Some games are so cheap; they make you wonder why they aren’t free-to-play, to begin with. While established rivals like Chivalry, For Honor, and Mordhau have already proven themselves, Boreal Blade comes along with a more focused, more affordable experience. No large scale battles, in-depth move lists, or horses here – just two to eight people swinging sharp and/or pointy objects at each other’s heads. The title is currently in Early Access, and while I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of my eight hours so far, there is still work to be done.
THE STORY – THERE ISN’T ONE
I mentioned passionate debates earlier, and that’s all the context you will get here. Whoever hosts the server chooses the topic of the debate. You can either hit Randomize until you’re happy with it – can an elk beat a bear in a fight? Do you eat cake with a spoon or a fork? – or type in your own question and answers. I don’t know if there are any filters in place to avoid hateful or unsavory “discussions” since I didn’t want to risk getting banned, but I haven’t come across anything offensive.
Once the topic is set, the two sides of the argument become the teams for the upcoming conversation. Will you side with the Fork, or are you some kind of degenerate Spoon eater? Since these debates are held under the gods’ watchful eyes, whichever side is right will invariably win, of course. Use your sharp wit to cut through your opponents’ ignorance and show them the way – with your wit being an axe and their ignorance being their subclavian arteries.
That’s the plot. It’s not much, but you really don’t need more than that. Plus, people online getting into heated disagreements for sport is a surprisingly fitting satire of internet culture as a whole. Frozenbyte has always had a particular sense of humor, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was 100% intentional.
THE GAMEPLAY – THE MEAD AND POTATOES
There are a number of game modes to choose from – in theory. However, like most online games, the community widely prefers the most straight-forward one, the Boreal Battle. Teams of one to four players murder each other. No respawns; the last team standing scores a point. As much as I would have loved to try out the Point Capture, Free-For-All and Team Death Match variants, I couldn’t get a single round of them going. The Boreal Battle mode continues to be highly enjoyable, though, as the core mechanics are thoroughly satisfying.
Despite offering a decent amount of depth, combat is fairly easy to understand. Using LT and the Right Stick you can adjust your stance, which both dictates the angle at which you’ll strike and the direction in which you’ll block incoming attacks. So long as your opponent’s weapon collides with yours, you automatically parry the blow. If you use Focus Block while doing so, you’ll restore health based on your weapon and the strength of the attack. Whenever your enemy is trying to bait you into hitting their Focus Block, disarm them with a kick. Dodging consumes stamina and does not grant invincibility, but you perform a Focus Block while in motion.
Your attacks can be charged to increase their power and the amount of bleeding they inflict. A medium yellow attack follows the same rules as a standard strike but deals more damage. A heavy red attack will break through regular parries and can only be defended against with a Focus Block. Before the midway point of any attack, you can cancel the swing to perform a feint and follow it up with a strike from a different angle.
Finally, there’s the controversial throwing mechanic. While attacking, blocking, and taking damage, your Berserker Gauge fills up. Once it’s maxed out, you can expend it to throw your weapon. When wielding a sword, spear, axe, or frying pan with two hands, it will fly in a straight line – if it hits its target, it’s an instant kill. One-handed weapons will instead be launched forward, spinning horizontally, cutting through anyone they hit, dealing 50 points of damage. Players only have 100 health, so this can slice the duration of a fight in half. This feature is the most common complaint I’ve seen from other players. It’s too easy to focus entirely on defense to charge the meter and then destroy your opponent in one hit.
Players have already started setting up “Throw = Kick” servers, so if you don’t like this particular aspect of the game, you’re certainly not alone.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – CARTOON VIOLENCE
Boreal Blade is not a bad looking game by any means. Its deliberately simply aesthetic is clearly meant to be functional, and – considering this appears to be a side project – economical. Unless traipsing through a smoke cloud, the flat colors of the environment and character models will allow you to read any situation in an instant. There’s a decent variety of locations that match the Norse theming perfectly. The sounds of battle are nice and meaty; when you land a blow, you’ll hear it. The clanging of swords doesn’t get old either and contributes greatly to the immersion.
Most of the time, no music is playing. You’ll hear a *googles* Gjallarhorn sound off at the start of each round, and some genuinely epic Viking music will occasionally kick in to accompany the action. I haven’t noticed a pattern as to when this occurs, but I enjoyed it when it did.
THE LOOT – OH GOOD, ANOTHER MEDIUM SHIELD
On every level-up, you gain three random items. These can be coveted weapons, pointless shield variations, throwable items, armor, player icons, and barely noticeable cosmetics. Let’s work our way back through these.
Cosmetics exist, though you’ll probably struggle to tell the difference between most of them. Body types, hairstyles, beards, but none of them really stand out. Bodies can’t be too different from one another to ensure they match the unified hitbox; haircuts seem to be variations of “short”, and beards clip through your helmet, so you don’t want those at all most of the time.
Player Icons are… cute, but you really don’t need as many as the game will throw at you. I have a runic “B”, and I’m probably not going to swap it out. I imagine that’s what sprays in Overwatch feel like.
Every armor piece has a weight-value attached to it. If your total armor weight is three or below, your stamina regenerates much faster. At a total of four to six, your stamina recovery is sped up slightly and you gain one point of armor. Go heavier than that, and you trade the endurance boost for one more point of defense. Each level of armor protects you from one hit and is only restored on death or at the start of a new round. Beyond that, armor is entirely cosmetic. You’ll find plenty of players running around in their underwear since it has all the same effects as light gear.
