit sluggishly and some of the movement animations feel really stiff.  This can be especially frustrating when trying to navigate death traps or fatal drop-offs.  Worse still there are a number of hidden collectables needed to progress to the finale.  The player can return to previously cleared areas to search for overlooked secrets, but the problem is revisiting a stage results in all the original enemies being replaced with one annoyingly powerful foe that stalks the player relentlessly.  Ultimately, poorly thought out design decisions such as these prevented me from finishing the game.

Still, the resemblance between Blade of Darkness and the Souls series is striking.  In fact, I'm inclined to think that these two IPs have a similar degree of overlap as say Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil.  That said, Blade of Darkness doesn't have much of an inventory system, nor are there magic spells that the player can cast.  The story is also a lot more straightforward than the Souls series with a narrator giving context to each new zone, as well as conveying the bulk of the plotline.  All the same, this is the most proto-Souls game you're likely to ever find...just keep in mind that video games have come a long way since when it released back in 2001.

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