Blade Symphony is about the fantasy of being a swordsman and all that comes with it: honour, skill and etiquette. If you’re responsive to those ideas to even a small degree, it is a fighting game with tremendous depth and promise. It’s a realisation of its core fantasy that’s original enough in its execution to stand up as a competitive game in its own right.
It’s also proof the fighting genre has an alternative PC history, one with its origins in modding and indie development rather than the arcade. Blade Symphony is a direct successor to the Jedi Knight series and the scene that grew around online lightsaber duelling. Others have come down the same path since – Chivalry and Lugaru, for instance – but Blade Symphony is the first to capture the social spirit of Jedi Knight’s duelling servers.
Like its predecessor, Blade Symphony is structured around one-on-one duels. Two players armed with swords face each other in a 3D arena with full freedom of movement. The game is designed to be controlled with a mouse and keyboard, and attacking is linked to a single button press. Switching between three ground stances, charging attacks, changing direction and jumping means that your attack can be modified in dozens of ways, depending on your character.
There are four fighters, each representing a different style of swordfighting. Phalanx is a fencer. His light attacks are jabbing thrusts and his weakness is the relative simplicity of his movement. Contrast that with Pure, a whirling wushu fighter whose aerial power and radial attack patterns are hard to read and even harder to parry. Judgement is styled like a samurai and has the most powerful heavy attacks of all; Ryoku specialises in fast, direct attacks followed by evasive manoeuvres.
A character’s moveset is presented as a grid at the bottom of the screen, with vertical rows representing stances – fast, balanced, heavy and air – and the horizontal representing progression along each combo track. By switching up and down through stances, any given combo can navigate a freeform path across the grid as the situation dictates. Certain combinations are more effective than others, and these are the ones you’ll need to memorise, but by and large the system is less didactic than fighting game players will be used to. The emphasis here is on-the-fly problem solving, on doing things your opponent won’t have seen before, and on being acutely aware of your position in 3D space.
A blade’s position is calculated precisely, and where and how powerfully an attack connects affects how much damage is done. Longswords and scimitars can adopt a general blocking stance, but otherwise parries need to be exact to register. To help with this, your next attack is telegraphed ahead of you as a holographic blade path that only you can see. This helps to ensure that you know exactly what your sword is going to do when you click. Facing a charging Pure as Phalanx, for example, you might step to the side at the last second and parry with a balanced sideways swing. Providing your blades connect, or you succeed in hit-stunning your opponent, you can then transition into a charged lunge in the fast stance, leaping in to strike and back to get yourself out of range. This pattern of attack, counterattack and evasion sets the game’s rhythm – extended clashes are almost always lethal for one party.
The swords themselves further complicate this already complex system. You pick a blade type (and a cosmetic style) independent of your character, and it’s the relationship between the two that defines exactly how you’ll go about trying to win. Longswords can block and do more damage when they laterally bisect an opponent. Rapiers are effective at parrying and are lethal when combined with forward attacks. Katanas can’t block, but can feint out of attacks and do double damage after a parry. The Chinese jian can intercept even heavy attacks. Simitars offer lower base damage, but the amount of pain they inflict doesn’t decrease over the course of a multiple-hit attack.
Resolving all of these interlocking systems is the game’s chief challenge, and the normal tutorial can only give you a grounding in the basics. It’s possible to download a more comprehensive version from the Steam Workshop, but even so the learning curve is severe. Climbing it, however, is aided by the game’s excellent online structure. In free-for-all mode, players hang out in multiroom dojos, challenging each other to duels. When a bout begins, other players turn into outlines and can’t interfere with the fight, but they can watch from the sidelines and often do. Failure in this mode isn’t punished, so new players can challenge whoever they like without fear of losing their rating.
The game uses an Elo system to determine a player’s rank. Unlike other online games, where you gain experience and progress through fixed tiers, your rating in Blade Symphony is based on your skill relative to the rest of the playerbase. Whichever percentile you fall into determines your league – from Oak to Master – and you can only gain or lose rating by duelling people in the same league on a ranked duelling server, where players queue for matches in walled-off arenas.
Ranked duels have an extraordinary sense of personality and carry significant weight, particularly between high-ranking players. The community is small, so you’re likely to see the same people a lot. Rivalries form naturally, and the community maintains a culture of etiquette. It is considered good manners, for example, to use a bow emote before a duel. It’s the combination of this collective roleplay with direct competition that makes the game so compulsive. As such, Blade Symphony is as close as you are likely to get to the fantasy of slowly becoming a master swordsman.