The armor system places emphasis on looks over gameplay function, which helps level the playing field, but the chances of randomly earning pieces that actually look good together are extremely low. On top of that, it took me roughly six hours to earn enough heavy gear to reach the weight required to have even a single point of armor.
Lastly, we have the supposed good stuff: weapons, shields, and throwable items. As your level increases, more categories of loot are added to the pool of possible loot. You won’t be able to randomly earn any spears, shields, or healing potions until you’ve unlocked the default one in each category. The miscellaneous throwables I am aware of are the aforementioned healing potions, as well as smoke and firebombs. While the former can be earned after a few hours, you’ll have to put a lot of time in to access the latter two – after eight hours, I still don’t have them.
Shields are used in conjunction with one-handed weapons and unlocked together. Small shields are sturdy but only cover you partially. Large Shields protect your entire body, but a persistent opponent will quickly hack them to pieces. Aside from their exact shapes, all shields of the same size class have identical stats. This means that, if you already have a medium shield, any future shields of that size you earn as one of your three random loot drops will feel like a wasted slot on par with the other disappointing cosmetics.
Weapons are where it’s at. They determine how much damage you deal, how quickly your attacks charge up, how much bleeding you inflict, and how much health you regain when performing a Focus Block. Also, “Power Fade”, I have no idea what that is, but it’s a stat.
There are different degrees of rarity, but most of the time, these are sidegrades to the default every player unlocks at a certain level. Uncommon and Rare weapons, in my experience, have more extreme values than their Common counterparts – they may be super effective against shields but restore very little health on a Focus Block. My rare zweihander deals insane damage on a heavy attack, but its uncharged strikes are weaker than even those of a common one-handed sword.
The Balance Problems
There are major problems with the loot system. While none of the weapons are supposed to be flat-out better than others, as it is currently, the game will be pay-to-win in certain situations. A weapon might excel in damage and healing but struggle against shields. That seems balanced at first, but most players don’t use shields – making the aforementioned weapon better in every way than some others in those situations. More experienced players having a larger inventory of weapons to choose from is already giving them an unfair advantage, but the fact that you can just drop $1.50 on the marketplace to get your hands on a rare sword just feels a little too mobile-gamey.
Another problem, albeit a temporary one for every new player, is the inability to equip any throwable items at first. While your starting sword can cut down a veteran player in a few hits, the long-time player can slowly restore most of their health with a potion or nearly kill you with their firebomb. The new player gets nothing, not even a small stamina bonus for carrying less gear. Here too, the experienced player’s character is simply more powerful than yours, which is often discouraging.
While I’m not a fan of earning random, often useless loot on every level up, I do commend Frozenbyte for not exploiting their players. There is no invasive monetization, no “time savers”, and no excessive grinding. Where other titles will demand the player earn more and more XP the longer they play, every level up in Boreal Blade happens after 2500 XP. This ensures that win or lose; you’ll get three new drops at least once an hour.
THE COMMUNITY – FOR HONOR!
I don’t usually get into PvP online games. Too often, the most competitive players get, let’s say, a little carried away when expressing their frustration, and just because I can deal with that doesn’t mean I want to.
Luckily, the relatively small community around Boreal Blade has been a joy to play with. You will get the occasional “F*** U!!!!” after scoring a cheap kill with a thrown weapon, but it’s usually followed by a “lol” or “gg”. Players won’t demand a poorly performing teammate be kicked; they instead offer advice or provide their vulnerable allies with cover or healing potions. Almost everyone agrees the game is at its best fighting one-on-one; you’ll rarely see multiple players ganging up on a single opponent. Instead, they will watch the duel and only step up when their ally is slain. In 2v1 matches, some players will even heal their opponent before the final showdown. Honor is the name of the game, making Boreal Blade a joy to play with strangers.
EARLY ACCESS – ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Boreal Blade is very much in Early Access, and it shows. This section is as much for the devs as potential buyers. There are no dedicated servers; if you are lucky enough to have a fast, wired internet connection, do consider hosting a match instead of joining via the server browser. Any player with a ping of less than 80 will communicate with your end just fine. Anyone with a ping of more than 150 will be impossible to play with and will bring back the worst memories of Dark Souls multiplayer as they kill you from halfway across the arena.
Matchmaking needs work. Clicking on Quick Play connected me to a Duel, which already had two players in it. Three times in a row. It also doesn’t seem to take ping into account, as I was often matched up with players in America or China, who were simply too far away to allow for a smooth experience.
There is no way to organize your inventory, nor are there multiple loadouts. You can change your gear in-between rounds, but doing so is needlessly difficult. If you have a shield-breaker equipped, but none of your opponents carry a board, you have about 5 seconds to hit start, go into your inventory, navigate the dozen or so swords, figure out which is which by hitting Y – since most look the same -, and choose the one you want, plus a shield for one-handed weapons. The same goes for armor. You’ll have to wait until you die early during a round to give you enough time to do all that finagling. This could easily be fixed by allowing players to put together three or four loadouts, each consisting of a weapon and armor, that they can quickly switch between using the D-Pad at the start of each round.
Boreal Blade was previewed on PC. The game was provided by Frozenbyte.